What is digital transformation?
We have seen many waves of change pass through the further and higher education sectors. Digital transformation is one that has dominated for some time, and whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has provided greater impetus, it’s also one that continues to present significant challenges for universities, not least how to deliver to greater post pandemic expectations with greatly reduced financial resource. Failure to understand these challenges, which remain fundamentally the same, leads to similar mistakes time and time again. Leadership teams are prone to following a direction established by product vendors or competitors and fail to forge a vision that delivers digital and educational transformation agendas. Costly procurement exercises are embarked on, often with little to show for large budgets.
As the market evolves – with wide acceptance and demand for online delivery, push from government regulatory change, demographic shifts, the pull from students demanding better as well as the aftermath of Covid-19 – weare at a tipping point where those that fail to address these challenges will find themselves in an increasingly perilous situation. At the same time, there are significant opportunities for those who get it right. Not just in terms of securing the future of organisations, but in delivering the education that can help citizens flourish in a more cautious digital-first world.
Over the following pages we have deployed 25 years of experience as a strategic partner in the sector to help articulate the challenges faced by many. For each challenge we offer solutions in a way that will help you frame the right responses within your own organisations. From the inside it can often seem like nothing can or will change, but genuine transformation with a real and lasting impact on people’s lives is not only attainable but essential. It is perhaps more possible than ever as most staff now understand the importance but taking an approach focused on the student experience and adopting some of the agile methods available is still key. Most crucial, however, is breaking the cycle of procurement driven by the needs of the vendors. Organisations need to build internal expertise, in both ability and process, and adopt a continuous change culture so they can own the agenda when specialist suppliers are commissioned.
Digitally led change is a cultural, not technological issue
Many universities now have a role for Head of Digital or a digital
transformation governance committee. However, this approach to digital governance ignores the fundamental change digital is bringing about, which is about the affordances provided to revolutionise the product and the experience, and the high-level vision required to guide it.
We are all familiar with the problem of organisations working in silos. However, this problem escalates when digital staff are set up within the same silos, or a new ‘digital’ silo of itself. The introduction of the Head of Digital heralded the arrival of digital into the space. Now it signifies that the responsibility for digital sits with an individual, rather than with everybody within the organisation.
Heads of digital are positioned within marketing departments or IT departments, often responsible for websites and CRMs. At best, digital departments or committees are in separate verticals of governance with their own budgets, and little or no influence on the other major departments within the university. At worst, it means that digital transformation, and so the future direction of the institution, is very often led from the middle.
Student demand for digital is fundamentally reshaping the product landscape and is part of everything an institution does.
The uptake in online learning has opened possibilities for new education products, pedagogies, smarter interactions with students and streamlined administration. There is a new expectation which goes with digitisation: that products and services provided by FE and HE institutions will bring about a sea change in how people learn, access their careers, and continue to develop. Whilst there is huge pressure and expectation to make this happen immediately, it is a mistake trying to solve everything at once. The Covid-19 fall-out will lead to expensive, if not fatal, errors if too much change is attempted too soon.
A guiding vision is essential. No transformation will be successful unless it can consider the linked aspects of the university brand, student experience and university product in its entirety.
This includes considerations such as course length, learning models and, crucially, price all in the context of institutional positioning. As learning platforms and ideas develop, factors such as price will become an increasingly important point of contention and competition. Any attempt at digital transformation that overlooks the non- technological aspects, or the product and experience aspects will soon find itself running to a standstill, lagging a nimbler, more digitally aware competition. The trick is in combining the brand and vision with achievable short- and medium-term goals.
A vision developed with brand positioning at its core and student experience at its heart is key. It cuts across departmental lines
and is an objective which can be shared. Make sure conversations about digital are not confined to specific departments or individuals and that you work towards a digitally aware and more fluid working culture, rather than a digital department. Mindful of the realities of what technology can achieve, consider the opportunities and benefits from a platform-agnostic perspective, and keep an open mind to the possibilities.
When it comes to tackling digital change initiatives universities not only have the problem of being built on many different departments, but also the fact that each of these departments is founded on a different philosophy.
The university product is distinct from many commercial product offerings in that it is experiential and made up of many facets, some driven by the profit motive, some not. Universities are the gatekeepers of educational standards, knowledgebases for society, educators and – increasingly, as they compete for students – brand managers and marketeers. They are dependent on tuition fees in a commercial fashion yet funded at the same time by the public purse. They are required to compete both in the increasingly international commercial marketplace for students and in the academic space for status, research funding and the capability to project the required image of excellence.
In a university these different facets of the experience are embedded within departments which hold influence. Academic departments each have their own voice – varying in audibility depending on factors such as levels of research funding, prestige of individuals or sheer size – and are often mini-brands within themselves.
