Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
The art of sustaining, and building upon core organisational change is very different to that of making the initial change.
That is something that is slowly being realised in the general organisational change literature.
It doesn’t appear to have been widely grasped in school organisational change.
Rather the focus there continues to be on the initial change, the innovation, with seemingly little thought given to the practicalities of sustaining and growing the change for decades thereafter.
The history of core school change worldwide, of school innovation is characterised by the failure to sustain and grow the change. Only a small portion of the changes of the last fifty years have been sustained, let alone built upon.
Organisationally schools, aside from some notable exceptions, haven’t as indicated in an earlier post (Lee and Broadie, 2019), fundamentally changed in the last century. Most schools remain site based, linear, hierarchical, paper based constructs, still characterised by Industrial Age thinking, structures and processes.
Part of that shortcoming likely lies in schooling’s failure to successfully sustain, and grow well-conceived, well implemented change. While very aware of the many constraints on, and daily threats to core organisational change and the paucity of the implementation with much change the failure to sustain apt change lies with the decision makers, and often the inability of generations of decision makers, to nurture, sustain and evolve the initial change.
Despite the hype, and vast outlays of monies and effort most change hasn’t lasted more than a decade or two, with much not lasting beyond the change of head, or government. In Australia for example, as likely elsewhere, virtually all the structural innovation of the 1960s and 1970s has disappeared, with most schools regressing to their traditional form.
The marked propensity in the general organisational change literature has like schooling been to focus on the initial change, and to assume the change will naturally be sustained. As Buchanan and his colleagues (2005) note it is only in the last couple of decades has greater attention been accorded the sustaining and growing of the change, and the distinctiveness of that facet of the change process.
One will struggle to find in the school change literature any reference to the art of sustaining organisational or cultural change. The challenge of sustaining the change twenty, thirty years will seldom be mentioned. Likely part of that shortcoming lies in the lack of successful, long term case studies to study.
That shortcoming is seemingly perpetuated on the ground, with generation after generation of change architects concentrating on the introduction, its initial implementation and its promotion. The funding of the change has been invariably short-term, only rarely with monies allocated for the long-term.
There is an all – pervasive sense that once the change has been made the organisation can move on to the next project.
History underscores the danger of that thinking, it likely guaranteeing failure.
In researching The Creation, Sustaining and Revitalisation of the ACT Secondary College Model (Lee, 2019), a core system change that has been sustained forty plus years, it soon became apparent that after several decades the executive with operational responsibility for the change had little understanding of, or interest in its origins or the philosophical underpinnings of the original innovation. Rather the focus was on the enhancement of the now and the immediate future, done without regard to why the initial change could have been made, why the model had been sustained or why it was, after decades of use, still strong enough to build upon.
There was no sense of history, or desire to draw upon a successful heritage in shaping the future.
At a time, globally where accelerating organisational evolution and transformation is the norm, where increasing use is made of generalist senior executive, staff turn-over is high, corporate memory is often lacking and the analysis of current data is all pervasive it is ever more important for schools and systems to couple the current data with a historical analysis and understanding, and ensure future enhancement is consonant with the principles that underpinned the original change.
It is time to reduce the time, effort and monies wasted, and the inordinate disruption caused by ineffectual short-term change that has little or no ties with the initial core change.
That entails better understanding the total scene, the past, the now and the desired future.
It moreover obliges decision makers consider the distinct nature of sustained organisational change in schools. While there are many elements common to sustaining and building upon the core organisational change in business and other public sector organisations the signs point strongly, as we discuss in our next post to schooling having to work with a suite of the unique givens.
The understanding those givens can only be gained through historical analysis, the history of the original change, the context, aspirations, shaping philosophy, guiding principles and ascertaining why the initial change had been accepted and normalised, or why the change was never embraced. It requires understanding why the change has lasted, and ascertaining if it has the strength to be built upon and given an extra lease of life.
