Transformation Leadership in Education - Three Key Imperatives for Lasting Change

Booz & Company study identifies three imperatives for lasting and successful change.

Globalization, new technology, and changing social patterns have significantly disrupted the education sector over the past decade. National education systems have scrambled to respond to these shifts, which are likely to increase in the future. In that context, transformation is the new normal for education systems, especially for governments in the Middle East and North Africa who have recently begun to take a serious look at their education systems.  Experts from leading consultancy Booz & Company have identified three imperatives education leaders should develop in order to successfully implement change to their education systems.  

Education leaders recognise that education systems must change, so that students receive the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a rapidly changing, global, digital economy. A well-educated population increases national economic competitiveness. It also results in intangible benefits, such as political stability, social well-being, and a more innovative approach to solving problems.

Booz & Company is the leading consultancy advising governments and educators on education transformation and is a frequent contributor to conferences focusing on the topic. Most recently, the company was the knowledge partner of Abu Dhabi Education Council’s (ADEC) Transforming Education Summit (TES), which gathered education leaders from government, private and third sectors, educators, and academia from around the world. With an aim of providing conference attendees with valuable insight, Booz & Company’s education thought leaders studied education transformation cases around the world and interviewed education leaders, concentrating on the capabilities that organizations need to develop to succeed. The study results are published in the report “Transformation Leadership in Education: Three Key Imperatives for Lasting Change”, distributed at the Transforming Education Summit.

The study’s main finding was that while specific reform initiatives are well-intended and technically sound, they often fail during implementation. One major reason is a lack of communication and collaboration—policymakers often fail to involve stakeholders such as school administrators, teachers, parents, students, and the third sector. Failure to engage stakeholders in the planning and execution of reforms proved a downfall in many reforms; stakeholders were caught off guard, generating controversy and institutional resistance. Moreover, limited attention is typically given to building the institutional capabilities needed to properly design, plan, and implement the intended reforms.

“The difficulty is that many education leaders fail to engage properly with stakeholders,” said Chadi N. Moujaes, a partner at Booz & Company. “We argue that education leaders need to rebalance their attention. They need to look more at ‘how’ they implement change, and not just focus on ‘what’ changes they are introducing.”

Education leaders must become transformation leaders in order to implement the changes needed. They must become proficient at adaption, upgrading and sustaining improved programs, which is the only way to keep pace with rapid-fire social and economic changes.

“We have identified three common capabilities amongst successful education leaders, who have led landmark transformation efforts. These are ‘think ahead’, ‘deliver within’ and ‘lead across’,” said Dr. Leila Hoteit, a Principal with Booz & Company. “Transformation leaders in education must balance several dimensions, and to understand these we have spoken to a number of transformation leaders, their advisors and their counterparts, representing different education systems at differing stages of development.”

Think Ahead
Transformation leaders must think ahead by setting a vision and strategy for education transformation. This capability involves asking difficult questions. What does society need and expect from education? What are the objectives to be met by education? What paradigm shifts are needed within the system to reach these objectives? And most importantly how would we define “good” education?

“These questions go to the heart of how education systems must anticipate socio-economic and technological changes,” commented Jussi Hiltunen, a Senior Associate with Booz & Company. He added, “Systems need to be able to adapt accordingly so that they can prepare students to succeed as citizens, entrepreneurs, and workers in the 21st-century marketplace. Moreover, societies have greater expectations of education systems. They want accessible and affordable education, equitable high-quality outcomes, an increasing focus on life skills and creativity, and integration with the requirements of society and the labour market.”

Some governments in the region have already begun thinking ahead to ensure their students are prepared to compete in the changing marketplace. In 1995, Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development was founded in Qatar with the aim of revamping the higher education sector and providing more job opportunities to nationals. In 2002, Qatar followed up with the establishment of a Supreme Education Council to oversee the overhaul of its K-12 system. Moreover,, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) was created to oversee Abu Dhabi’s education transformation, which is responsible for establishing that emirate’s vision and policy agenda as well as implementation of the reform. In Saudi, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Public Education Development Project was launched to revise the curriculum, ensure professional readiness of the teachers, and provide attractive learning environment.

Deliver Within
The second role of transformation leaders is to deliver within. This is achieved through defining the capabilities needed for effective execution and then building them in a coherent manner. Essentially, leaders will need to effectively oversee the performance of the organization they are managing during the transformation, with particular emphasis on developing these capabilities. These should be capabilities that are instrumental in the education value chain, including strategy development, management, design, delivery, early intervention, and evaluation.  For example, while most education strategies around the world have common themes focusing on teacher development, curriculum modernization, and technology integration, some succeed and others fail. The distinction between success and failure is the ability to implement!

This capability also requires transformation leaders to ensure the sustainability of these initiatives, which often operate on time lines that outlast their tenure, especially for elected officials. As such, it is crucial to have civil servants and local institutions that are aligned with a common vision, actively engaged, and empowered.

Setting an example of delivering within is Abu Dhabi’s establishment of a central Program Management Office within ADEC to closely follow up and monitor the transformation process as well as deploy additional resources to initiatives when necessary.

Lead Across
Leading across is the third and most important transformation capability. To implement this, transformation leaders must directly engage with stakeholders during the planning and implementation phases of transformations. This capability can involve ensuring the support of the rest of the government – an education minister may need to win over a cash-strapped finance ministry. In some cases, it can mean engaging private entities to participate in reform.

Leading across also involves regular dialogue with students, teachers, and parents. Alberta, a province of Canada, has an online platform called “Speak Out” for students aged 14 to 19. The province also has a formal student advisory panel that meets the education minister.

“Several recurring themes appeared in the case studies we performed. These included coherence among various initiatives; a combination of both formal and informal efforts; collaboration at the earliest possible point in the process, and working with the predominant culture instead of against it,” said Moujaes.

The key challenge for education leaders is not just in finding the correct technical solution but to balance the three capabilities of thinking ahead, delivering within, and leading across. “Ultimately, most education leaders spend 4-6 years in their position. Therefore, the most enduring legacy an education leader can leave behind is an education system and community at large so committed to educational improvement that changes in personnel or individual policies do not disrupt the process of continuous improvement,” said Hoteit.

For education leaders, the stakes are clear. Rapid and large-scale changes stemming from technology and globalization are leading to a single global marketplace. “Middle East education systems that can adapt to this new environment—and continue to adapt to future shifts—will give their societies a clear competitive advantage,” concluded Hiltunen.