1633 Elective - Leading Complex Organizations
Univ.Prof. Dr. Barbara Schachermayer-Sporn
Contact details
  • Type
  • Weekly hours
  • Language of instruction
08/31/21 to 09/15/21
Registration via LPIS
Notes to the course
Subject(s) Master Programs
Day Date Time Room
Thursday 10/07/21 12:00 PM - 02:00 PM Online-Einheit
Friday 10/15/21 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM Online-Einheit
Thursday 10/21/21 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM Online-Einheit
Thursday 10/28/21 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM Online-Einheit
Thursday 11/04/21 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM Online-Einheit
Thursday 11/11/21 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM Online-Einheit


In this course, students will learn and reflect about the management of complex organizations that are part of today’s world of work (e.g., educational institutions, social services, and health care, project and expert organizations). Universities will serve as the prime example of complex organizations and students will learn to apply and transfer theories and concepts of leadership from the business world to higher education institutions. Universities are excellent examples given their complexity (e.g., many stakeholders, vulnerability to legal regulations, multiple goals, expert organization, unclear technology) to demonstrate the different challenges when it comes to developing an efficient and effective organization and strategy. More than a decade of work experience of the instructor as a Vice-Rector at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business will be added to the course experience.

Drawing on a variety of higher education and business literature, we will examine major areas: organization & governance, institutional environment & markets, leadership, strategy, change, and performance management. Class sessions will be complemented by guest lectures from college and universities leaders and experts.

Students are asked to work interactively in this course. Student presentations, prepared questions, a background paper, and discussions in groups as well as video analysis are the major learning formats. Personal experiences as students in different universities can serve as a starting point for individual and group reflections. Different national systems provide an additional comparative perspective.

In this respect, students will gain insights in the complex nature of university organization, e.g., stakeholders in decision-making, administrative and academic structures, influence of external constituencies, environmental demands. The discussion will focus on differences between the profit and the non-profit-sector. After completing the course, students should be able to understand and analyze complex organizations and to assess the suitability of different leadership approaches. This will enable them to apply their learning in different organizational settings of the profit and nonprofit world.

Learning outcomes

· Understanding key aspects of leadership in complex organizational settings

· Applying insights from the nonprofit (higher education) literature to profit organizations

· Dealing with complex problems by applying theory to case institutions

Attendance requirements

Since this course is held in an online block format, full attendance in all sessions is mandatory.

Teaching/learning method(s)

The course consist of one introductory meeting, five regular units. The introductory meeting will outline the major features of the course and the assignments

Unit 2-6 are dedicated to discussing certain topics in more detail. Each session will have the following format:

· General outline of the topic

· Student group presentations of readings

· Case discussion and questions or guest lectures


In addition to presenting and discussing research and practice on leadership of complex organizations, the course aims to develop your skills in writing, critical reading and thinking. To these ends, assessment (i.e., grades) will be based upon completion of the following assignments:

1. Class Participation (40%)

A general requirement of the course is the completion of all assigned readings for each class session. For this, you are asked for active participation in class discussion. You should prepare comments and questions for each class. Students will also present in class in which they introduce the topic and one reading to the class and guide the discussion. The aim is to refine your skills in doing and presenting a critical analysis.

Hence, the assessment for this part includes:

o Preparing synthesis and questions for readings (20%)

o Presentation of a paper in class and leading discussion (20%)

2. Paper (50%)

A research paper has to cover and extend one of the 6 topics of the course in greater detail. Length is limited to maximum 15 pages including all materials.

The paper is due on December 8. Coaching for the paper can be arranged with the course instructor individually.

3. Reflection and assessment paper (10%)

A written self-assessment of your role as learner and contributor to the class, including the extent to which you engaged in completing the above assignments. Additionally, this statement should include an evaluation of the role of content, form and instructor in completing the tasks. The assessment (not more than 3 pages) is due together with the research paper on December 8.


1 Author: Peter McCaffery

The Higher Education Manager’s Handbook

Publisher: Routledge
Year: 2010

Availability of lecturer(s)

For further questions, please contact Professor Sporn via email at


All articles are available through WU’s library journal database or on google scholar under the author’s name. Additionally, course materials are available for copying at the IHM Secretariat from Verena Herbsthofer at .

