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Higher education institutions (HEIs) are managing ever-growing and interconnected change portfolios. This has been driven by many factors, including the following.

  • The external environment  Competition is increasing, driven by the need to offer compelling and innovative offers to attract and retain students. Continued change in the regulatory and legislative environment also means sustained pressure to meet changing requirements.
  • Student demand Students are demanding higher levels of service, often driven through digital channels. Legacy technology estates inhibit innovation and the flexibility required to meet these demands.
  • Covid-19 Internal teams have endured huge disruption and change caused by the pandemic. The long-term ramifications of these changes are still being realised.


A key challenge for HEI leaders is to bridge the gap between setting a strategy and demonstrating delivery against it. For example, how do you:

  • translate your strategy into a defined and balanced set of change initiatives within a portfolio to ensure effective alignment, achievability and realisation of benefits?
  • ensure that key initiatives are delivered on time, within budget and to the desired quality standards?
  • raise the collective standard, professionalism and attitude towards change delivery across a multitude of different change programmes?

Sir John Bourn, former head of the National Audit Office, commented on the delivery of change: “Success can never be guaranteed, but it should not be an unfathomable mystery”. The appropriate investment and sponsorship of portfolio management capabilities in HEIs are critical to help deliver change more effectively.


Mature portfolio management capabilities in HEIs will support three key areas of your organisation.

1. Culture and control

Portfolio management is often confused with bureaucracy and unnecessary control, stifling creativity and flexibility. Effective portfolio management is about understanding the culture of an organisation and its ways of working, then finding ways to operate effectively within it.

In HEIs, this means making deliberate and coherent decisions about what it is leaders want portfolio management to do and for whom. Is it an enabling capability aiming to support the delivery of key change programmes? Is it a capability embedding clear oversight and accountability into change delivery? Regardless of the decisions made, portfolio management must integrate seamlessly into the culture, valuing flexibility and autonomy.

2. Leadership

Leaders do not have an automatic ability to oversee and deliver change effectively, it is a skill that requires attention and training like any other discipline.

Portfolio management can only be successful if it has clear and consistent sponsorship from senior leadership, and is supported throughout management structures. This starts with senior leaders understanding what portfolio management means, why it is so important to get right, and what that means for their role. This can often be a steep learning curve for those that come from academic or operational backgrounds. Investing in the right training and development for those that are accountable for the delivery of change programmes is a pre-requisite for success.

Effective leaders of complex change programmes go beyond simply reaching a certain level of seniority or having a deep understanding of the organisation. They have had training, plus the time to learn and then apply the necessary skills and approaches to succeed. Portfolio management upskills and develops leaders across all levels in the management, sponsorship and oversight of critical change programmes.

3. Agenda

Your change agenda might be twice as large as it needs to be. Use portfolio management to drive objective and balanced conversations about prioritisation of your change portfolio.

One of the hardest aspects of managing change portfolios is having the conviction to say ‘no’ to change. Compelling requests are created for funding without proper portfolio prioritisation capabilities – it can seem that saying ‘no’ is simply not an option. This places an increasing burden on teams and leaders to absorb change, placing additional risk on in-flight initiatives.

Portfolio management helps HEIs to have data-driven conversations about prioritisation, leading to better managed resource planning and financial spend.


Applying strong and effective portfolio management capabilities in HEIs delivers successful change programmes. While not the only tool required, understanding why portfolio management is so important and investing in building the capability is a critical enabler all HEIs should adopt going forward.

David Wiseman

It’s time to re-think, professionalise and increase the maturity of your portfolio management capability. We offer the right thinking, tools and approaches to deliver change effectively.

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