1467 Elective - Leading Complex Organizations
Univ.Prof. Dr. Barbara Schachermayer-Sporn
Weekly hours
Language of instruction
09/02/22 to 09/23/22
Registration via LPIS
Notes to the course
Day Date Time Room
Thursday 10/06/22 01:00 PM - 03:00 PM D5.1.003
Thursday 10/13/22 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.002
Thursday 10/20/22 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 10/27/22 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 11/03/22 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D3.0.218
Thursday 11/10/22 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004

In this course, students will learn and reflect about the management of complex organizations that are part of today’s world of work. 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., volatile environment, 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, and change. Class sessions will be complemented by guest lectures from international universities leaders and experts.

Students are asked to participate actively in this course. Student presentations, prepared questions, a background paper, and discussions in groups as well as a 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 into 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

Full attendance in all sessions is mandatory.

Teaching/learning method(s)

This course consist of one introductory session, and 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 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 (10%)

o Group Presentation of reading in class and leading discussion (30%)

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 9. 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 9.

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 at the IHM Secretariat from Verena Herbsthofer at

For further questions, please contact Professor Sporn via email at

Unit details
Unit Date Contents
1 6.10., 1-3 pm

Introduction to the course


· Introduction of instructor and students

· Course content and organization

· Explain assignments and assessment

Presentation to warm up: Context for the Course

· Universities today and in the future

EUA Universities of the Future

Prepare and discuss individual impressions. Come back to it in Unit 3!

2 13.10., 1-5 pm

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.


Group Work: Images of University Organization

Presentations and discussion

3 20.10., 1-5 pm

Environment for Colleges and Universities: Comparison US-EU

Guiding Questions:

· How do markets influence complex organizations?

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



Presentation: Features of the US System and EU planning

Pre-class work: Film Viewing: The Ivory Tower Submit slide of group work on learn before class


Groups Presentations:

· 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?


Guest Intervention: Challenges of Universities around the Globe: Discussion with Professor van der Wende


Refer back to Unit 1 reading


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

4 27.10., 1-5 pm


Guiding Question

- 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. Foss, N. J., & Møllgaard, P. Strategy-Making in a Loosely Coupled System. Beta, 34(01), 68-88.

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

· Case intro

· Group Discussion

General discussion

5 3.11., 1-5 pm


Guiding Question

· Which factors influence change in complex organizations?




Leading change in institutions


Presentation and Discussion by Students


1. Bruckmann, S., & Carvalho, T. (2018). Understanding change in higher education: An archetypal approach. Higher Education, 76(4), 629-647.

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: SNA for Change Management in higher education

Kenneth Qua, Teaching and Research Assistant, Vienna University of Economics and Business

6 10.11., 1-5 pm


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. Freund, M. (2017). Shared leadership: Research and implications for nonprofit leadership, capacity building, and education. The Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership, 7(1).

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: Leading Complex Organizations: Experiences from a University, Guest Speaker: TBC

Last edited: 2022-07-15