It is possible to digitally transform a university without the heartache

Digital transformation can be expensive, but worse, it can be ineffective. Jon Garritty advises on how to get set up for success

Jon Garrity is Director, Technology Advisory at KPMG

While some higher education institutions may succeed with a strict multi-year digital transformation programme, in my experience, this is rare. For leaders in the sector, delivering such initiatives is particularly challenging under the current economic pressures.

More commonly, institutions embark on digital change initiatives that span several years and cost millions, consuming significant time and energy. Unfortunately, when asked about the programme’s purpose and achievements, many are unable to provide clear answers, having become disengaged and lost faith in the original goals.

Higher education leaders will readily say the sector has a long way to go to maximise the benefits of investing in its digital estate, with legacy technology that’s no longer fit for purpose and no institution wide vision to enhance the digital capabilities of both systems and people.

Insights from technology leaders

Universities are not alone in this; a study that KPMG commissioned from Forrester Research last year surveyed 140 decision-makers across the public sector and found that nearly half (49 per cent) said their organisation lacks a technology strategy, two fifths (42 per cent) said their people lack technology-specific skills or knowledge, and more than a quarter (28 per cent) said their organisation lacks a formal system to prioritise digital transformation activities.

Tellingly, that study revealed that 37 per cent of public sector decision makers surveyed report that they struggle with the complexity of software and technology; for higher education decision makers, of which there were 33 in the survey, that jumps to 58 per cent. My guess is that number reflects in part the complexity and variety of university operations, rather than a unique degree of perplexity with technology among university staff! But the sense that people are being left behind as institutions race to transform is one that demands serious consideration, because it is people who use technology to serve the institution’s mission and deliver its objectives.

From my experience, the advice I give to organisations seeking opportunities to get better outcomes from digital transformation is simple, and revolves around four key actions:

  1. Set a clear North Star vision – by which I mean a long-term version, one that is always there, provides direction and inspiration, is clear and visible, and that incremental progress can be made towards it.
  2. Focus on gradual improvement and continuous evolution, avoiding rigid, multi-year transformation programs, as these often fail to deliver results and alienate the people you need to keep on board.
  3. Prioritise user needs. If you understand the needs of students, staff, and other stakeholders – including external stakeholders such as visitors to campus – you can design technology solutions to meet those needs.
  4. Embed agile and supportive governance – ie a governance structure that enables quick decision-making and is connected to the breadth of stakeholder opinion without being shackled by it.

True North

Defining the clear North Star start for digital transformation should be the first step. It aligns university leaders to a future vision that guides and shapes the transformation programme, as well as the decisions that will be made on the journey towards digital maturity.

A simple articulated message ensures that all university stakeholders clearly understand the aspirations and intended outcomes – digital transformation means different things to different people so establishing this common vision is fundamental. This clear North Star vision could be as simple as the experience a university wants to create for its international students, in which a set of target experience principles can be used to guide the continuous improvement of IT services and systems.

Evolve to transform

At a strategic level, a university might have goals around things like student success, global research collaboration, or civic engagement. Each of those objectives can be most fully realised through deploying technology – exploiting data as an organisational asset, using modern platforms that allow users to access and engage as seamlessly as possible, strong cyber security protections, and so on.

None of those ambitions can be realised overnight, and most will evolve in light of external changes and shifts in the institution’s financial position. The ability to move forward with a long-term goal in short increments, and adjust in light of feedback, is therefore an essential organisational capability for developing digital maturity. Universities can benefit from incremental changes that adapt to evolving needs and maintain stability while embracing innovation step by step.

The alternative – revolution – is known to cause unnecessary disruption to operations, affecting students, faculty, and staff and potentially resulting in resistance to change. A digital maturity model can help to frame the change journey, with target maturity across all areas of the university used as the true North Star and the next immediate steps on the road to maturity defined for each of the different areas. This approach should keep stakeholders engaged, aligned and in control of the change and put them in a position to take accountability for realising benefits realisation that they can touch, feel and appreciate.

Seek first to understand (the user experience)

Obviously the core “customers” of any university are its students and it is not surprising to discover that improving student experience is a major strategic driver for almost half (49 per cent) of decision-makers in HE, similar to the proportion in the wider public sector for whom improving citizens’ user experience is a priority (52 per cent). You can’t roll out any student-facing digital project without an understanding of students’ expectations of technology, and how they are likely to use it to support their learning and engagement – and you definitely can’t assume that just because a platform has a specific capability that students will use it in that way.

But casting the net more widely than students, to take in university staff, external partners, and visitors to campus can help build a more robust picture of how the whole university digital architecture can fit together to improve the digital experience for everyone in a inclusive a way as possible. Students might not have direct experience of their university’s digital plumbing – the data architecture, or the automations that are enabling administrative processes – but they will definitely experience the benefits in reducing administrative load on staff, in their interactions with their institution, and in the general reliability of the digital estate.

The perception is that digital strategies descend from above but it is at the user interface layer – where individuals are interacting with technology to try to do the things they need to do for their work or study – that a digital strategy can really deliver. In operationalising effective data management, for example, starting by asking colleagues, “If we could harness data to tell us what we want to know, what would we want?” generates a much more meaningful technical specification than asking suppliers “What can this platform do?”

People will always use what they see value in using, so make sure you know what they consider to be valuable and what is a waste of time – and never assume. As far as possible, try to get insight about real situations, not hypotheticals – people will say things in surveys they would never actually do if, for example, they were given the opportunity to express their digital needs in a way that they can contextualise – for example approaching the question with users as a “day in the life” of what they need from digital.

Governance and process

Digital transformation needs a governance structure that is fit for purpose. There has to be oversight and accountability, but decisions need to be made quickly, authority needs to be delegated, and failure has to be priced in – in other words, potentially quite far from traditional university governance structures.

Universities that are courageous enough to take a “minimal viable” governance approach, in which the number of decision-makers is relatively small, but the insight and data points they are drawing on to make those decisions is large, will reap the benefits in agility and buy-in, more so than if every possible stakeholder group is represented in decision-making fora that never quite manage to reach a conclusion about what should happen next.

Bringing those bits of advice together you end up with an iterative process in which the university takes a step forward, checks in with stakeholders, adjusts, and plans the next move, progressing step by step towards an outcome that may never be fully realised, but that people can feel as meaningful change in their day to day lives. Stripping away all the rhetoric about digital transformation doesn’t mean abandoning the journey towards being better at deploying technology, but it could mean doing more to make that journey real for the whole university community.

This article is published in association with KPMG. For more detail on the study with Forrester you can download the full report on public sector digital transformation: Accelerate public sector digital transformation – KPMG UK.

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