Leadership and Continuous Improvement: A New Beginning

Jason Spartz, Ed.D, Former Director of Instructional Technology, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

Jason Spartz, Ed.D, Former Director of Instructional Technology, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

The pandemic has been the single most influential driver impacting digital transformation.  There has not been a strategic plan that could have carried the same level of buy-in for many campuses and organizations over such a short period.  As a result, functioning during a global pandemic has taken a toll on a lot of good people. Today many organizations struggle to understand their current culture and organizational well-being. There is also a need to address what some are calling “The Great Resignation” (Bolton, 2021), which has had workers quitting their job and a growing interest in understanding the constructs associated with resilient individuals, teams, and organizations.  Britt, et al. (2016) explored the topic of resilience which referenced the construct as the capacity residing within individuals, the ability of individuals to maintain stable functioning in the face of a highly stressful or traumatic event, and reflecting growth and positive changes after an adverse event. 

To be innovative is to be open to change. Change management in support of continuous improvement is a responsibility of effective leadership today. Anthropologist Edward Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Modelis worth reflecting on. Many managers and administrators are only concerned with what is seen from a surface level and this is a common mistake of ineffectiveness. What is going on with patterns, structures, and mental models, are underneath the surface and the depth which it represents is worth exploring to understand.  The social, economic, political, and technological trends applying pressure on and within organizations can be challenging, overwhelming, and misleading at times. 

Effective change requires trust. Ultimately, we are talking about, and dealing with, people who function within formal and informal teams. Creating a workforce that can handle change is important but the real rewards happen when employees seek to create meaningful change as continuous improvements to drive the organization forward. Trust comes through the intentional building of understanding and relationships within and across the organization.  Community development and buy-in requires being continuous of the thinking process, mental models, and differing expectations. 

Change management in support of continuous improvement is a responsibility of effective leadership today

There have been a number of organizations investing in substantial enterprise technology systems. Being deliberate in understanding the root cause of organizational issues impacting existing systems and processes can uncover systemic problems that could get in the way of progress. Non-technical administrators can tout the success of new or upgraded systems without comprehending or acknowledging the true hurdle ahead. Just like purchasing a new car isn’t going to make you a better driver, nobody wants to slug through a few years of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to then come to grips with the limitations and reality that this expensive system needs to be replaced because it is not able to meet the organization's operational needs. Another example would be to replace a learning management system (LMS) without giving attention to how the system needs to improve both learning and teaching processes and outcomes. 

Effective leadership requires systems thinking to offer a good foundation for critical directions and initiative planning. Reviewing and reflecting on Edmund Clark’s 2018 article in EDUCAUSE Review on Digital Transformation offers a discussion opportunity regarding where and how the organization might be thinking and navigating in key areas supporting digital transformation. 

Nurturing and instilling a growth mindset across the organization aids in driving toward success.  Using data to be transparent with stakeholders helps to understand progress and problems.  Bass and Eyon (2016) asked if systems and practices support the critical capacities of higher education institutions for improvement and agile innovation (p. 69):

• Are investments in technologies that track student learning matched by investments in ways for stakeholders to share and interpret data?
• What kinds of data on student progress and pathways are shared with faculty and at the programmatic level?
• Is there close articulation between outcomes assessment and learning analytics efforts on campus? Are faculty helping drive their integration?
• Is there a campus culture of examining and acting on data? What steps could be taken to help faculty, staff, and administrative leaders begin to practice making change, based on the implications of new knowledge?

Managing change is not easy. The process includes creating readiness for change, developing political support among stakeholders, and sustaining momentum. Changes should not be dependent on a single person but need to exist and sustain as part of the culture of the organization. Now is a good time to look at continuous improvement for yourself, the team, and organization. Start with Sakichi Toyoda’s “Five Whys” technique as a root cause analysis practice to uncover greater understanding and realistic potential when considering innovation and change management projects.  Bass and Eyon (2016) stated the key is moving from inquiry to reflection and integration. 

Higher education institutions need to be resilient and adaptive to change to be successful in the future.  Now is the right time to be a reflective practitioner and an advocate for building a human-centered culture of resilience during this evolving digital era to help organizations succeed.  

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