College Quarterly
Winter 1996 - Volume 4 Number 2
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Leadership: Transforming a Downsizing Organization Into a Learning Organization Part 2.

by Erin Jones

Case Study Two: Sir Sanford Fleming College

Brian Despiens, President of Ontario's Sir Sanford Fleming College for nine years, was also faced with the challenge of demonstrating strong leadership during a downsizing. Despiens is interested in how people learn and his academic background is in developmental psychology. "The change process is something I am familiar with, but I never expected to deal with something like we did in the last few years" he says. A cost-cutting process began with a November 1995 announcement of Ontario community college cuts of up to 18%, and major changes at Sir Sanford Fleming College Fleming commenced in February 1996.

Despiens noted the particular impact of downsizing at Fleming. The College had a reputation as a particularly caring institution with respect to both students and staff. "We never had layoffs." In addition, Fleming is known for its quality as a specialty institution with a focus on innovation and the future. Moreover, the College had a history of participatory management to anticipate long-range issues, professional development of staff was a high priority, and there was a history of very good labour relations. In 1996, despite reductions in overall budget, Fleming's professional development budget went up, which Despiens notes was a demonstration of that commitment all the more notable in such difficult times.

"We took a philosophical position and decided to move towards a learning organization. That is, to get out of time and space boundaries and be customer- and learning-centred. Open communications and getting feedback is what it is all about - driving us to learn more about how to be a learning organization" says Despiens. Fleming College also moved to a team environment and "pushed decisions down."

That resulted in a major changes in college organization, as a layer of management was removed and Fleming went from an establishment of 530 to 463, a reduction across three employee groups, two unions, faculty, support staff and management. The key in making this a success, says Despiens, is transparency in communication. "We have been absolutely open to everyone about the problems faced - financial issues etc. Tell what you know and what you do not know. In some cases we would have to protect individuals and that made it difficult. You cannot improve unless you have feedback, and you cannot have feedback unless you have communication. You must create a climate ... a continuous effort - we tried forums with people, staff meetings with different groups , internal and external communication tools. You must do it continuously and get feedback, so you'll know if you are doing something wrong."

President Despiens notes that Fleming management created a series of meetings which included a very wide spectrum of interested parties, including union leadership. The result was a union agreement in which the College's seven centers of specialization elected academic team leaders. "It was very innovative. A lot of administration was taken out and decisions were put in the hands of teams charged with strategic planning to identify and ease the necessary changes. It was very exciting and more radical than what management would have come up with alone."

Senior management, adds Despiens, advanced this new agenda and supported these team initiatives by putting funds aside for special projects. "We supported ideas to energize staff, including distance education and computer-assisted instruction, virtual and physical resource centres ($6.3 million was devoted to develop these in the Peterborough, Ontario area of the College and nearby), independent learning centres, and partnerships with the private sector." Students were also involved in establishing curricular preferences and individual resource needs like computer availability, through focus groups, course evaluations, and large sample surveys; the results helped shape the new academic direction of the institution.

Despiens insisted on a measurement component to see if goals were being met during the downsizing. Performance indicators including demand, student success, cost, job placement and strategic mix were used to evaluate all 87 of the College's programs. Despiens characterizes the result as "Amazing. The staff did a fantastic job in regard to student satisfaction and finances. There was a 6% increase in enrollment, and we are financially viable despite having to cut another million."

A series of support structures including financial assistance, outplacement, and other employee assistance programs were made available to ful-l and part-time staff. A high proportion of staff were part-time, but were considered important in meeting student needs. Recognizing the part-time staff as an equal part of the College community sent the signal that people were respected.

This meant that when offering voluntary separation incentive packages, Fleming did not discriminate; everyone was treated equitably, and all those who applied for the package within its parameters were accepted. That was demonstrably fair and thus more palatable, but it also meant that the College lost some faculty (28 rather than the hoped-for 18), which it would have preferred to retain. In Brian Despiens' perspective, however, "You must believe that there are talented people who will want to work for you, and it is better to let someone leave who wants to."

Despiens indicates that he is proud of the College's success in maintaining high program quality while attracting and serving an increased number of students, even as the downsizing was traumatic for all. He is also proud of the leadership created within the College community. "We tried to reposition the college, not just downsize. We set out values, and a vision, and strategies, right from the beginning. A set of criteria was developed, and periodically we check to see if we are following it. People now know what the 'talk' is and if we are 'walking' it or not. It is important to know what your values are and make decisions based on those values. And it is great to work with people who excite you - I feel pushed as a President."

Upon reflection, Despiens also points out an area for improvement: human resources development. "We are not doing as well as we'd like. People are tired and overworked ... we are going through a team building process but it is still early. When you unglue an organization, it is a lot harder to pull it back to together even in a successful organization like ours. There are challenges after challenges. We have lost some expertise, and that is part of the downside."

