1316 Elective - Leading Complex Organizations
Univ.Prof. Dr. Barbara Schachermayer-Sporn
Weekly hours
Language of instruction
09/04/23 to 09/22/23
Registration via LPIS
Notes to the course
Day Date Time Room
Thursday 10/05/23 11:00 AM - 01:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 11/09/23 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 11/16/23 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 11/23/23 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 11/30/23 01:00 PM - 05:00 PM D5.1.004
Thursday 12/07/23 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 based on a real-life case, 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 to university settings based on individual case

· Dealing with complex problems by applying theory to case institutions by working through recent literature

Attendance requirements

Full attendance in all sessions is mandatory.

Teaching/learning method(s)

The course consists 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

· Group work, 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 (50%)

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 of readings applied to YOUR university (20%)

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

2. Paper (40%)

Use YOUR university and pick the major challenge you would like to address. Use the literature of the course and additional sources. Length is limited to maximum 15 pages including all materials.

The paper is due on January 15 on CANVAS. 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 January 15 on CANVAS.


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Availability of lecturer(s)

For further questions, please contact Professor Sporn via email at



All course related readings are available on CANVAS.

For further questions, please contact Ricardo Kumin for assistance.

Please for formatting your paper use Bachelor/Master Thesis Guide on

Use of AI

Your paper should be your original work and you should declare the use of AI. Misusing text generated by AI tools, such as ChatGPT, Grammarly, Bard, or others, is not considered original work. It is considered academic misconduct under our policy, leading to serious disciplinary actions.  The automated plagiarism check of your paper will return a probability score for AI generated text.

While the core should be your own creation, you are allowed to use AI-based tools for grammar checks and writing revisions. However, you are not allowed to use AI-based software to generate new text for your paper, for example, by using prompts like "write a paragraph about my topic" or "make this section longer." If you choose to use AI-based tools, please ensure that you provide a detailed overview in the appendix, including your prompts and the responses from the text generation software that you used to generate your paper. To assist you with this, we provided a reporting text template below.

Text Template for Reporting the Use of AI Tools:

Acknowledgment of Artificial Intelligence Tools Used:

For purposes of writing revision and grammar checks, I used the following tools:

Gramarly (

Chat-GPT v.3.5 (

Bing (


I used the following promts:

"Check for errors in my writing"

"Correct for grammar, spelling and comma mistakes."


I used the output to help revise my writing in the following segments of my thesis:

1.1. Introduction

2.3. Sampling

3.4.2. Results Study 1

4. Discussion

Unit details
Unit Date Contents
1 05.10.2023

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

  • Present YOUR university "Key features, key challenges"
  • Upload 1 slide on Canvas on October 4, 12 noon
  • EUA Universities of the Future

Prepare and discuss individual impressions based on YOUR university selection. Come back to it in Unit 3!

2 9.11.2023

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. Bleiklie, I., Enders, J., & Lepori, B. (2015). Organizations as penetrated hierarchies: Environmental pressures and control in professional organizations. Organization Studies, 36(7)m 873-896


Group Work: Images of University Organization

Presentations and Discussion

3 16.11.2023


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. Doyle, T., & Brady, M. (2018). Reframing the university as an emergent organisation: implications for strategic management and leadership in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(4), 305-320.
  2. Freund, M. (2017). Shared leadership: Research and implications for nonprofit leadership, capacity building, and education. The Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership7(1).
  3. Leih, S., & Teece, D. (2016). Campus leadership and the entrepreneurial university: A dynamic capabilities perspective. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 30(2), 182-210.

Guest Lecture: Leading Complex Organizations: Experiences from a University

Guest Speaker: TBD

Refer back to Unit 1 reading

4 23.11.2023


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. Hayter, C.S., & Cahoy, D.R. (2018). Toward a strategic view of higher education social responsibilities: A dynamic capabilities approach. Strategic Organization, 16(1), 12-34.
  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 30.11.2023


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

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

6 07.12.2023

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

Reading: Marginsin, S. (2022). What drives global science? The four competing narratives. Studies in higher education, 47(8), 1566-1584

Film Viewing: The Ivory Tower

Group Discussion:

  • 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?
Last edited: 2023-09-25