Change is the only constant

DMU knew that if we were to attract students it needed to raise its position in the league tables

As the higher education sector faces a time of fast-paced change, with an increased climate of competition, universities are having to work harder than ever to meet the raised expectations of students.

This was the situation facing De Montfort University (DMU) in Leicester in 2013, as they found themselves 85th in the league tables, as the organisation’s Corporate Portfolio Manager Stewart Leverett says: ‘Universities have become businesses and students have become our customers, who are justifiably looking for the best deal in every aspect of their education. DMU knew that if we were to attract UK and international students we needed to raise our position in the league tables by improving the quality and breadth of our offering.’

As a university with very stretched resources and high ambitions in terms of change, DMU knew that they had to make key changes if they were to compete and survive in the future. There was a lot of project activity being undertaken, but it lacked focus or control across the campus and project management capability was quite variable and dispersed. 

Universities have become businesses and students have become our customers, who are justifiably looking for the best deal in every aspect of their education

The need for change had been identified before Stewart was recruited by DMU, so his first challenge was to make it happen, as he explains: ‘There was no corporate control or direction. So, in late 2013 it was decided to implement a portfolio management strategy across the organisation, to control all major projects and programme activity to ensure focus on delivering the change required.

‘As part of this we needed to raise knowledge and awareness of project and programme management practice at all levels and to increase skills and knowledge of our project managers across the university, including part time staff. At that time we had 130 major projects involving approximately 60 or 70 project managers, plus project directors and sponsors, and we needed to engage with them all.’ 

It was quickly identified that an internal capability had to be developed, which was when DMU decided to appoint an outside consultancy to provide key external training in managing successful programmes. Learning and development company pearcemayfield won the competitive pitch to work with Stewart to act as the engine to deliver change. 

Head of Training at pearcemayfield, John Edmonds explains: ‘DMU was faced with many challenges and they were attempting to tackle these with a huge portfolio of projects. We had worked with Stewart before at Severn Trent Water and he knew our capability in programme management.’ 

Programme management is a sensible, strategic way of organising projects into related groups to bring about coordinated transformational change. The first step was to deliver a course in Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) for a key cohort of people. Alongside that pearcemayfield ran some half-day sessions for directors and other senior people to get a critical mass of people talking about the changes. 

We felt that delivering the training on site was very powerful, as it got people talking together

The first course was very well received and followed by more of the same, plus some shorter training sessions, to keep the momentum going. To help on more tactical level, project management training was added to the mix. 

DMU was very aware that to make the change a successful transition, support was needed from top management and right down through the organisation, which was one of the key areas where pearcemayfield was able to provide its expertise. Even the university’s Vice Chancellor was keen to be personally involved in discussions with pearcemayfield and Stewart Leverett about how the changes should be delivered. Stewart knew it was critical that the senior management team knew exactly what was expected of them and how the need to be aware of the roles they would be playing in the change. So, in a second phase of training, pearcemayfield started to tackle role-based learning requirements and developed bespoke training for Business Change Managers, Programme Directors and Senior Responsible Owners (SROs). Finally, a Change Management Practitioner course was delivered, to complete the suite of training and in-house staff were coached to continue the good work and deliver their own versions of some of the workshops.

Stewart Leverett says that, although moving towards this cultural change isn’t the sole reason, they are now 53rd in the university league tables and their international auditors have said their project and programme management practice is at the leading edge in higher education.

Each year the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) carries out an audit at all universities on teaching quality. DMU’s executive board is now confident that all projects will achieve their strategic aims in this year’s audit (2015 – 2016) and their learning strategy will be delivered successfully, thanks to the new approach for driving change.

The pearcemayfield training programme was delivered in batches and held at the university, so none of the staff were required to leave the campus. ‘We felt that delivering the training on site was very powerful, as it got people talking together,’ says Stewart Leverett, ‘we believe that pearcemayfield’s intervention helped hugely towards us meeting the challenges we faced.’

And in terms of closing off and embedding the whole strategic portfolio management process, DMU is now in a position to roll out the new 2015 – 2016 strategy and look forward to climbing even higher up the university league tables.

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