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Change: the Importance of the Process

by Susan Jurow
Susan Jurow is executive director of the College and University Personnel Association.

In considering how academic libraries can be leaders in integrating information technology in teaching and learning, the subtext must be about change. Understanding how to effectively engage institutions and the people who work in them in productive change processes can help turn innovative ideas into reality.

The Importance of Process

How one undertakes a project, how one plans for it, and how the people affected are engaged by it are as important as the outcome. The process is critical to the long-term success of the project and the long-term health of the organization. Each project leaves an organizational legacy in its wake. Does it support and promote a healthy organizational culture and climate, or does it leave behind bruised feelings, mistrust, and animosity?

Usually, it takes the same amount of time to complete a project whether the human element is engaged or not. If the affected individuals are not engaged, the questions and concerns draw out the process well beyond the time frame envisioned by the planners. In the end, the organization is left with anger and mistrust that makes it equally, if not more, difficult to undertake the next major change.

A project that takes into account the human element by its very nature takes longer to complete. It anticipates the consensus building and learning that must take place for the process to succeed. It leaves in its wake individuals excited about the positive potential of change because they have experienced it firsthand. New process skills are developed that permit the next project to take place more swiftly and efficiently.

It is important to consider process in the overall management of an organization. Today’s workplace requires individuals to have the emotional and intellectual capacity to be flexible enough for continuous change regardless of their job or position. They must have the skills to be successful within this context. For an organization to thrive, a bias toward innovation is required.

Preparing for Change

The assessment that leads to change is an important, but often overlooked, element in the success of a change process. In examining the potential for change, there are basically three possible assessments that can be made other than maintaining an acceptable status quo: that something needs to be improved; that something is broken, but can be fixed; or that something needs to be done differently. In any organization and for any given situation, the assessment is likely to vary among individuals, depending on the type and depth of their knowledge about the situation, and their position in the organization. Disagreement over approach or strategy is often rooted in disagreement over assessment.

Just as a medical prescription hinges on the diagnosis, the change process that is proposed will be driven by the assessment. Each change process has its own rhythms and requirements. Developmental change means doing something the same way, but better, using a technique such as process reengineering. Transitional change means finding a new way to do the same thing, such as automating a process. Transformational change means doing something different by creating new structures and new processes to fit new objectives.

Each organization has a unique history, culture, and staff. These variables should be assessed before a change process begins. The strategy for change must consider the organization’s current capacity and capability for change.

An organization’s history will include a range of experience with change initiatives that will inform attitudes toward the present one. Its culture will encourage or discourage innovation and risk-taking based on that history. Staff will have expectations, attitudes, and skills that help or hinder their ability to engage in a change initiative. Strategies for communication, participation, training, and the negotiation of roles and responsibilities must be tailored to the needs of the organization.

The change process should be allowed to take as long as necessary to complete. Change processes are usually driven, at least to some degree, by external realities. All too often, however, they are driven by someone’s unrealistic view of how long a process ought to take. The time frame for a change initiative must allow for all the preparatory and ongoing maintenance activities that take place such as consensus building, communication, and training.

Elements of a Successful Change Process

There are three elements that must be considered in developing a successful change strategy: people, process, and structure. Thought should be given to both the skills and the attitude of the people involved. The process should take into account the stakeholders, time frame, context, and outcome. The formalized relationships and organizational imperatives through which work gets done-the structure-should be flexible enough to be reconfigured and reshaped as needed with changing circumstances.

There are examples in the case studies of how each of these elements can be addressed successfully. The commitment to organizational development skills training at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) exemplifies the role of skills and structure in effective change processes. The training enables staff members to work together effectively in groups. The resulting collaborative team structure permits a level of individual and group flexibility that encourages and supports change initiatives.

Resistance to change can come not only from disagreement about the needs and the means, but also from the sense of “frustration and incompetence” like that described in the Wellesley case study. Some of these problems can be attributed to the need for skill development and some to a lack of shared vision. Some library staff members continue to resist change even though the academic libraries in which they work have changed considerably in the last 20 years. There needs to be a shared understanding that change is and will continue to be a normal part of organizational life.

In almost every case study, there is evidence of extensive consultation in project development and decision making. The key stakeholders-library and information technology staff, faculty, and students-are involved to ensure understanding of the goals and commitment to the outcomes. At CalTech, gaining the support of the faculty for consolidating library services required a compelling vision and clear communication not only of what would be new, but also of the quality of service that would be maintained.

