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The coronavirus pandemic encouraged hundreds of experienced professionals to study change leadership

The Facilitating Change online course saw as many as 500 registrations, with the majority of participants already within working life
A laptop and papers on a table.

Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science and the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management arranged an open online course called Facilitating Change, which became a huge success. The free course, which was directed at those interested in change leadership, organisational transformation and organisation design, fit up to 500 students. The maximum number of registrations was quickly reached, and a total of 150–200 participants ended up taking part in the lectures regularly.

Up to three quarters of the participants enrolled to the class from outside the university. The other host of the course, Professor of Practice Risto Sarvas believes that this proved the appreciation for facilitating leadership and the interest towards it. The course also included many experienced ‘change agents,’ who now got the opportunity to meet one another. ‘Change agents are often quite on their own within an organization but during the course found out that they are not alone and that it is an actual job description that requires concrete skills and tools,’ Sarvas states.

The coronavirus pandemic made the course particularly timely: the central theme was new leadership in the time of uncertainty. The pandemic forced small as well as larger companies to face change, even a crisis, and made all types of organisations rearrange their operations. ‘I believe that, already in March, many could see the change which organisations and businesses would face. In this sense, the course was surely a good investment during a time of crisis.’

The course provided new tools to get started with

Due to the coronavirus situation, the course was arranged entirely online. Some students carried out the course and received credits for it, but the course could also be completed as a ‘tourist’: lectures could be followed freely, but there was no pressure to complete course assignments.

The fact that the course took place online was fortunate for Fransje Schoenmaker who lives in Berlin, and is developing e.g. data-conscious culture and ways of working at software company Futurice. In addition to her work, she is kept busy with family life, and travelling to Helsinki for the course would not have been possible. ‘I was lucky with the course taking place fully online, since it was the only way for me to participate.’

Aalto-yliopiston uusi työelämäprofessori (Professor of Practice) Risto Sarvas.

The course was surely a good investment during a time of crisis

Risto Sarvas

Schoenmaker was already familiar with Sarvas through work. This was one of the reasons for taking part in the class, but above all, she was drawn to the theme of carrying out change. ‘All my work assignments are related to change, so understanding all the related aspects and bringing these together in a single course is very inspiring,’ Schoenmaker says.

She considers that changing complex systems is often so difficult that she does not know where to even start. The course taught new tools for finding the starting point and which will help to understand the context and define goals.

Schoenmaker is not the only participant who believes that the lessons will prove beneficial in the future: the course feedback revealed that nine out of ten participants had the same experience. Many participants said that they received an abundance of good tips and ideas for working as the work place’s change agent and practical tools to apply to working life.

‘The feedback already shows that the different ways of participating were welcomed warmly. It became evident last year, when we did not arrange the course online, that mixing students with working professionals was a very fresh experience for both parties,’ Sarvas says.

The most important lesson for Schoenmaker was related to the idea that one’s own personality is a part of the entire arsenal: not everyone manages change situations with the same methods, and each has to find their own style. ‘I can’t wait to be able to share this new knowledge with my colleagues.’

The university has an important role as a convener of thoughts and people

Sarvas managed the course together with University Lecturer Jari Ylitalo. Both are experienced teachers and instructors. During the course, it became evident that there is a lot of competence in facilitation and organisational transformation in working life, but professionals rarely sit down to ponder which theories and principles this is based upon.

I can't wait to be able to share this new knowledge with my colleagues

Fransje Schoenmaker

Sarvas reveals that the course made him understand the important role of the university as a convener of thoughts and people: the university has theoretical and holistic competence, which completes the practical aspect of working life.

Although the course was arranged completely online for the first time, everything went well. ‘We have Jari to thank for the group works that were arranged, even though it seemed at first that it would not work out in the online world. Instead, people provided were very thankful for the group works and discussions of the lecture,’ Sarvas says. Also Fransje Schoenmaker encourages students carrying out the class sometime in the future to also complete the course assignments.

According to Sarvas, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in a great deal of positive movement around change that has long been smouldering in organisations. ‘When forced to do so, companies as well as other operators must really push changes and think of ways to establish them. Change can signify moving a business online, or the entire business coming to a stop on account of the restrictions, among other things.’

The change leadership course is a reminder of how change can and should be implemented. ‘Especially if the future is still uncertain – which it is for almost everyone.’

Lectures of the class can still be watched online for free: https://medium.com/facilitating-change

Further information

Risto Sarvas
Professor of Practice
Tel: +358 50 3841 553
[email protected]

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