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Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

Implementing strategy: The case of Hochschule Osnabrück

Salome Bilanishvili


This thesis seeks to contribute to the discourse on strategy implementation in higher education institutions, which is considered to be the most challenging part of strategic management. A case study of implementation process of Hochschule Osnabrück was carried out to collect empirical findings regarding critical factors affecting implementation process. Potential critical factors of implementation were identified based on the literature as propositions guiding data collection and analysis, which were later examined in practical context. Research findings point out that theory is relevant to the practice of case institution and that multiple factors influence strategy implementation process simultaneously which affect each other as well. This thesis explains practices and characteristics, as well as the level of importance of each factor for implementing strategy in Hochschule Osnabrück. By providing empirical examples on most important factors for strategy execution process, this study can help university managers to pay attention to vital aspects and cope with uncertainties and problems while implementing strategies.

Strategic management has gained importance in higher education field since early 1980s. Its significance has grown highly in recent years and currently these two words are probably most overused terms at national or supranational policy and institutional levels throughout the world and particularly in Europe too (Shattock, 2000; Taylor &Mirou, 2002). Strategic management is meant and expected to help universities overcome difficulties and improve their performance, particularly in the time full of uncertainties and challenges (Kothamäki, 2010). However, strategy is a challenge itself. Some problems go back to the strategy initiation, to the issue of right purposes or appropriate processes of formulation phase, but most difficult part of strategic management proves to be the implementation (Hrebiniak, 2006) - especially in the context of higher education where unique features of universities as organizations are added to the already complex idea of strategy implementation. Even though strategic processes have been studied extensively, strategy implementation has received less attention and is considered as under-investigated subject compared to strategy formulation issues (Yang, Guohui&Eppler, 2009; Johnson, Scholes & Whittington, 2005; Chebat, 1999). Along with the existing gap between saying and doing (Rowley & Sherman, 2002), there is also need for more studies on appropriate theoretical concepts and empirical findings on strategy implementation specifically for higher education institutions (Mouwen, 1997; Keller, 1983). Since copying and overtaking business-like models for universities is considered as one of the reasons for strategy failures (Tavernier, 2005; Mintzberg& Rose, 2003) such research is necessary to help and guide universities to better understand the distinctive features of strategic management for HEIs. Even the general concepts and factors need to be examined in practice. As Noble (1999b) points out, there is a great need for empirical studies, which would examine and validate many of the constructs that are considered to influence strategy implementation.  To address the gap of absence of empirical findings on implementation issues in HEIs and the lack of studies examining theoretical constructs relevant to implementation in practice, this thesis represents a study on implementation process in case institution – Hochschule Osnabrück (HO). HO is currently in the process of implementing a strategy “Project 2023” which was adopted in 2013 and thus, represents very interesting case for looking at critical factors that influence this process. The success of Project 2023 depends highly on the nature of activities that are being carried out at the moment. By looking at implementation process carefully and checking factors that are affecting the process, critical points for “walking the talk” can be identified, which could be for HO important to consider during the long time span of implementing Project 2023. 

The main research question addressed with this case study is as follows: How is the strategy implemented in Hochschule Osnabruck? The sub-question that helps to focus and determine direction of the study is: What are the critical factors of strategy implementation in Hochschule Osnabruck? Another sub-question that helps to create conceptual framework of the study and is answered in theoretical part of the thesis is: What are the factors affecting strategy implementation in organizations and higher education institutions, in particular, as described in scientific literature? The purpose of this case study is to describe the process of strategy implementation in Hochschule Osnabrück by looking at critical factors affecting strategy execution. This thesis seeks to contribute to the discourse on strategy implementation in higher education institutions with empirical findings regarding factors important for implementation process in case institution. This work employs three different theories to build the theoretical and analytical frameworks for the study. Firstly, higher education institutions are understood as the complex adaptive systems (CAS) (Taylor & Taylor-Machado, 2010; Halász, 2010). Such systems have profound understanding of their past achievements and practices and might assume that these can be effective in the future too, but since the environment changes their survival depends on their adaptability. This becomes particularly relevant for universities, which seem very stable from outside, but in reality they are in constant vibration state (Mintzberg & Rose, 2003) and it is suggested that organizations should be in permanent adaptive mode in order to survive, to succeed or “to avoid deterioration” (Halász, 2010, p. 1; Anderson, 1999; Taylor & Taylor-Machado, 2010). For CAS theory, strategic management is “the never ending journey of adaptation” (Anderson, 1999, p. 230) and is needed to tackle wisely challenges and maintain success. In such environments, strategic processes are needed to establish the boundaries and define the direction that would enable self-organized and effective solutions to emerge. 