Star researchers are promoted as individuals and departments and research groups will have their own web pages and identities. The former might be considered draws to recruiting the right talented research students in a subject, the latter a right and proper representation of the devolved nature of university governance.
The problem is that the aims of academics in departments might be based around ethics, pedagogy, or a commitment to a subject area. This will be fundamentally distinct from, say, the overarching student acquisition objectives of a recruiter university. These differences in priorities are coupled with differences in opinion on the use of online in education and the value of examinations, i.e. views on what is ‘best’ for students. Multiply this by the number of departments – and the centrally run department of business analysts, procurement, and marketing teams – and the picture becomes increasingly complicated. The governance structures that sit upon these departments are constructed to enable these competing philosophies to coexist, rather than to encourage the development of a central vision that can be acted upon. ‘Digital’ or transformation committees are put at the same level or below other departments such as registry or learning, each of which probably has its own digital initiatives or favourite technologies.
Within this environment it is incredibly difficult for universities to understand the what and the why of their transformation. Should they be aiming to develop their online presences to support the recruitment of students and maintain their revenue, or should they be focusing on educational outcomes built on new online platforms? Or is it all insignificant when compared to a department’s core outcomes?
Digital transformation demands real, practical change and cannot be mandated from the centre like a brand. It requires changes in processes, systems, designs and even ideas. The competing philosophies within a university mean that too often initiatives only ever grow in silos. Maybe they never even get off the ground because the hurdles are simply too high.
Don’t think big. Think small. The concepts might be big with terms like AI and transformation, but in reality, change is made up of hundreds of smaller changes. Grasping this, within the overall vision, will prevent you from reverting to the default of a big system for big unresolved problems.
The temptations of technology
There has been massive disruption to all education across the world due to the Covid-19 crisis which has been lessened in part by technology. However, these digital technologies are often over sold as the solution using terms like disruption, change and revolution. The reality is that most change within established organisations moves at the pace of cultural rather than technological change.
The new post pandemic normal will involve an even higher priority for the digitisation of society with the more institution recognising it is no longer a nice to have but essential for survival. The massive upsurge in online, blended, and alternative models prove digital is the great enabler that will radically change education as we know it. Legacy institutions do not have the capacity in terms of culture, resource and skills to reinvent themselves like an agile start up. But thinking is often captured by the radical, digital disrupter mindset of the technology vendors, and this leads to one of two things – overreach or paralysis.
The truth is that universities are far more adept at transforming the industries and products they research, rather than their own sectors.
Overreach is something to which universities are particularly susceptible due to their tradition of moving beyond the state-of-the art in research. There is a feeling that they should be the places in which the innovative, disruptive changes occur. The truth is that universities are far more adept at transforming the industries and products they research, rather than their own sector. What occurs in practice are overambitious procurement exercises that seek to radically reshape operating models.
In between the few successful projects and initiatives, we see the majority. These either achieve little or become bogged down in departmental processes, sometimes even taking the organisation backwards in terms of student experience.
If it is not overreach, then it is paralysis. The estate – university websites, learning and administrative systems, and databases – is too sprawling and too complex to achieve anything. It is certainly not possible for any one individual, department or budget to measure up to the digital revolution we’ve all been promised. This results in a series of repetitive research reports or vision documents which restate the problems or a noble aim, in several different ways, skating around the issues but doing little to achieve real and tangible change.
All the technologies and techniques needed are already available in the marketplace. They are best used on smaller scale projects, which connect to the wider vison, while you train internal teams and adapt processes. Concentrate on maintaining premium delivery, offline courses put online without due consideration of the differences in learning will significantly undermine quality. Projects do not need to be technological – it may be that a change of content, staff communication or internal structure will have as much of an impact as a change in user interface, design or system. For example, a training program around existing systems and better integration might have much more impact and much sooner than buying a new system. Only implement new all-encompassing systems when you have significant staff capability and clear understanding from a process and HR perspective what is achievable.
Losing control of the student agenda
The common story given to explain failure is of competing agendas between internal departments. The real story is the failure to consider the one group that really matters – the students.
If you ask a senior leader, a student and an edtech startup how technology will impact HE in the future, you will quite likely get three different answers. The startup will tell you that the sector is ripe for disruption and the world will look very different in five years’ time. If you ask a student, you will find an expectation that universities should provide an up to date, joined-up online offline experience underpinned by quality digital technologies and interfaces. A pro-VC in a university will probably be somewhere between the two, trying to navigate the upcoming technology wave without abandoning the current model entirely, and wrangling with the political and governance constraints in the specific university context. This middle ground is problematic. The current marketplace demands a clear product vision and associated brand for institutions to stay relevant, with technology playing a key role. Deploying digital in a half-hearted and disconnected fashion does little to support the experience, the product, or the brand. It also fails to target what is important – the student view. This means digital transformation projects rarely deliver for those that matter most – the students.