Time and timing can be important to the success or failure of change processes. At Lafayette College, the initial project commitment was for one year. This gave the key players the time they needed to develop their skills and confidence before committing to a longer or ongoing process. In the public-private partnership in Pittsburgh, the planning phase for the change process took seven years, a daunting time frame in which to maintain momentum. And yet, this lengthy process gave planners the opportunity to incorporate emerging technologies into the project.

Articulating the objectives or expected outcomes helps stakeholders understand what a particular change process is designed to address. At Wellesley, the Knapp Center was established to support two college goals: to ensure each student a working knowledge of technology and to assist the faculty in incorporating information technology in their work. Setting expectations and establishing accountability help to ensure the credibility of change processes and set the stage for further ones.

The use of teams appears repeatedly in the case studies; at IUPUI, teams are found within a formal organizational structure. At Lafayette College, library and information technology staff cooperate in cross-functional teams. In either case, the teams encourage change efforts by bringing together the skills and perspectives needed to support the development and implementation of new programs.

The Challenge of Transformational Change

The projects described within the case studies run the gamut from developmental to transformational. The shift to electronic access at Stevens Institute of Technology is a clear example of a transformational change. Ready, immediate, in-house access to a range of journals is at the heart of academic library services. The decision to shift to providing access by paying user fees rather than purchasing materials remains controversial.

Transformational change is undoubtedly the most difficult to undertake. It requires not just a change in the status quo, but the development of a new framework that may bear no resemblance to anything the stakeholders have seen or experienced in the past. They must be convinced not only that the new construct will be an improvement over the existing one, but that it will work at all.

In a Harvard Business Review article published in 1995, John Kotter identified eight considerations for the success of transformational change.1 First, there must be a sense of urgency. This relates to the issue of assessment. There must be a sense that things are so seriously wrong that improvement is not an option and that only a completely new approach will suffice. The need to create a powerful coalition to lead the process is the second consideration. A team consisting of managers and key stakeholders who support the initiative is needed to organize and drive the process. This is especially true during the inevitable periods of high stress and tension.

The third consideration is that there must be a vision that is appealing and easy to understand and communicate. The fourth is that the vision must be adequately communicated. Transformation is extremely difficult, and it is not possible unless most of the stakeholders are invested enough in the change to make individual sacrifices. A concise, compelling statement that portrays an improved end-state must be developed, and it must be communicated widely and often.

Fifth, obstacles to the vision must be removed. They may include existing organizational structures or processes or individual behaviors. There needs to be a mechanism for identifying these barriers as they emerge and for dealing with them. This is true especially in the case of key individuals who may block progress. Failing to deal directly with their behavior may cause others to question the organization’s commitment to the change.

The sixth and seventh considerations relate to managing results. It is important to plan for short-term wins. Because transformational change takes such a long time to achieve, it is critical to identify short-term accomplishments to maintain morale and momentum. On the other hand, declaring victory too soon can lead to failure. It is important not to confuse the incremental improvements that are likely to occur during the process with the end-state itself. Unless the process is completed, and these initial changes are embedded in the long-term construct articulated by the vision, they are just as likely to slowly disappear over time.

Related to this point, the final consideration is the importance of anchoring the changes in organizational culture. Linking new behaviors to improved performance is one way of demonstrating the value of the efforts. It encourages everyone to continue operating within the new framework until it becomes habit and “the way we do things around here.” It is critical to ensure that new managers, whether they are promoted from within or hired from outside, are committed to maintaining the new operational framework.


Over the past 20 years, higher education institutions and academic libraries have become better at employing effective management practices. Academic libraries have become more adept at using group processes such as task forces and teams to develop and implement new programs, as well as to manage ongoing operations. They recognize the importance of involving a broad range of stakeholders and building consensus for the change required and the most appropriate means for achieving it.

Talking about change has, to some degree, become hackneyed and trite. In fact, each new change initiative should be seen as an opportunity to increase individual and organizational capacity to engage in change. The discussion is no longer about whether there should be change, but how best to identify what needs to be done or done differently, and how best to do it.

Some of us are change agents and thrive on change. Many of us might be just as comfortable with a status quo that lasted more than a day or two. Certainly, life would be easier if the job and how it is accomplished were not constantly in flux. In The Inventive Organization, Jill Janov talks about change leadership as anticipating where change will occur and having the resources ready when it gets there.2 Projects such as CLIR’s case studies on technical innovation will help us to understand what those resources are and how best use them.


1. John Kotter, “Why Transformational Efforts Fail,” in Harvard Business Review, March/April, 1995, 59-67.

2. Jill Janov, The Inventive Organization, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 290.

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