The questions for each session (Units 2-6) should help to guide you through the topics of this course.

For further questions, please contact Professor Sporn via email at

Unit details

Unit Date Contents
1 07.10.2021

Introduction to the course



· Introduction of instructor and students

· Course content and organization

· Explain assignments and assessment


Presentation to warm up

1. Drucker, P. F. (1989). What business can learn from nonprofits. Harvard business review, 67(4), 88-93.

2. Baldridge, V., Alternative Models of Governance in Higher Education.

2 15.10.2021

Organization & Governance

Guiding Question

· What are the characteristics of complex organizations like universities?




Knowing your institution: organization and decision-making in universities


Presentation and Discussion by Students


1. Weick, K. E. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative science quarterly, 1-19.

2. Musselin, C. (2007). Are universities specific organisations. Towards a multiversity, 63-84.

3. Delbecq, A. L., Bryson, J. M., & Van de Ven, A. H. (2013). University governance: Lessons from an innovative design for collaboration. Journal of Management Inquiry, 22(4), 382-392.


Case Discussion in Groups: WU Vienna University of Economics and Business / Image of University Organization

· Case intro

· Group Work

Presentations and Discussion

3 21.10.2021

Context and development of Colleges and Universities


Guiding Questions:

· How do markets influence complex organizations?

· What trends can be observed in the EU and US?



Presentation: Features of the US System


Film Viewing: The Ivory Tower


Open questions

Discussion in Groups

· What are the major trends?

· What are the parallels to your own context?

· Where do you see opportunities and threats of the US system in comparison to your own?


Submit slide of group work at Teams after class

4 28.10.2021


Guiding Question

1. How does Strategy formation in a university setting work?




Strategy in Complex Organizations


Presentation and Discussion by Students


1. Holstein, J., Starkey, K., & Wright, M. (2016). Strategy and narrative in higher education. Strategic Organization, 1476127016674877.

2. van Vught, F., & Huisman, J. (2014). Institutional profiles: Some strategic tools. Tuning Journal for Higher Education, 1(1), 21-36.

3. Morphew, C. C., Fumasoli, T., & Stensaker, B. (2018). Changing missions? How the strategic plans of research-intensive universities in Northern Europe and North America balance competing identities. Studies in Higher Education, 43(6), 1074-1088.

Case Discussion: Copenhagen Business School

1. Case intro

2. Group Work

General discussion and Presentation

5 04.11.2021


Guiding Question

· Which factors influence change in complex organizations?




Leading change in institutions


Presentation and Discussion by Students


1. Gumport, P. J. (2000). Academic restructuring: Organizational change and institutional imperatives. Higher education, 39(1), 67-91.

2. Kezar, A. (2014). Higher education change and social networks: A review of research. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(1), 91-125.

3. Gornitzka, Å., Maassen, P., & De Boer, H. (2017). Change in university governance structures in continental Europe. Higher Education Quarterly, 71(3), 274-289.


Guest Lecture: 2030 Vision on the European Universities of the Future

Professor Marijk van der Wende, Professor of Higher Education at Utrecht University


Discussion with focus on questions:

- Institutional implementation?

- Consequences for change management?

6 11.11.2021


Guiding Questions

· What are the challenges of leading complex organizations?

· Which stakeholders are key in effective leadership?




Leading your institution: complexity, environment, diversity


Presentation and Discussion by Students


1. Blaschke, S., Frost, J., & Hattke, F. (2014). Towards a micro foundation of leadership, governance, and management in universities. Higher education, 68(5), 711-732.

2. Leih, S., & Teece, D. (2016). Campus leadership and the entrepreneurial university: A dynamic capabilities perspective. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 30(2), 182-210.

3. Van Ameijde, J. D., Nelson, P. C., Billsberry, J., & Van Meurs, N. (2009). Improving leadership in higher education institutions: A distributed perspective. Higher Education, 58(6), 763.


Guest Lecture: Leadership in Turbulent Times – The Excellence Drive of Universities in Germany

Professor Jetta Frost, Former Vice-President and Professor of Organization and Strategy, University of Hamburg TBC


Discussion with focus on questions:

- Relationship between governance and leadership

- Skills of successful university leaders


Last edited: 2021-04-27