The advent of Covid-19 and the panic to get courses online means a student-centred approach is sometimes overlooked. This could lead to missing opportunities that come from an understanding of the fact that different students want different things from their education and digital support. For example, a student in Africa might want the prestige of a UK degree without the resources to afford it, in which case the online version of the degree might be a more attractive option. An investment in the online student experience – not based entirely on promoting online pedagogy, but also in promoting a form of campus community experience – could be of considerable value for expanding into new markets. However, this investment will only be relevant if elements such as price and paths to employment are considered. If it is too expensive, without the added cultural and community benefits, then the new digital offering will not be attractive enough and the opportunity will be lost. This gap in leadership and vision driven by the student agenda is currently being filled by a frenetic amount of business activity from rival commercial providers, all vying to offer platforms to support learning, student interactions and the institutions themselves. Until it’s proven that these platforms are a benefit for students – from the perspective of both reduced cost and improved education – universities must protect their brand profile whilst also considering some more radical services offerings ensuring they remain at the forefront of the sector, as custodians of the digital domain for the benefit of students.
Begin with your brand and a clearly articulated and vision of exactly what you are offering your students, irrespective of technology. Experiment with new course structures, assessments, and pedagogies. Choose the technology (if any) to support it, and then sell it to your staff internally. Make sure you articulate the reason and benefits to them, the students and to society.
The wrong skills at all levels
A lack of digital skills in an organisation is often given as the reason for failure of transformation projects. What tends to be overlooked is that this is as true for those in leadership positions as it is for staff lower down.
Digital transformation is not just about changing technology, it is about changing culture. A successful digital organisation is one that continues to evolve based on the affordances of digital technology, rather than just introducing new systems, and expecting the job to be done. This requires staff to acquire the right skills across data, user research, coding, and product management to keep researching, understanding, and evolving the offering, brand and marketing of the organisation. This necessary change in culture and skills is one of the hardest to make when considering the move towards digital. However, it is not just at the coal face – development, digital marketing, website management – where the skills are needed. The leadership team also need to understand what technology can enable.
Only then can they set the agenda, lead the conversation, and assess the efficacy of what is being implemented.
Failure of leadership is often cited as a reason for the failure of transformation projects, which is only partly true. Rather than a lack of leadership in and of itself, this failure is more often due to a lack of the right digital skills amongst those at the top, which in turn prevents the formulation of an effective digital vision. A senior university leader doesn’t need to be an expert in UX or data, but he or she does need to be fluent in them and, crucially, to understand the limits of what it is possible to achieve by deploying these techniques and technologies. Digital is connected to product, to experience, to price, to efficiency
and to cost. Decisions about its deployment cannot be taken in isolation, nor can they be taken successfully without a proper granular understanding of both the digital and non- digital factors at play. Getting it right requires senior leaders to be able to have the right conversations with the domain experts to deploy resource and energy in the right way. In practice, there is often a lack of understanding that delays action and delegates digital thinking to those who can act, but who lack the necessary authority.
This problem tends to manifest in two ways. Firstly, technology is seen as a product, subject to the same procurement processes as any other, thereby reducing digital to a choice between different vendors’ technology solutions. Secondly, digital is relegated to a subordinate department, far away from the executive team. This removes both responsibility and accountability for the deployment of digital within an organisation, and ultimately makes it incredibly difficult for those responsible for transformation to achieve their goals.
Create a culture and internal training programme based around a digital-first organisation. Understand what is on offer and how it connects to what you need as an
organisation as whole, then set criteria against which you can measure success. Build internal capability through extensive training and avoid contacting suppliers to build and deliver service without integrating your staff into the project teams. Properly integrated teams will ensure your teams learn and evolve have better knowledge transfer and internal ownership which leads to more successful adoption and reduced ongoing costs. The goal is to delegate digital responsibilities in a manner that empowers staff to deliver against your vision.
The wrong partners
Existing methods of buying technology through a procurement process push universities to think about digital through the prism of vendor-driven solutions. This prevents the necessary joined-up thinking required for internal training and change through agile delivery methods required for success.
Procurement teams and systems are set up to buy goods and services, rather than what is really required – outcomes. A typical business case requires the simultaneous identification of a problem and its solution in the form of a product or service. Given this approach, the solution is almost inevitably one described by a technology vendor or articulated by a high-level consultancy. The problem is that every supplier describes a solution(s) utilising a specific set of technologies in which they are experts. Such an approach does little to promote the necessary vision setting, shift in culture, methods and skills, or work towards empowering internal teams in an agile way of identifying and achieving shared objectives.
