“To be relied upon and trusted”: the centrality of personal relationships in a successful cross-team institutional change project

Karen Heard-Laureote, Carina Buckley

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The change to online delivery in March 2020 provided the UK Higher Education (HE) sector with an opportunity as well as a requirement to change the way we work. As a result of the Covid-19 lockdown and the closure of most campus buildings, delivery of teaching moved online and most academic staff worked from home, away from their students. When the uncertainty around duration resolved to indicate a longer-term impact, it became necessary to devise ways to sustain this approach outside of the initial emergency response. For this paper’s case study institution, one of the most pressing concerns was how to generate this kind of wholesale change most effectively to learning and teaching (hereafter L&T) practice with teams of staff that teach and support learning, ordinarily used to traditionally narrow roles and responsibilities. In terms of delivering online, Solent University’s (Solent) response was the Transformation Academy (TA). Led by the Solent Learning and Teaching Institute (SLTI), its primary goal was the preparation of 1100 modules for online delivery in September 2020. To deliver this, institutional cross-team collaboration was required to ensure success within a narrow timescale. This paper argues that the TA’s capacity for success was contingent on the adoption of a matrix leadership approach. This meant that the institution’s traditional stance, focussed on hierarchy and roles, moved to one that could respond to an increasingly matrix environment where individual core skills and competencies were embraced. Matrix leadership is a fairly new construct in HE (Jones et al., 2010), initially emerging as a phenomenon in management studies, and requires an equal mix of supporting, coaching, empowering and directing. The term has since drifted into Further Education and then later still entered the HE lexicon as a step on from distributed leadership (Jones et al. 2010). This latter concept, though about empowering teams, capacity, competence, and confidence-building, denotes leadership that remains within the bounds of formal line management. For the TA project, matrix leadership provided a more useful model as it relies on empathy and influence, self-awareness and conflict management, to drive success (Malloy, 2012). At the case study site, the TA project “drove a full, fluid, and atypical collaboration between Academic Development and Learning Technologies staff often compartmentalised in L&T organisational structures” (Heard-Lauréote and Buckley, forthcoming), outside of formal line management structures. Rather than focus on division of labour, the matrix environment relies upon the “integration of labor” [sic] (Wellman, 2007, p. 62) and a tacit trade-off between leader and followers, in that the leader can only achieve organisational goals through the activities of the followers, who in turn grant the status of leadership to the person who presents an opportunity to followers to satisfy their own personal and professional development objectives (Kezsbom, 1988). To explore this phenomenon, the paper proceeds in four main parts. Part one contextualises Solent’s move online. It explores the literature around change management and how this helps explain how Solent proceeded whilst also ensuring the quality of the student learning experience. Part two provides detail of the methodological approach used to explore matrix leadership within a matrix environment. Part three explores how matrix leadership was operationalised within the TA as a collaborative project. Part four turns to the project findings and discusses these in relation to the impact of matrix leadership on the affective dimension of staff agency. Our findings suggest that there were four ways in which the TA project’s matrix environment, and the matrix leadership that shaped this environment, improved staff agency. Our findings show that staff were encouraged to work collaboratively, making use of their skills; the project offered opportunities for contact with others; it gave staff the sense of feeling part of something bigger and it provided opportunities for professional connectiveness. A more granular exploration of TA project members’ affective states, following Ahmed’s (2014) ideas around the sociality of emotion, finds that the matrix environment in which the TA operated facilitated an increased sense of self-worth, a sense of stretch, a sense of contentment, a sense of anticipation and a sense of external worth amongst project members. As a result of these findings, the paper ends by making some recommendations for the sector around the adoption of a matrix leadership approach to institution-wide cultural change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-24
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of University Teaching and Learning Practice
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2021


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