Tambellini analysts hear a version of this statement from almost every higher education institution considering a significant technology change. As a recent Harvard Business Review article pointed out, “At the heart of any radical change in higher education is a willingness by the administration and faculty to embrace new governance, processes, structures, and performance measures.” Successful modernization has more to do with culture than technology, and we all know that inspiring sustained change in individuals’ attitudes and behaviors is, well, hard.
According to Rebekah Russell’s latest Tambellini post, institutions understand that now is the time to embrace change and move core systems to the cloud. COVID-19 effectively surfaced the shortcomings of the industry’s aging legacy HCM, finance and student systems. Regardless of the associated challenges, higher education must modernize its business processes and technologies so that it can attract students, retain its workforce, and perform efficiently.
My work as a Tambellini analyst involves deep dives into institutional culture, particularly at institutions on the cusp of major change. I agree with Rebekah that institutions are accelerating towards modernization to improve their organizational agility and constituent experience. However, as campus leaders aggressively push for the change their institutions desperately need, they also need to consider the human implications of their timing.
Every institutional stakeholder I’ve spoken with acknowledges COVID-19 as a disruptive force for higher education and their institutions, but also as individuals and team members. Some stakeholders—typically those in leadership positions—recognize the transformative opportunity associated with the pandemic. Whether they know it or not, they are referring to Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory and the power of the disorienting dilemma.
Mezirow was the first to define the disorienting dilemma as a destabilizing event that does not fit a person’s expectations and cannot be resolved without some change in behavior and viewpoint. The cognitive dissonance following a disorienting dilemma leads people to reevaluate previously unquestioned assumptions, seek out others having similar experiences, and redefine a “new normal” that encompasses their now-broadened life experiences.1
COVID-19 forced higher education students, faculty, and staff to adapt their expectations and behaviors to meet previously unimaginable circumstances. Right now, most people (including higher education professionals) are questioning their assumptions, seeking comfort in shared experience, and are generally more open to new ways of being. Institutional leaders who believe their employees are primed for change are intuiting Mezirow’s post-dilemma flux and the potential it holds.
As a society, we are all emerging (slowly and at varying rates) from a disorienting dilemma of massive proportions. Many higher education professionals went through deeply stressful work-life dilemmas, which included hiring freezes, furloughs, and unprecedented demands from campus leadership. Furthermore, institutional leaders must remember that COVID-19 disrupted more than the work lives of faculty and staff. A quick Google search returns dozens of articles and social media posts asserting that higher educational faculty, staff, and students are “not okay.”
While more profound disorienting dilemmas tend to have greater transformative potential, transformation comes with personal costs. The lived experience of transformative change is emotional and exhausting. Daily confrontation with uncertainty and vulnerability is hard. Professional transformation is personal work, requiring emotional strength and resources that some employees simply do not have right now. Therefore, while it is nice to hear campus leaders frame the post-COVID era as an opportunity for great change, it is also valid for front-line workers to say enough is enough.
There is one thing all campus leaders must avoid at all costs: Do not be so opportunistic in your quest to leverage Mezirow’s post-dilemma flux that you create significantly more stress for an exhausted workforce already stretched thin. Your workforce (like your students) are people too. They deserve your care and compassion.
1 This explanation oversimplifies transformative learning theory, but it hits the highlights of Mezirow’s foundational work.
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