It is currently very rare for an institution like a university to contain all the necessary skills inhouse to achieve a successful transformation. This requires the necessary capacities to connect high-level product and experiential changes at the top, to incremental granular changes at the bottom. Yet this is something all will have to get closer to. Business analysis teams and procurement departments tend not to have the necessary technical knowledge, understanding or expertise in project management to procure according to specific objectives, across multiple vendors. They are even less likely to buy services in a way which supports the necessary agile approach to develop a thriving digital culture.
In strict adherence to their own governance models, institutions end up with the wrong partners fixing the wrong problems. It can go either of two ways. Too big – with an oversized budget and an overgrown scope in an attempt to achieve too radical a transformation – and ultimately unmanageable and undeliverable.
Or too small – with a limited scope that leads nowhere in the long-term – meaning that any change is quietly and effectively shelved. Both tend to end in failure.
Embark on an overhaul of procurement processes in such a way that they can support purchasing against desired outcomes rather than against predefined solutions and specific systems. Always include staff development goals as part of every tender. Develop procurement staff and systems with capabilities in project management, strategy and financial planning and adopt an approach to selecting partners based on their holistic capabilities in digital as opposed to their capabilities in implementing off- the-shelf or bespoke technologies.
It is likely that you will be reading this report from the perspective of being within a specific department and it might therefore seem difficult to do much beyond identifying the problems. However, progress can be made by focusing on the key problem areas and taking small, tangible steps. The key is in viewing these problems outside of the normal ways universities and colleges are sliced, for example by department or by course.
You need to know your audiences, so go out and get the data.
Nothing is as effective in achieving effective change as a shared understanding of what your students and researchers need and want, especially in a time of rapid change. There is no universal truth that applies to all students, so segmentation is crucial. However, to achieve buy-in within the organisation this needs to be backed up by data. This can come from traditional market research metrics, data analytics or primary qualitative research. Any information is useful information – the key is in collating and understanding it collectively to construct a shared view of your user needs. Conversations backed up by evidence will always go further than those that stand alone.
You need a vision, so take heed, and provide the leadership to create it.
It is difficult to make progress without a shared vision. Faced with the difficulties of decision- making within the confines of university structures and governance, this often takes the form of a document. Real progress requires leadership to own and drive this vision – and to persuade people of its value. This is not necessarily the preserve of the senior management or one individual. Anyone in the organisation can provide this leadership if they have the supporting culture. When individuals within departments, or at the top, take it upon themselves to provide leadership, things can often move quickly – provided it ties back to the shared institutional vision.
You need the right skills, so come up with the training plan.
Digital skills are not necessarily technical coding skills. They cover the whole gamut: from experience and learning design through agile project management, creating the right content to collating, cleansing, and visualising data in the right way. Look at your departmental staff, see what objective they could achieve givenm the right skills and devise a means of enabling them to acquire those skills and capabilities. Be honest about what you don’t know. Understand how much of the process you want to own in house and be realistic about sustainability of skills and resource in the long-term, create a training programme and always integrate your teams with those of external providers.
You need to understand the state of play, which means the right kind of audit and scoping exercises.
Just as it is difficult to make the right decisions without truly understanding your user groups, it is equally difficult to do so without a shared understanding of the institutional state of play.
Such an understanding covers knowledge of systems, interfaces, content, and data, along with a granular map of the pain points and opportunities associated with them. A lack of this understanding is often what drives universities towards large procurements as they try to fix everything at the same time, instead of incrementally in agile fashion. Build a backlog of capabilities in your departments and connect it to the university as a whole. Identify the small changes that could make a difference, as well as the big opportunities – a bible and roadmap for change.
Procurement needs to deliver against objectives, so give them some.
Interactions with procurement processes are frustrating affairs. Think from your own perspective which objectives you need to achieve and work with your procurement teams and senior leaders to explore the boundaries between operational budgets and capital expenditure budgets. Iterative approaches to transformation are almost invariably more successful than big bangs. Redefining your business-as-usual spending and your operational budgets can have a huge impact on your capabilities. Just make sure they are in line with specific, relevant objectives.
You need partners that can deliver to your objectives using your processes
External suppliers are often treated as vendors only capable of responding to specific systems problems, or as companies who deliver little of real intellectual value. This is because the knowledge surrounding your delivery will stay with the vendor when the project is completed. You will always need some specialist skills from external suppliers the trick is in deploying them in a way that is complimentary to what you do, so that you can learn at the same time as benefitting from their expertise. Make sure that you recruit specialists, ensure they understand the HE operating environment, and hire based on your objectives and project backlog, rather than their own.