As to his focus on team involvement and learning, Despiens offers this advice, "Allow a little more time for more diverse teams - parameters are important but sometimes you need to rethink it - adapt as you go - this is new territory. It is our responsibility to provide the framework and support structures to allow teams to be successful. Provide only the parameters, and allow the fullest freedom, because collaboration is most important."

Paul Smith is Despiens' Facilitator of Organizational Transformation at Sir Sanford Fleming College. That position was created to help create transition teams, set performance indicators, develop a learning-focused organization, and achieve prompt results. "It is a two- or three-year job and is not intended to be permanent" says Smith. Because turnover at the College was not high (relative to other public-sector organizations), the budget cuts required that they both reorganize and downsize. "We restructured and put a new organizational model in place, and now we are working on systems re-engineering. We have been changing for the last ten years. Fortunatel,y we have had really good leaders who were forward-looking people." Smith notes the importance of looking beyond a quick solution through downsizing. "We transformed ourselves. We were looking at more than incremental change. Learning is changing dramatically with new technology, and the downsizing just accelerated the change process."

With regard to the downsizing process, Smith emphasizes the usefulness of advice from other organizations to get as many people as possible out of your organization through free choice. "We had many early leave options and it worked well for us." Regarding the risk of losing needed skills and hard-to-replace talents through voluntary termination incentive packages, he says "We did not put any ifs, ands or buts on it. We decided not to target people. We knew we were rolling the dice when we did it. If they want to leave, then they are going to leave anyway. When people leave it creates new opportunities for others. By and large, we were able to replace those who left."

Internal and external counsellors, including an outplacement consultancy, were used, especially to assist the managers who were leaving involuntarily. An external consultant also was hired to run the employee assistance program and provided career counselling, and the College HR department ran workshops to help staff deal with decisional and transitional stress and the effects of organizational change. Paul Smith credits the College's pre-existing culture as a great help throughout this process. "There is a great emphasis on collaboration. We share information on budgets readily. That helped. Part of our vision is quality, caring and future orientation. That characterizes us differently." And like Despiens, Smith stressed the necessity of constantly monitoring the process, "We actively managed it to see were improvements could be made."

In another effort to minimize layoffs, job matching was used. While common to all unionized envionments, job descriptions at Fleming had been developed particularly to facilitate staff career growth and skills improvement, and this proved significant as it provided clear bases for comparison. An Employment Stability committee worked on minimizing bumping, and as people moved into new jobs, they were assessed for assistance in professional development. Staff skills sets were tracked, and with seniority and pay bands, were taken into consideration in placement and adaptive training. Smith says of the results, "Some worked really well and some were mis-matches. As to the latter, it was often the case that the seniority or the skill set would be there, but the motivation was not." Paul Smith sums up by confirming the Despiens approach. "We decide on the principles, values and beliefs first." As to improving the process, he says that while great support was given to the people who left, his advice is pay more attention to people who are staying than those who are leaving.

Kevin Asselin, a 23-year Fleming veteran who teaches Community Development and Health, headed the public sector union which represents academic employees at the college. The views of Asselin and President Despiens are remarkably similar. Asselin characterizes the situation in these terms: "In order to save such a significant amount of money due to the cuts, there was no doubt that employee complement would have to be examined. For us, the need was also about maintaining some integrity in any process and preserving, as much as possible, a culture in which input and consultation have always been valued." Asselin says of how the union accepted Despiens' challenge to be innovative, that "Our goal was to achieve the necessary reductions in ways that would be least disruptive. We initiated a (the union's own) review of all College finances. We engaged an outside accounting firm, and our intent was to develop positive, useful input that would minimize the impact. This College has always been fiscally responsible and conservative, so there was some flexibility. Our principle recommendations focused on enhancing voluntary leave opportunities, and exploring alternative organizational structures and roles for faculty."

Asselin was proud of the fact that the necessary downsizing was achieved with no forced layoffs from his bargaining unit. In addition, he was proud of the development of the Memorandum of Understanding on Leadership which led to much greater role for faculty in academic leadership. However, he also recognizes that the voluntary departure of so many colleagues was difficult. That was made no less difficult, he adds, because "We also embarked on a very new approach to leadership with emphasis on teams. It was a marked departure even for us, so the adjustment and ability to adapt and change has been stressful." And like Despiens and Smith, Asselin argues for an increased emphasis on professional development, new training and retraining as helpful in minimizing slow adaptation. For Asselin an effective leader in these circumstances is one who is tolerant, understanding, patient, willing to take risks, consultative and "has the ability to seek creative alternatives to the temptation to simply slash and burn." He recommends that leaders "maintain goodwill, cooperation, input, and collaboration. Consider the outcomes and consequences of decisions, and recognize the importance and value of human resources."

Click here for Part 1 of this tripartute article.

Click here for Part 3 of this tripartute article.

Click here for the References which is at the end of the Part 3.


Erin Jones, B.Sc.

Erin Jones is a Training and Development Consultant with the Independent Order of Foresters in Don Mills, Ontario.

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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology