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Covid 19 and higher education: a European study analyzes how emergencies can accelerate the process of digital transformation

Change usually takes time, but during a crisis time is lacking and it becomes necessary to take action quickly. This was certainly the case during the first lockdown linked to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020: universities and other higher education institutions, for example, had to adopt quickly or reinforce distance-learning methods, which some indications suggest may be the beginning of a structural transformation of the higher education sector.

In a new study, researchers in Denmark, France and Italy have examined how the “imposed” lockdown has led to the introduction, or reinforcement, of certain practices related, for example, to teleworking and e-learning. Their study also enables companies/organizations in other sectors to better understand and anticipate the challenges linked to change management, which have been highlighted in the current crisis.

The research was carried out by Andrea Carugati, professor at the School of Business and Social Sciences at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Loïc Plé and Antonio Giangreco, professors at the IÉSEG School of Management, Marion Lauwers, professor at the Catholic University of Lille, and Lapo Mola, professor at SKEMA Business School and the University of Verona, Italy.

In their study “Exploitation and exploration of IT in times of pandemic: from dealing with emergency to institutionalizing crisis practices” (published in the European Journal of Information Systems), the researchers analyzed how three higher education institutions, located in Italy, France and Denmark, reacted to the Covid-19 crisis. These three countries rank 25th, 15th and 3rd respectively in the Digital Economy and Society Index (European Commission, 2020), which allows their results to be generalized. The three countries have also experienced different levels of Covid-19 infections (in terms of prevalence and mortality rates).

The study analyzed how institutions adapted to the emergency in much the same way. It demonstrated the existence of a change process that was divided into five phases and operating at two different and complementary levels: one individual and one organizational.

Loïc Plé

“The analysis of the data showed that the three institutions reacted in a similar way. In all three cases, information technology was a central tool in the response to the Covid crisis. However, it was the creation of clear rules and strong support for their use – by organizations – that played a key role in their adoption by individuals,” explains Loic Plé.

The three institutions studied all went through the same five stages of the change process: survival, socialization, normalization, strategizing (to prepare for the post-crisis period) and, finally, institutionalization of the practices that have emerged during the crisis. The authors observed that individuals and organizations gradually adapt to the new demands dictated by the crisis but with different attitudes in different phases.

Antonio Giangreco

“Knowledge of the adaptation process to the crisis and its phases can therefore enable managers and leaders to anticipate the different phases or identify in which phase the organization is in. This allows them to plan the most appropriate strategic actions,” explains Antonio Giangreco, professor at IÉSEG, and expert in change management.

“The emergency situation that we are currently experiencing can enable us to accelerate the digital transformation process by taking advantage of the lessons learned,” adds Antonio Giangreco. Faced with a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, important structural changes in the use of technologies and work practices have occurred and will continue. Whether it’s the development of teleworking or a return to the office, the use of IT tools have changed during the Covid period, and this has had an impact on the way people work or exchange with each other.

These are fundamental trends, which managers must pay particular attention to by involving their employees in the changes that have resulted, and will continue to take place. Thus, the researchers advise managers to adopt “active listening” and to favour ‘participative’ change management to increase individual engagement. This will encourage their employees to take ownership of the new tools, and will help develop more effective work practices, as they focus on the actual use of the tools by people in the field.