Simplicity and Change Management

min read

Simple practices can ease resistance to institutional change.

red arrow cutting diagonally through the middle of a white maze
Credit: xtock / © 2020

For many years, those of us in the IT department at Pepperdine University excelled at delivering technical services (e.g., Google Drive, Google Meet, LinkedIn Learning) to students, faculty, and staff on time and within budget. But we struggled to get them to actually use these services. Many were concerned, understandably, that they had neither the time nor the knowledge. In their eyes, the complexity that came with technical changes got in the way of executing their jobs. For example, soon after our G Suite rollout, we discovered that without additional training, our users would primarily take advantage of only two features: Gmail and Calendar. The majority of the remaining features would be set aside or underutilized.

With a deep understanding of the underlying complexities of institutional change and a determination to "keep it simple," we continued to try various ways to alleviate the resistance that often comes with fast-paced, radical changes. After years of trial and error, we found seven simple refinements that delivered positive results.

1. Recruit Champion Leaders

Champion leaders are influential partners, outside of the IT department, who embrace new ideas that will make our organization stronger. When champion leaders walk the talk, others follow. For instance, two of our VP-level executives became early adopters of a mandated, university-wide security initiative last year. As part of a pilot test, they demonstrated the ease of adoption by completing the enrollment process on their mobile phones over lunch with our chief information officer and chief information security officer. This proved to be an effective demonstration and encouraged others to enroll.

2. Train IT Staff

For institution-wide changes, we successfully used the "Train IT" approach. When we rolled out multifactor authentication, for instance, our IT training team created an online class that each member of the IT department was required to pass. The class focused on customer-support scenarios that we were likely to face during go-live and post-go-live. It was important that the course be easy for staff to access and short for them to complete.

With enough of us properly trained to provide consistent support, we were able to stand by our commitment to assist our users from start to finish, whether that assistance came from the help desk or distributed IT staff.

3. Rethink Priorities

Over the years, our IT project governance council learned that when we made everything a priority, nothing was a priority. So for this simple refinement, we focused on selecting not just the right projects but also the right number of projects. Now, if a technology project is so important that it requires university-wide adoption, the IT project governance council usually designates it as a strategic initiative. Only five or fewer projects per year will receive this status. Projects designated as strategic receive a continuous flow of resources to ensure their success, even if this means putting other projects on hold.

4. Communicate Carefully

Although we always communicated frequently with our users, we recently made a conscious effort to avoid over-communicating to the point of aggravating change fatigue. For instance, our enterprise systems and information security teams made sure that users who had already enrolled in a new initiative did not continue to receive automated emails reminding them to enroll. This effort prevented confusion and eliminated unnecessary clutter in thousands of staff inboxes.

5. Remember Why

"Begin with the end in mind" is something that often gets forgotten when implementing large technology changes. We found that when we stayed true to the original goals of the project and avoided tangents, adoption was easier on our community. We also found that pilot testing with end users—students, faculty, and staff—gave us important perspectives and raised potential problems that we might have missed if we had confined our pilot tests to IT staff.

6. Review Results

Post-go-live surveys now provide us with important feedback on how we can become better change managers. IT department leaders strongly encourage staff to analyze, discuss, and interpret these surveys not so much to make judgments but to make actionable improvements for the future.

7. Embrace Reality

Although "keeping it simple" is more often than not a successful and worthwhile goal for projects that bring about change, we realize that simple is not always possible. Like so many others in higher education, change managers at Pepperdine don’t always have the luxury of being just change managers. Our reality is that we often double as operational managers or technical leads as well. Consequently, we fall behind from time to time and need to put various projects on hold. There will also be unexpected situations that blindside both the IT department and our users alike—such as the 2018 California wildfires and the 2020 Coronavirus (COVID-19), which required the IT team to lead a rapid response to our university's increased demand for telecommuting and online teaching support. Other examples of situations demanding timely responses are new regulations mandated by the EU General Data Protection Regulation and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But these challenges can prompt IT leaders and staff to ask questions: "What part of that solution do our users need now, and what can wait till later?" "Can we deliver a simpler solution sooner?" These challenges also encourage all of us in the IT department to ask for help from unlikely sources, such as the executives who became champion leaders and contributed to our successes. Hearing them say "That was easier than I thought!" motivates us to continue using these refinements as a way to make change as simple as possible for students, faculty, and staff.

For more on enterprise IT issues and leadership perspectives in higher education, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Enterprise Connections blog as well as the Enterprise IT Program web page.

Kim Cary is Chief Information Security Officer at Pepperdine University.

Jordan Lott is Manager of IT Training at Pepperdine University.

Rita Schnepp is Director of IT Project Management at Pepperdine University.

© 2020 Kim Cary, Jordan Lott, Rita Schnepp. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.