Applying Strategic Change Management (SCM) within Institutional Research


We live in an ever-changing world, not only within higher education but throughout all aspects of life. Institutional Research practitioners help institutions adjust to and monitor changing landscapes. I am a strong believer in expanding capacity through professional development opportunities. This post shares some insights from the certificate program in Strategic Change Management I completed earlier in 2022 through the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

At a high level, change involves the people within an organization, the organization’s strategy, and the competitive environment. Effective change leaders must foster the circumstances for effective information flow throughout the organization. In our case, this involves helping ensure organizational leaders possess correct, relevant, and timely information with the appropriate context. Institutional Research offices often have input in the selection, design, collection, and dissemination of data metrics used to measure performance.

Agility, which can be referred to as the capacity to bend without breaking, is an essential consideration in change initiatives. Strategic Agility addresses whether a strategy can generate positive results under varying environmental conditions. Organizational Agility ascertains whether an organization can quickly adapt in response to shifts in strategy. Fostering agility requires establishing safe environments in which people are encouraged to reflect while exploring creative ideas that can be freely expressed and are systematically included within an organization’s collective knowledge base. Alternative actions should be vigorously explored in the decision-making process while the final decision implemented should be evaluated to determine effectiveness. Institutional Research offices, with appropriate leadership support, can help foster agility through promotion of research and discovery in conjunction with diverse data metrics providing insight into institutional performance.

The flow of information through formal and informal communication networks is reflective of an organization’s culture. An optimal organizational culture prioritizes creating a fulfilling environment allowing team members to work as a cohesive unit that effectively meets strategic objectives. In addition to monitoring external circumstances, tools developed collaboratively with Institutional Research offices can help leaders understand the needs of team members and units that impact organizational performance.

The program introduced the concept of Explorers vs. Exploiters, identified by organizational theorist James G. March (March, 1991). Explorers thrive on informed risk-taking and experimentation through independent work, regularly pursuing new competitive advantages by seeking creative means for competitive advantage in addressing potential upcoming market disruptions. Exploiters within close-knit groups strive for efficiency, predictability, and optimization to refine existing competitive advantages. As in other types of inventories, it is unlikely that anyone would fit purely within either category and organizations can benefit from having individuals across both types. I am cautious about taking risks but eager to explore new ideas. Goals should be clearly defined, specific, and measurable. When working on a project, I like to think of how the project work and learning in new domains can be leveraged for upcoming initiatives. With information like this about team members, an organization can build its structure to help it achieve its overall strategy.

Public higher education institutions and state agencies may experience change differently than private enterprise. Several classmates represented private enterprise with sometimes dramatic change happening without much notice: whereas state institutions and agencies may change much more slowly, even in rapidly changing environments due to policy or governance constraints. This dynamic was very informative and useful.

The organizational concepts of closure and brokerage were addressed. Closure highlights trust among individuals embedded on a team with everyone closely accountable for efficiency through their peers for organizational objectives. Brokerage empowers individuals in seeking knowledge from diverse sources fostering innovative ideas likely expanding the range of ideas compared to what can be gleaned only from fellow team members. As with many things, the key is finding the appropriate balance between closure and brokerage. Institutional Research offices are often uniquely positioned to have brokerage networks that can help bring innovative ideas to institutions through consultation with outside experts and external research studies.

Effective Knowledge Management (KM) is important in enhancing organizational capacity for change. The Gartner Group defined Knowledge Management as “a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets,” stating that the source of “these assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously uncaptured expertise and experience in individual workers” (Duhon, 1998, 10). Organizational learning involves getting the right information, to the proper people, at the optimal time. Organizational impediments to effective knowledge management include not adequately incentivizing learning, not sharing learning experiences, viewing learning as a cost rather than as a benefit, errors analyzing information, and discouraging ideas that were not derived from within the organization.

A comprehensive approach to organizational change should consider current practices along with prospective changes. The Keep-Eliminate-Create concept can provide some guidance that may be particularly relevant to higher education and state agencies. This idea can be summarized with the following questions:

  • What that we are doing well should be retained?
  • What must we begin doing that we are not?
  • What should we discontinue doing?

Many organizations struggle most with discontinuing something that has been in place. Organizations have limited resources and capacity. In our work contexts, a current process may need to be adjusted or eliminated if a new process is added within our existing office capacity. Institutional Research offices are uniquely positioned to help institutions make some of these potentially challenging decisions.

The planning process for change initiatives must include time for adequate reflection. Clear and effective communication of the vision accompanying the change initiative is crucial. Many change initiatives fail, often due to resistance that it may be perceived as “bad” or a natural human reluctance to change. To address is resistance, it is important to understand the reasons people may be resisting the change and address those concerns in a thoughtful manner. Institutional Research offices may help leaders bring data to support the benefits of proposed changes or to highlight the potential negative consequences of not changing. Another great piece of advice for change initiatives comes from Simon Sinek’s suggestion to “Start with Why”. If people know and can identify with the reason for the change, they are more likely to give it a chance for success.

A primary consideration in any change initiative is sustainability. Change leaders must consider how the change can persist through changes in organizational leadership. Change efforts will ultimately fail if they do not gain necessary organizational support. Vigilance is important throughout the implementation process. Institutional Research offices can help monitor the impact and effectiveness of change initiatives.

I am grateful for the learning experience provided through this program and highly recommend it to others. We all, personally and through Institutional Research offices, have the prospect for contributing to sustainable change!


Duhon, B. (1998). It’s all in our heads. Inform, 12, 8-13.

March, J.G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organizational Science, 2, 1, Special Issue: Organizational Learning: Papers in Honor of (and by) James G. March. 77-87. JSTOR.

Northwestern Kellogg (2022). Strategic change management.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why – how great leaders inspire action. TEDx Puget Sound. TEDx.


   Dr. Gregory Carlson is an Institutional Researcher – Special Projects with the North Dakota University System. Working closely with the Department of Public Instruction and Information Technology Department, primary responsibilities include project management, data framing, and ensuring compliance with requirements for statewide K-12 public school Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability reporting through the Insights interactive public dashboards. He assists in addressing accountability data questions from education stakeholders and facilitating use of educational data to facilitate continuous improvement of student learning within North Dakota’s public K-12 schools.