You would be hard-pressed to find any institution today that doesn’t have a work programme, probably even a whole transformation programme, in the area of digital technology.
But ensuring a programme is in place is not the same thing as having confidence and surety in that programme, what it’s going to achieve, how it relates to other institutional plans, and whether it will give value for money.
The sheer pace of technological change only adds to the challenge for universities. It can be hard to grapple with the question of what the landscape will look like in ten or even five years’ time, and this makes it hard to define a strong academic vision for the future. This challenge is made even more acute by the rapidly increasing weight of student expectations. Young students especially have grown up with high-capability digital technology, and may have used it in school or at college. The manner in which students now pay heavily for higher education makes their expectations even more weighty.
But there are also eternal truths that hold through the path of technological change. Systems need to be secure and dependable, data collection needs to be proportionate and fit for purpose, and staff and students need support and training in using existing technology to best effect. Good IT services management is concerned with delivering a reliable service, not just deploying the newest and most fashionable tools.
This, in turn, raises important questions about leadership, management and governance. At an event this summer, we gathered a group of senior leaders from across the UK higher education sector to discuss this issue and possibilities for improvement (under the Chatham House rule).
Challenges for digital governance
Our group quickly brought to light some of the key challenges. The basic structure of universities is a significant factor. Institutions maintain a high level of autonomy at different levels of their structure and governance is not confined to a single board (and a few subcommittees), but rather it extends throughout the structure. This means controlling investment and implementation is difficult, and there can be problems in scoping and initiating major digital programmes.
Decision making and accountability often rests primarily with groups of people who are not technical specialists, so there can be gaps in expertise. Digital programmes must often be integrated with, or at least happen in parallel with, other major change programmes, creating additional complexity. And at the other end of the investment cycle, there can be problems with review and evaluation of digital programmes, which can make it hard to understand and judge their value.
This has clear implications for what we mean by “good governance”’ in an increasingly digital environment. Many institutions have digital strategy committees, or similar groups within their structure, but it is less common to recruit people with senior digital sector experience, or leading technical skills in the field, directly to the main governing body. And set against a trend towards making governing bodies smaller and more focused, it may even become harder to make a seat around the table available for someone with this perspective. A complementary route to achieving full coverage might be to invest heavily in training existing governors in digital policy and strategy.
Likewise on the executive management side, it may be that in the near future institutions will look to recruit technology leaders at a more senior level – a chief technology officer or chief information officer equivalent to a pro vice chancellor for example – and this raises the question of how to find the right people in a highly competitive labour market.
Changing cultures; making connections
There is also a challenge in integrating the governance of other priorities with technology governance. Few would contest the notion that technology in education should always be put to the service of clear pedagogical, research, or administrative aims, but there can also be no doubt that development will be heavily shaped by new possibilities becoming available. Advanced technology can have a seductive quality, major projects can be risky, and well-integrated governance required to ensure the tail doesn’t wag the dog. So care has to be taken to fully connect the structures for academic governance with what is going on in digital programmes.
One thing that we do know is that all change is cultural, and it is essential to bring staff along with you in designing, developing, and deploying new technology. Within the institutional management structure, some universities have made significant progress by developing the idea of a cultural transformation office, incorporating functions of leadership, programme and project management, and stakeholder management; this kind of blend is required to ensure not only that investments are properly managed, but also that the widest range of people within the institution are on board and supporting programme implementation.
Digital technology is now becoming fundamental to the design and delivery of all commercial and public services, to the point where not many of those services can be run competitively or effectively without it. To thrive in this emerging landscape, the higher education sector must urgently develop a stronger vision of a digital-first higher education system. This demands moving beyond long-standing governance models and conventional management structures, and thinking radically about how we make decisions for our digital future, and lead the transformation programmes that will shape it.