Second theory helps to explain strategic processes in higher education institutions. If we understand universities as complex adaptive systems, probably the most appropriate perspective to look at the concepts of strategy and strategic management is the perspective of configuration school of thought (see all ten schools in Mintzberg, et al, 1998), which implies that strategy is concerned with the continuity and stability of the organization, whereas strategic management is about determining and changing the direction of organization in order to achieve stabilization. For this type of strategic management the aim is to ensure stable development of an organization based on adaptable strategic change, but periodically recognize the need for bigger transformation and lead the change without damaging organization. Configuration school envisages that strategy is formulated and implemented with high level of participation from all levels of management (top, middle and lower), used communication channels are both formal and informal, and that organization is flexible and allows both, top-down as well as bottom-up initiatives. Configurational approach looks at strategic processes from holistic point of view. Theory suggests, that there are multiple interdependent key factors affecting strategic management and that these factors only make sense if they are studied as a whole (Okumus, et al, 2010).

In order to track the strategic management process components and rationalize the key factors influencing implementation, Noble’s framework (1999a) is employed as the third theory. Noble (1999a) suggests that implementation effort is organized around four major stages: 1. pre-implementation; 2. organizing the effort; 3. ongoing management of the process; and 4. maximizing cross-functional performance. He suggests that by understanding the components and peculiarities of each stage enhances success rate of implementation process. The framework has been initially developed for demonstrating the urgency of forming and involving certain networks in implementation process and describing their participation forms. For example, in pre-implementation stage important concepts such as involvement in formulation process and choosing functional representation were underlined. The stage of organizing effort was meant to concern with resources, leadership, implementation plan and capabilities. Management process was understood to deal with organizational barriers and resistance, as well as personality issues. The last stage, named sustaining performance in this study (as seen in Yang, et al, 2008), underlined terms such as “achieving buy-in” or “maximizing performance” with the links to sustainability and control. This four stage model was used as a basis for studying critical factors also by Yang, et al (2008, 2009) and proved to be broad enough to entail different aspects of strategy implementation. Additionally, to make clearer classification of the factors that will be identified based on the literature, factors related to institutional issues will be linked to stage of organizing implementation,  whereas  human  factors  will  be  put  under  management  aspect  of implementation. This framework is used not for separating phases of implementation or for labeling certain factors, but rather to show the integrity and continuity of the strategic management process. 



A case study has been chosen as the research method for this thesis. Qualitative case study was considered to be perfect solution to address the identified lack of empirical findings on implementation issues in HEIs and to examine relevance of theoretical constructs considered important for implementation in practice. This research is designed to be descriptive holistic single case study. The study has a critical approach (Yin, 2009) testing an implementation theory with clear set of propositions (critical factors) in the case institution. Critical approach helps to examine relevance of theoretical constructs, here critical factors of strategy implementation, to practice. Possible outcomes of such study can either confirm the theory and propositions or challenge them and propose modifications of the theoretical framework (Yin, 2009). The propositions were developed based on relevant literature and helped to define boundaries of the study (Baxter & Jack, 2008). The 16 factors formulated as propositions (see table 1) were used as the framework during data collection and analysis. The chosen analytic strategy of relying and building research on propositions, on the one hand, helps to determine and keep the direction and scope of the study throughout the research lifespan (Baxter & Jack, 2008) and, on the other hand, increases the confidence of findings (Yin, 2009). Since the propositions present the basis for conceptual and analytical framework, it ensures that case study report remains focused and answers research questions methodologically (Baxter and Jack, 2008). List of Critical Factors of Strategy Implementation in HEIs 

