Building organisational adaptive capacity in a volatile post-secondary education context

  • Suzanne Mckinnon

    Student thesis: Professional Doctorate


    This thesis is centred on a leading provider of vocational education and training (VET) in Victoria (hereinafter called ‘the Institute’) where, at the time of conducting the research, I was dean of one of its faculties. Like so many VET providers, the Institute was operating in a highly volatile, rapidly changing, complex environment, particularly following the advent of a market-driven system across the Victorian VET in the late 2000s, which raised a sense of urgency for the welfare and even survival of my faculty. From my position I was aware that the faculty, like the Institute as a whole, was functioning in a hierarchical, largely bureaucratic manner that was impeding its ability to respond to the constant changes. The focus of the study was therefore to examine how the faculty might recalibrate its ways of working so as to endure and even thrive in this environment. Using Eichholz’s (2014) adaptive capacity framework, the study aimed firstly to identify and evaluate the faculty’s existing level of adaptive capacity, then to deploy Eichholz’s five organisational dimensions of purpose, structure, strategy, culture and talent to design and implement a mechanism that could build the faculty’s capacity to harness potential opportunities arising from the constant change. Specifically, adaptive innovations were introduced via cycles of participatory action research, informed by the Eichholz framework, and exploring how to build adaptive capacity via interventions in real work issues. Three action cycles were conducted. The first captured the current adaptive capacity across the faculty, and thereby informed the other two cycles. For each of these, a team of staff recruited from all faculty departments and named the Learning and Teaching Committee (LTC) was brought together in a “holding environment” designed to enable them to engage in interdepartmental collaboration, networking, trust-building, a shared sense of purpose and responsibility. These conditions in turn provided a safe context in which the participants could take risks in experimenting and innovating adaptive work processes and procedures. Focus groups and surveys were used to gather data about the initial functioning of the LTC team, including gathering supplementary data to enhance and validate the primary data. After evaluating and reflecting on these, the third cycle was undertaken with semi-structured interviews conducted to gather a final phase of data for the study. The findings affirmed that the structure of the LTC intervention broke down disciplinary silos between staff participating in this project as, although each participant demonstrated differing levels of adaptive capacity, the structure did provide them with autonomy to make their own decisions, generate ideas and experiment. Further analysis raised the emergence of key faculty cultural factors as a gap between the current and preferred adaptive capacity state. While the project was limited to a single Institute faculty at a particular point in time, the LTC continued to operate and improve adaptive practices well beyond the time period of the doctoral project, and also provided a model for a subsequent restructure of another Institute work unit on an ongoing basis. The model could also form a base for future research to be undertaken both in other Institute faculties and work units, and in the wider post-secondary education sector.
    Date of Award2022
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPeter Copeman (Supervisor), George Cho (Supervisor), Mike Gaffney (Supervisor), Dan Kaczynski (Supervisor) & Misty Kirby (Supervisor)

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