Gearing Up for Change in Undergraduate Computing Programs

In order for undergraduate computing departmental and college/school change initiatives to be successful, the departmental teams must first understand their organization’s current context. By taking a systems perspective, departments ensure that their organizational change initiatives will incorporate the complex and interdependent aspects of their work in order to establish readiness for change. Utilizing the NCWIT Undergraduate System Model, explained below, departmental change leaders and teams can better understand the contextual elements of their department and college/school.

NCWIT's Undergraduate Programs Systems Change Model

NCWIT Undergraduate System Model

Using a systems view is crucial for successful, sustained organizational change. Without it, new ways of operating are undermined and change efforts are not institutionalized. The NCWIT Undergraduate System Model includes six components: Program Entry, Classroom Experience, Community and Belonging, Program Curriculum and Supports, Data and Evaluation, and Institutionalization. All of these components should be considered when assessing the organizational culture, policies, and practices to increase inclusivity and broaden participation. For example, if departments do not consider retention practices and classroom experiences, then recruitment efforts fail at creating a long-term impact. Likewise, without thoughtful data and evaluation, faculty and staff will not know what is working and what is not.

Assess and Address Readiness for Change

Organizational change efforts should focus on changing educational systems and structures to broaden participation in computing, rather than asking students to fit into structurally biased higher education systems. While higher education scholars such as Kotter (2014) or Kezar (2018) have offered a variety of organizational change models that are nuanced to reflect specific contexts, there are some overarching principles of organizational change that hold across all of these models. Change models are based on the assumption that organizational change is an iterative process, and ask change leaders to assess what’s currently happening in their department, build momentum for change, lay the foundation for change, introduce and support the change/s, and ultimately institutionalize and stabilize the changes. When additional organizational change is needed, the cycle restarts and the change process begins anew. Organizational change requires being embedded and embraced within the organizational culture. 

Therefore, organizational change initiatives are much more likely to succeed when change leaders and teams assess and address readiness for change through the eight conditions explained below.

Utilize tools such as NCWIT’s Tech Inclusion Journey® for Undergraduate Programs (TIJ-UP) and the NCWIT Tracking Tool in order to get a deeper understanding of your department’s current contexts, strengths, and areas for improvement. The TIJ-UP is an online decision-support tool, based on the NCWIT Undergraduate System Model, that enables a local change team to assess the practices and conditions in their computing program that promote or inhibit inclusivity. The NCWIT Tracking Tool provides a longitudinal view of key metrics within the department related to program entry, persistence, and graduations. Both of these tools provide specific evidence and data from a systems perspective to support the planning process for organizational change.

To motivate action and build momentum for change, change leaders and teams should understand the current department culture and communicate a clear and appealing vision of a better future using a combination of evidence and data to support the organizational changes. For example, is your applicant pool too small? Is the program not retaining students? If the people in your organization experience frustration with these conditions, they are more likely to welcome organizational change and strategic planning. Additional advice is available in the Communicating for Change resource.

Your vision for a better future must be translated into agreed-upon strategies for achieving that future. The TIJ-UP provides a concrete way to guide team discussion and consensus building by aggregating team members’ anonymized responses into a summary report, which forms the basis for team discussions around program challenges and opportunities. For example, do your colleagues have relevant information to understand the situation and their options for effective action? Have they agreed upon a course of action including ways of overcoming potential obstacles? Do they believe they can achieve the goals they set? Addressing the organizational culture and providing ongoing opportunities for organizational learning and sensemaking are powerful tools.

Change costs time and money, even when the outcome saves both. Without sufficient resources, organizational changes are not likely to succeed. Consider the costs attached to changes and how they will be addressed in the short- and long-term. For example, how will faculty workloads be supported as organizational changes are being implemented and institutionalized? What resources and sources of support are needed (e.g. facilities, funds) for the organizational changes? 

For change to persist, it should be embedded in the structure of the organization through policies, routines, and ceremonies. For example, do promotion policies and service loads recognize and reward those focused on broadening participation? While incorporation into the organization’s reward system can go a long way toward this end, it also requires ongoing accountability to document whether new behaviors are adopted and maintained. For instance, annual reports could include information about new behaviors and their results.

Broad engagement builds internal support and reduces resistance to change. Without widespread internal support, or at least a committed critical mass, little is accomplished. Engage a wide base of people in planning and implementing change, so they feel ownership and are less likely to impede change efforts. Engage new supporters by asking them for small-scale, time-limited, and clearly articulated commitments that can be used to scaffold greater involvement and interest. Other ways of reducing resistance to change include: compromises, guarantees against personal loss, celebration of accomplishments, and pride in past organizational achievements as current challenges are met with new solutions.

Change is most likely to occur when there is visible support from those at the top levels of the organization. This support should include public endorsement of the change efforts and ongoing interest in progress toward goals. In addition to high-level support, support from external stakeholders and power brokers contributes to successful organizational change. These people can affect the supply of critical resources to the organization, so their backing can be highly influential. Parents, alumni, professional associations, and peer institutions, for example, can be quite persuasive.

A group of respected people who champion and guide the change effort help to keep attention focused, prevent redundancies and increase coverage, and sustain action. Change agents and champions can lend legitimacy, provide expertise, garner resources, and recruit participants. They motivate and facilitate engagement in the change effort, as well as assist in succession planning when there is change leader and team turnover. Organizational change efforts are more likely to be successful when a group, rather than one individual, leads the initiatives.

Additional Resources


Published April 17, 2024. The information in this document has been modified and updated by S. Kiersten Ferguson using an original document developed by J. McGrath Cohoon and Lecia Barker.

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