Table 1: various sources, assembled by author To answer the main research question this study uses expert interviews as the primary source of data, since they help to discover and present multiple realities and views on the subject of the case study (Stake, 1995). The actual strategic document - Project 2023, together with the article of the president of the university on strategic processes were used as secondary sources. They were helpful to understand strategic goals and strategy making / formulation dynamics in the university. Unstructured conversations with some professors and administrators of the university also channeled deciding on sampling and data collection methods. Primary data were collected by means of semi-structured interviews divided into two parts. First the conversation followed certain set of open questions. Later, the propositions – critical success factors of strategy implementation were presented and interviewees were asked about the facts of a matter and their opinions about events (Yin, 2009). The sample population has been chosen based on purposive sampling method (Yin, 2011). To ensure that the wide range of perspectives on the subject of the study is taken into consideration, representatives of different organizational levels of the university were carefully chosen to take part in the interviews. In total eleven participants were selected based on their current position and previous experience. To avoid bias of having only single sided view, participants that have not been directly involved in strategic processes were considered as well. 

Results are based only on interview data; hence, represent participants’ subjective views on implementation process. No direct observation of process and its components was conducted, thus the study lacks fact based evidences. The findings of the study represent the situation as of May 2014. Results might be different if the study is done in different period of time, since the processes within university are constantly fluctuating, together with the perceptions of process participants regarding them.

Key findings

The findings prove that the propositions developed based on the literature are relevant and true for practical case. All 16 critical factors could be identified in case institution, some of them having more influential character, but still all were defined as relevant. Even though, maybe some points have not been considered earlier while formulating or implementing a strategy, certain components of each of them are present in current processes. The study revealed one additional critical factor for implementing strategy in HO - flexibility, which due to its closeness to university nature can be added to the framework developed based on literature. Prediction of the theory that there are multiple interdependent key factors affecting strategic management including implementation (Okumus, et al, 2010; Mintzberg, et al, 1998) has been also proved with this research. Results proved once again, that implementation process cannot be linear or sum of consecutive steps (Yang, et al, 2008). Due to the high level of interdependence between critical factors and chain affects they caused in case institution, all of them need to be paid attention simultaneously. The major findings suggest that strategy implementation is participatory process at HO. Mostly participative approach was employed to describe pre-implementation phase, the strategy planning and formulation processes. Hereby the importance of consensus and commitment from the process participants is underlined. As observed, success of participatory approach highly depends on the factor of communication. HO attempts to follow a strategy of open and inclusive communication which implies also the platforms of broad discussions on strategic matters as described above, or regular top-down communication of leadership with the faculties and employees. However, current channels of interaction prove to be insufficient and there is information gap both at horizontal and vertical levels. Ensuring participation and commitment is linked with organizational culture very closely, which is also affected by communication patterns inside the university. HO tries to establish culture of cooperation and commitment to university development that would resemble the “feeling of us together as the university”. Partially, the change of culture is already in place and acknowledged by community members. But the process of moving culture into certain direction is time and energy consuming and needs consideration of various sub- and disciplinary cultures to be more effective.

All the above mentioned factors depend on the factor of leadership, as with the change of leadership, strategies and its implementation methods change as well. At HO, leadership is considered to embody the desirable culture trying to make sure, that communication is flawless and as many members of community are attracted and motivated to take part in strategic development as possible. In this sense, leadership serves as change agent during implementation. Further change champions, such as successful faculty on international matters which is used as benchmark for other faculties, or individual professors that openly support strategy are employed to encourage units and persons to following the path of Project 2023. The same message is spread also using short term wins, such as number of successful research projects, international students, etc. that demonstrate achieved success in strategic fields. Participatory approach envisages, that as many undertakings as possible should be initiated by professors and employees. Therefore, flexibility of carrying out activities within defined strategic priorities has been chosen as implementation method at HO as opposed to specified operational strategies. Since the strategy is very broad and contains large number of directions and goals, and allows flexibility to develop concrete actions bottom-up, implementation does not happen simultaneously and in equal shares in all areas. It depends highly on faculties, on departments, even on individual persons involved in the process. As it was pointed out by the interviewees, at lower  level  of  administration,  fulfilling  strategic  goals  highly  depends  on  the  will  of  line managers or professors, whether unit heads deliver information to their employees, encourage their staff to participate and develop ideas within given strategic direction. Generating ideas for specific strategy oriented actions is the task of Innovation Centres which were installed since the initiation of Project 2023. Their recommendations and proposals are discussed and approved by the leadership of the university. Based on their suggestions, structure has been used to support strategic development fields at HO as  new  units  were  created  that  facilitate  specific  activities  and  assist  professors  and administrators. On the other hand, planned ideas and projects are not always easy to implement due to the lack of systematic approach on how to institutionalize them, which is linked to resource distribution as well. Financial resources are used to support strategic direction of HO by providing funding tools at different – central and faculty levels. Interdisciplinary research activities, cooperation start-ups, internationalization activities, etc. are getting financial support from the university. However, it is considered rather complementary factor, than of major importance. 

