Institutional Transformation: Leaders and Partners

Amon Mattee, Kandioura Noba, and Peter Koehn
Edited by Keith M. Moore

Institutional leaders are political agents whose success is due to mastery of a set of practices that stabilize the organization and their position within it. Bureaucratic processes and procedures guide behavior in predictable ways to negotiate institutional inconsistencies and conflicts. In this way, an organization secures its role in the environment. Good leadership is often indicated by the ability to follow institutional roadmaps that minimize disruption and assure continuity.

Institutional transformation is nevertheless necessary for healthy organizations. As the organizational environment changes, so too must an organization if it is to remain relevant and viable. Institutional transformation does not just happen. Considerable conscious effort is required to overcome organizational inertia. There are two sources from which transformational change may come. Some organizations may be revolutionized from within by dynamic leaders; others are pushed by external forces in their environment. In order to reinforce the process of institutional transformation of agricultural education and training (AET) organizations in developing countries, development projects have been initiated that organize and focus the forces for change.

Pathways to Institutional Transformation shows organizational and personal pathways, starting from the Status Quo, to Institutional Transformation. The pathways begin with identifying champions. The personal pathway goes through open dialog and new skills, then meets up with the organizational pathway at partnerships. The organizational pathway goes through intra- and inteer-institutional discussions, then meets up with personal pathway at partnerships. Both paths join together with a common vision toward institutional transformation.

It has long been realized that one of the most effective ways to promote and guide transformation is through partnerships with similar institutions. In this way, projects can capitalize on internal forces for change and mobilize external leadership. Our experience indicates two merging pathways that a project must follow—the personal and the organizational. On the personal level, our collective experience indicates that effective implementation of institutional transformation projects (whether internally or externally driven) requires institutional champions. These individuals are formal and informal institutional leaders and opinion leaders. There have been three challenges associated with champions: how to identify them; how to build working relationships with and among them; and how to support and reward them.

Champions: Who are they?

Champions are people who are more likely to embrace change; they are flexible and progressive in their thinking. We believe they are people who are already trying to make changes in their institutions through curricular improvement, unselfishly contributing to group initiatives (reports and proposals), seeking financial resources to support the institution, and actively participating in meetings and student projects. Furthermore, effective champions (formal and informal) of institutional transformation need to be respected by their colleagues.

Mobilizing Champions

Mobilization of these champions requires more than simply naming them. Relationships have to be developed, new ideas explored, and new skills developed. It is at this point that organizational relationships come into play. Both internal champions and external thought leaders carry considerable personal and institutional history. Coming to terms with and building mutual understanding of each other’s histories means that the personal chemistry among leaders is extremely important. A positive relationship needs to be cultivated at the personal level before formal activities can be effective at the institutional level. This underscores the importance for projects to promote local coordination and to facilitate on-site contacts for both partners. Face-to-face interactions are critical to building trust.

Developing such chemistry requires effort and takes time. In the case of the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative (iAGRI) project in Tanzania, about one year was needed to build the chemistry that embodies mutual trust, respect, and understanding and eventually resulted in agreement on a common vision of what needs to be achieved. Building these relationships involves exposure to outside ideas through training or bringing in resource people. When a paradigm shift is involved, as in the case of the Education and Research in Agriculture (ERA) project in Senegal, where ‘service to the community’ threatened traditional university values, developing the shared vision was conflict-ridden requiring additional time to negotiate the process. Open dialog needs to be encouraged to define and operationalize a common vision. Pressing for results too quickly can shut down communications. What do we want to do together? A common vision does not exclude room for individual champions to specialize in particular activities. Champions need to be both leaders and learners.

Institutional Partnerships

Institutional partners generally operate in different ecosystems and have different institutional cultures, so it becomes a challenge to forge commonality especially in the ways things are done. Furthermore, there is always the risk of one institution feeling that the other institution wants to impose itself or its culture on the other, which may create resistance. This requires diplomacy and perseverance on the part of both sides. Leaders must be people who are sensitive and flexible with a deep commitment to what they are aiming to achieve. Our shared experiences indicate that university governance systems are more open to transformative leadership than government ministry systems. In the case of ERA, it took over two years and a change in government to build the chemistry of trust, respect and understanding at the ministerial level. This can be frustrating for those interested in introducing changes, but governments at all levels are key stakeholders whose support is essential to project and program success. The challenges of building trust extend beyond the halls of academe.

The idea is to work with champions in informal spaces so that once they buy into and build for themselves a vision of institutional transformation they are prepared to influence others through the formal system. In iAGRI, we have addressed this by working with all Deans, Directors, and Heads of Department at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) through an informal forum called the Monthly Leadership Forums where discussion revolves around what needs to change at SUA to improve organizational performance. In ERA, we established an inter-institutional forum called the Group for Reflection on Senegalese Agriculture and Food (GRAAS) where Rectors, Directors, Deans and selected faculty members discuss innovations in institutional management, instruction and research, and agree on action plans for future transformation of their respective AET institutions.

Supporting champions

Supporting and rewarding champions is fruitful in terms of ensuring their sustained involvement. Champions are not all interested in the same rewards. For some, recognition of the value of their contributions is paramount. Recognition can range from personal expressions of gratitude and accomplishment to scholarly collaboration. Altruism, if not exploited, can be a strong mobilizing force. For many academics, released-time from other responsibilities is a useful reward. Others will require material incentives.

What have been your experiences in leading transformational change in AET institutions?