Importantly only historical analysis can, as Suddaby and Foster (2017) and his colleagues have recently observed identify the key long term and emerging trends, in and outside the school and system, the challenges that emerge from those trends and the lessons to be learned. Data analysis alone can’t at this stage provide that insight.
While still early days and appreciating much more research is needed there is already a suite of lessons school organisational change designers can draw upon, lessons that have emerged out of the inordinate number of failures and the rare successes.
- Most core school, and system organisational change will not be sustained. Despite the daily hype, and claims about the ease of change it is immensely difficult to achieve and sustain.
- Very few schools or systems globally have sustained most core organisational change more than thirty years, and successfully revitalised that change.
- Most core system wide innovation will likely regress to a state of evolutionary equilibrium, and gradually disappear. Likely the pace of regression will accelerate as memory in the executive of the guiding principles wane, and decisions are made that slowly but surely weaken the thrust of the initial core change.
- Sustained long term organisational change must continually grow, be nurtured, refreshed, attuned to the changing context, and periodically be significantly revitalised.
- Mistakes will be made. Ineffectual change leaders will be appointed. Poor strategic decisions will be taken. Politicians will meddle. Some mistakes will be fatal, others addressed rapidly will become part of the learning in a long journey. In brief organisational construct change is an immensely challenging, complex, multi-dimensional exercise that is in practise very difficult to pull off. It needs the best people to succeed, not just anyone.
- The signs are that the hardest and most expensive part in successful sustained change is getting the start right. Get every facet of the totality right and accepted, and the indications are that the sustaining, and even the periodic refreshment can be done readily and relatively inexpensively.
- Successful sustained change will move through a series of stages, from the initial start- up, to normalisation, maturation and refinement, and in some instances to revitalisation and further maturation and enrichment.
- The one organisational change seemingly readily accepted and sustained globally has been the move to add another year or two of schooling. In most instances the move hasn’t dramatically changed the nature of the schooling.
- Sustained change requires it be normalised and accepted electorally, with the signs suggesting that must be achieved within the first year or two.
- Allied is the likely reality that the teachers must embrace the change and the guiding principles from the outset, and naturally pass that acceptance orally from one generation of teachers to the next if the change is to be normalised and sustained.
- The key attributes of, and the challenges with each phase will likely be remarkably common globally, with the factors underpinning the sustaining of the change and its revitalisation being markedly different to most in the initial phase.
The research undertaken on the near universal failure of schools globally to move from a paper to digital organisational construct, and the historical analysis of the ACT secondary college (Lee, 2019) provides an important insight into what those factors likely are, but other case studies will be needed to hone the thinking.
The most important insight historical analysis provides is that changing the core organisational structures of schools is damn hard.
It is immensely difficult within individual schools.
It is even harder at the with a system.
It is likely appreciably more difficult to sustain that change and do so over the decades.
The challenge of sustaining while simultaneously also evolving the organisational change is an art few have clearly mastered.
It is a markedly different art to that of making the initial change.
While the theory is important the sustaining, and the opportune revitalisation of the core change is an art that requires a macro understanding of whole school change and a recognition that this very much a political exercise. Sometimes it is small p political, but in mostly it is likely capital p political.
Ultimately it is about orchestrating electoral acceptability, governments winning and retaining office and the executive decision makers securing personal ‘wins’; an imperative rarely mentioned in the school or even the general change literature.
- Buchanan, D, Fitzgerald, L, Ketley, D, Gollop, R, Jones, J.L, Lamont, S.S, Neath, A, and Whitby, E. (2005) International Journal of Management Reviews. Vol. 7, Issue 3. 2005
- Lee, M (2019) The Creation, Sustaining and Revitalisation of the ACT Secondary College Model. Armidale, Australia, Douglas and Brown – http://douglasandbrown.com/publications/–
- Suddaby, R and Foster, W.M, (2017) ‘History and Organizational Change’. Journal of Management.Vol.43. No. I 2017