In relation to implementation, organizational structure was named to be critical as well. On the one hand, the so called matrix structure, where the deans are also vice presidents responsible for specific organizational fields creates positive environment for committed and homogenous decisions, and allows homogenous opinions in the leadership, on the other hand, there is a lack of opposite opinion and professional link between Presidium and administration. Many decisions need to go through Presidium which slows down the implementation process. The connection between presidium and administration was suggested to be necessary to provide professional support and assistance to leadership for strategy implementation. New strategic direction and the growth of the university brought HO to higher level of centralization of processes which are still sought to be further harmonized. However, not all structural units have capacity and time to keep the pace of growth and changes.

Study results proved the relevance of theoretical suggestions to practice as well. If all HEIs are complex adaptive systems, HO is of the same kind as well. Strategic processes and implementation at HO follow the characteristics of such systems in great part. Focus on environmental changes, flexibility, continuous development, culture of moving forward, all fit well as features of CAS. Besides, Project 2023 defines strategic direction of the university and establishes boundaries in frame of which all activities that would enable self-organized and effective solutions are encouraged to emerge (Anderson, 1999).  Strategic processes at HO show significant resemblance with theory of configuration school of thought as well. Here during implementation general emphasis is on configuring sustainable, stable and participative environment for strategic development, but also changes and transformation of e.g. organizational culture are attempted (Mintzberg, et al, 1998). HO as typical institution following configuration school formulated and tries to implement strategy with high level of participation from all status groups (leadership, professors, administration, students) encouraging bottom-up initiatives.


Study shows that factors influencing strategy implementation need to be paid attention very carefully especially, by the university leadership, since they carry the responsibility of reaching projected strategic aims. By doing so, opinions of various status groups are necessary to inquire. This thesis is first study focused on methodological description of implementation practice at HO based on selected representative group from university community and looking at implementation factors from holistic point of view. Thus, it enables understanding of characteristics of current situation regarding Project 2023 and can be relevant for detecting strong and weak points and addressing them accordingly in the future, since the project is intended to run for 9 more years.   Follow up research on the progress of implementing Project 2023 could check whether the factors which are relevant now continue to be important over time and whether their critical nature is sustainable. Such research would be useful especially if it includes observation part along with interviews as data collection method. This should be a case for separate research project, since it requires longer term research activity.

Considering progress reports and outcome evaluations, if available, would add value to future studies as well.  The outcomes of this thesis work suggest that the propositions’ model used here and the framework of critical factors are relevant for studying strategy implementation process in other higher education institutions as well. By doing so, first, having results of multiple single case studies relevance of theory to practice can be further researched; second, the framework can be enriched with more factors found in universities specifically; thirdly, more empirical findings will be available regarding the usefulness of and problems/successes examples of each factor; fourthly, the rich data and findings can serve for developing practical guidelines for universities which will be focused on most common issues to facilitate strategy implementation processes and help them avoid failures and frustration attached to it. Implementation of a strategy, which is proved to be the most challenging part of strategic management, has been explored based on its components – critical factors of implementation suggested by theory. Special features of higher education institutions have been taken into consideration as well. The relevance of the theory to case institutions practice is clearly supported by the current findings. Particularly, this thesis has explained the central importance of human factors on implementation in case institution, such as communication, commitment and consensus or leadership. It also pointed out high relevance of institutional aspects of the process, such as organizational culture, structure or flexibility.


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