Transform transformation in higher education or fail

Higher education is changing, and digital is at the heart of it. We are now at a tipping point where failing to adapt will soon see institutions fall behind the curve in terms of offering a modern, relevant product to students. However, why is it that digital transformations in higher education typically end up failing, often after very high levels of spending?

We are all familiar with the problem of departments acting in siloes. What is less well understood is how digital itself is seen as a silo. Nowhere is this better shown than by the fact that there is a job title of Head of Digital or similar – digital is positioned as a silo in and of itself. The reality is that digital underpins everything in the product experience and cannot be relegated in this way. Achieving anything in terms of the student experience relies on a much deeper, more profound adoption of digital techniques and thinking.

Transformation can be mandated from the centre, but success only comes when teams institution-wide are empowered to understand data, design improvement and implement digital projects within the boundaries of a shared vision. What often happens now is existing governance structures enable competing philosophies and departmental agendas to coexist, rather than help unite behind a central vision that can be acted upon.

This inertia towards the status quo often, paradoxically, runs in parallel with a university system keen to embody the disruption, or revolution preached by the big Silicon Valley technology firms. As centres of research and development, many leadership teams and academics believe that their universities should still be at the forefront of technological change when they don’t have the necessary capability to act in agile fashion. This leads to one of two things – overreach or paralysis. The former is caused by over-ambition trying to break the status quo, the latter by the status quo keeping hold. Overreach occurs in the form of impossible to implement multi-million-pound technical procurements that are simply too ambitious to realise in one go. Paralysis come in the form of repetitive research and vision projects with few tangible outcomes, achieving little real change in process or systems. Both can also be hampered by funding and the need to classify as capital expenditure, which results in systems rather than student-led change.

And then there is the lack of the necessary skills internally. Many words are written on the lack of digital skills however, what is less spoken of is how this applies across the whole organisation, from the top to the bottom. Failure to understand the realities, opportunities and constraints of digital systems right at the top at VC level hampers decision-making and makes realistic vision setting extremely difficult. Senior leaders need to be able to have the right conversations with domain experts to deploy resource and energy in the right way.  A lack of understanding sees a situation emerging where digital thinking and project planning are delegated to departments ill-equipped to do so. Solutions are reduced to competitive tenders for systems and choices between vendor provided solutions. There is no clear chain of accountability for designing, buying and implementing digital in line with clearly stated institutional objectives.

What’s the way forward?

Get the right vision forming process, reform procurement, and build the right relationships with the right partners.

Senior executive teams need to examine their objectives and understanding first, then instigate a digital, student-first culture at all levels. This is about attitude as well as training. Tried and tested techniques have been solving exactly these kinds of problems for years, but context is everything. Adopting these powerful tools across an organisation around an inspirational vision will enable effective objectives setting and the right culture to achieve them.

Reform of procurement is years overdue. It is critical that those commissioning aren’t bullied into a process for the sake of process, as is often the case. The objective of procurement should be about ensuring successful project outcomes, and not just appointment of a supplier without getting sued! This can be done fairly and legally by adjusting the processes with a better understanding of what is actually being purchased, it just takes a bit more work.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, there has been a great deal of learning over the last few years, and there are some very smart individuals within our universities that really understand the deep digitisation of society, and the growing scientific, technological and creative skillset which comes with it.They understand the interrelationship between requirements for a student-centric approach, meaning they can work with a number of specialist partners who can combine expertise across a large number of areas in an agile manner. What they need is support and engagement from the VC and executive, a clear vision to work to, and a procurement team that understands the objective and is willing to work with them to ensure a successful transformation, not just a successful procurement.