Skip to main content

Exploring inclusive culture change

22 Apr 2022 | Kim Ansell As part of the Advance HE Connect Benefit Series for 2021-22, Inclusive institutions: enabling culture change, Kim Ansell, Senior Adviser in Governance, Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on the culture change journeys of three institutions.

Thinking about culture helps us understand why people behave differently in different organisations and sometimes across the same organisation.  Indeed, HE institutions are a myriad of sub cultures across faculties/schools/departments and between professional groupings, academics, technicians, professional services. Changing the culture of HE institutions involves careful navigation to achieve successful outcomes for all stakeholders (and to align with the strategic and financial objectives of the institution.

The 2021 Transforming organisations from student to board report proposes that: “To transform organisations for the better, we must give people the opportunity to change the way they think and interact…. no one person, including a highly charismatic leader, can command other people to change their attitudes, beliefs, perceptions or level of commitment. Instead, the practice of transforming organisations involves developing tangible activities ………. Given the opportunity to take part in these activities people will develop an enduring capability for change and the organisation will benefit from far greater levels of inclusion, commitment, innovation and diverse talent.”

Three important challenges have emerged in recent culture reviews revealing a lack of engagement, ownership and agency around culture change, these often manifest as comments such as:

-             “There is nothing is wrong with us, ‘they’ are the problem”, and

-             “It used to be like ‘this’ and now it is like ‘that’.”

I propose to explore these three challenges:

Centralisation of professional support

Centralisation of professional support can disrupt the culture of a faculty or school, and impact colleagues personal sense of collegiality and control. The sense of ownership can become fragmented and interviewees often express a sense of loss about a structure which used to work better and indifference to making a new structure work. This loss of ownership and inevitable teething problems associated with structural change can prevent colleagues feeling empowered to address challenges. Often marginalised groups became even more marginalised.

Professor Katie Normington, Vice Chancellor at De Montford University, cited Kotter’s 8 Step Model (Kotter, 1996) as one of the tools she found to be particularly helpful when introducing culture change. Kotter particularly looks to create the climate for change, before engaging the organisation to change. This suggests, in the case of centralised support, that creating a vision and articulating benefits for all, and communicating that vision are central to create energy and instil agency in all those involved.

“One of the important things from this was creating the energy for the change ……….if you don’t do that part successfully enough then you don’t get people on board.” Katie Normington.    

According to Kotter, it is critical to go through each phase of change at the pace required to engage all stakeholders. Skipping past or over steps only creates an illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result. A common phenomena of culture reviews is that the school/department/faculty jump right in to look for solutions without fully understanding where they are and where they want to be. Using the Kotter model to build foundations such as ‘forming a guiding coalition’ and ‘sharing a compelling vision’ are often lost in structural change.

Coping with rapid growth

Periods of significant growth can also upset the culture of a faculty/school or whole institution. Growing from a small, close-knit community who were able to operate by consensus, to a much larger group, means that they need to rethink their decision making processes and principles. 

Providing a route for shared and distributed leadership, and clear allocation of responsibilities can retain the group cohesion as long as those involved can navigate the separation of accountability (ensuring that things are done as agreed) and responsibility (doing them), and are supported with the right levels of autonomy and resource.

The Johnson and Scholes cultural web offers us a way to recognise how issues such as structure, control, power and ways of working impact our culture in a connected way.  But from a HE perspective how do we ensure that we create a collaborative approach to supporting the core endeavours of education and research while creating a cohesive and mutually respectful working environment for all colleagues?  

Image of the The Paradigm Model

EDI – from procedure to practice

Many institutions take a procedural and behavioural approach to diversity and inclusion to prompt more explicit engagement in EDI. But to make a tangible difference, EDI needs to permeate the culture to ensure that everyone understands the purpose of EDI  as something which is being done to achieve different and better results, better decisions, better outcomes for all.

An understanding of organisational context will help YOU navigate YOUR way through these issues in a way that is both supportive and challenging, as Stephen Covey in his 7 habits of effective people suggests “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Understanding the context helps reveal the complexity of any situation and offers nuance from which to further frame potential solutions. The long serving iceberg model allows us to explore and better understand what we see and hear and what we don’t see and hear, and to interrogate this further some colleagues and I produced a transformative conversations framework of generative questions, which could be useful in helping to understand context better. To complement this, Edgar Scheins organisational culture model, will help to create a more inclusive analysis of the organisational culture where solutions are founded on discovery of lived experiences and culture change objectives reflect the difference between the prevailing and desired culture as a basis for cultural change.

In our Tweetchat on 27 April we will practice the dark art of understanding context and hidden realities in relation to cultural change and explore some ways of better understanding how we can find meaningful solutions. Join @AdvanceHE_chat and @LTHEchat  on Wednesday 27 April at 20:00 BST using the hashtags #LTHEchat #AdvanceHE_chat



1. Edgar Scheins Organisational Culture Model is used to make culture more visible within an organisation at three different levels. Schein advises having conversations with as many people as possible to discover the underlying backgrounds and aspects of the organisational culture as it is being understood and experienced, looking for insights about difference between the desired and prevailing culture and keeping alert for potential actions which could be a basis for cultural change.

2. A traditional Iceberg Analysis encourages us to consider the context without jumping to solutions. It encourages us to identify what else we cannot see or hear and consider that in our thinking. And what else. And what else.

3. The Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web identifies six interrelated elements that help to make up what they call the "paradigm" – the pattern or model – of the work environment. By analysing the factors in each, you can begin to see the bigger picture of your culture: what is working, what isn't working, and what needs to be changed.

4. Kotters 8 Step Model  (Kotter 1996). Kotter’s research showed that 70% of all major change efforts in organisations fail. He contends that this is because organisations don’t take the holistic approach required to see the change through. His 8 Step process offers an alternative approach for continuous learning, helping to avoid failure and increase adeptness for change.

Cases included: A School of Engineering and Science in a post 92 city university, a Business School in a red brick institution and a specialist science institute in a Russell group university.


Connect Benefit Series – Inclusive institutions: enabling and supporting culture change

As part of our Connect Benefit Series for 2021-22, our Inclusive institutions: enabling and supporting culture change longitudinal project runs from February to July, open to all colleagues at Advance HE member institutions. Find out more.


Join @AdvanceHE_chat and @LTHEchat  on Wednesday 27 April at 20:00 BST using the hashtags #LTHEchat #AdvanceHE_chat


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter