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Author's profile photo Rob Jonkers

What Higher Education Can Do to Deliver Better Outcomes

Across higher education, the last few years have felt nothing short of an accelerated degree program in change management. And the experience has shaken up its traditional reputation for conservative, risk-averse resistance to adapting to a fast-changing world.

The pandemic first year introduced the quick pivot from well-entrenched in-person learning and recruiting models to full digital engagement. The second year taught the science of weighing benefits and risks when evolving safety protocols with effectiveness and compliance. And now, in year three, the central focus is the art of gradually settling in with the flexibility to shift policies and processes at a moment’s notice.

Passing each semester with high marks, most colleges and universities have learned they can adjust rapidly, with little risk, and in ways that are highly relevant to the needs of their students, faculty, and administration staff. But the real question is how they can apply this lesson and expand this skill to the future betterment of the institution and the people they support and serve.

Change management principles for higher education

Change management in higher education is unlike anything experienced in large private companies anywhere. Instead of unifying different lines of business with a single strategy, colleges and universities must answer to the independent views of faculty departments, program donors, trustee and alumni boards, administration organizations, and student government. And each organization has its own perspective on every challenge and the best way to resolve it.

This kind of landscape can make meaningful change challenging to deliver, especially when significant investment is required. No matter how exceptional the idea, resistance inevitably sets in somewhere in the institution and forces the project to end before it even begins.

At least, that’s the way change management was done before the pandemic. But by using the digital transformation success of institutions, such as the University of Toronto, as case studies, colleges and universities can adopt the fundamental principles of change management that are unique to higher education.

The first tenet is the recognized value of unifying processes and data across a single system for the entire institution. With approximately 65,000 students, 3,300 faculty members, and 7,500 administrative staff across three campuses, the University of Toronto, like most colleges and universities, is expected to run on a connected, modern technology foundation. By modernizing its ERP system and integrating it with cloud-based HR solutions, the university gained control over its functions, improved its employee experience, and elevated HR as a strategic partner.

The second concept is centered around the culture of an ecosystem of autonomous organizations. Part of the University of Toronto’s success is the willingness to participate in an extensive review process in the planning and design of the new system. External consultants engaged with the university’s staff and academics to listen to their needs, resulting in a decision to migrate its administration management systems from the SAP ERP application to SAP S/4HANA and adopt SAP SuccessFactors solutions. This feedback helped outline the requirements and timeline of the implementation project while maintaining an open line of communication to keep colleagues informed about progress and evolving needs.

The third precept of change management is pursuing authentic and meaningful transformation. The University of Toronto’s ERP and HR system implementation project transformed its core processes. No fewer than 10 systems were decommissioned to create an optimized landscape and reduce costs. At the same time, by providing a consistent, intuitive, and streamlined user experience from hire-to-retire, the university now has a single point of access to its suite of powerful talent management solutions.


And last but not least, digital innovation is a continuous journey of adapting and innovating as quickly as student, faculty, and administration needs and expectations evolve. After its successful ERP and cloud HR solution go-live, the University of Toronto did not consider its efforts a one-and-done ordeal. Instead, the institution immediately set new goals to accelerate the advancement of individuals and talent pipelines calibrated for particular roles, with targeted pipelines supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion priorities. This includes enabling adopting of electronic signatures to complete virtual recruitment processes and continuing to further modernize core operational performance and optimize the employee experience.

Yes, higher education can adapt and innovate

The secret is out: higher education institutions can adapt and respond to change quickly and innovatively. And that expectation from students, faculty, and administration staff will continue long after the pandemic ‒ as they seek enhanced system-wide cybersecurity, easier registration processes, reliable remote and mobile access to internal networks, and more.

Such effective transformation requires an institution-wide approach to improve and enhance organizational models, operating processes, technology, leadership, and talent models. And with the commitment of all stakeholders, the entire institution can work together to shape decisions as individuals, organizations, and an institution to drive changes that deliver meaningful outcomes to everyone.

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