Digital transformation in the higher education sector: how to get it right

Digital transformation in the higher education sector: how to get it right

Martin Searle and Alex Burr, Partners in our Sydney office, talk to digital transformation leader Chris Patton, about how universities can overcome the challenges of digital transformation

Universities – by and large – embody a traditional and conservative culture. They often focus on academically oriented objectives rather than commercial ones and (if publicly funded) approach the spending of public money with caution. It has created a sector that values knowledge, learning and teaching excellence but critically, makes change – particularly digital – a challenge. 

This is a growing issue for higher education institutions. Students increasingly want a learning and study experience that is dynamic and engaging, and importantly, aligned to their expectations of a digital world. With competition for student numbers at an all-time high, it is no longer enough to send a pdf of lecture notes to a course ‘discussion board’ and call it a digital experience. Universities need to meet the expectations of a digitally native student cohort who finds switching between the digital and physical world as easy as breathing.

As a partner to Australia’s higher education sector providing academic change leaders, we are well-versed in the challenges universities face in trying to transform digitally. I recently spoke to Chris Patton, one of our interim executives with multiple HE digital transformation programmes under his belt, about how universities can overcome the tough challenges in transforming digitally:

1. Have a clear roadmap and end-goal

Start by identifying what you really want to achieve – whether it’s growing student intake numbers, improving online learning platforms or increasing staff engagement – and work back from that. “You need to determine what success looks like to the end user when preparing your business case for senior management and the council,” Chris explained.

If you have a clear roadmap of costs and a timeline that outlines when key milestones will be achieved then this helps mitigate what can often be immediate reservations around cost and spending of public funding. What’s more, it avoids the project over-spending on unnecessary ‘nice-to-haves’ that can crop up on digital transformation projects.

A detailed plan will also reveal your internal skills gaps. For example, universities will need to negotiate with technology vendors and private investors but may need to bring in a commercial professional to negotiate with these parties and ensure the public asset isn’t taken advantage of. 

2. Appoint a champion of change

“The larger the change, the more senior that person must be,” Chris told me. “Appoint an executive project sponsor from the chancellery and a number of project directors within senior management and academia – individuals who are closer to the ‘coalface’.”

“Within the cross-matrix of staff required to monitor and implement the change, find as many of them to also serve as champions within and across the organisational matrix to rally for change and to be the extended, embedded team owning the vision, the challenge, the hurt and the worry.”

These internal change champions will filter the transformation journey throughout the organisation, helping to avoid resistance at then ground-level and mitigate the break-down of communication that can occur from top to bottom.

3. Engage the workforce

In any transformation programme, key individuals throughout the structure of the workforce should be consulted about why the change is happening and how it will be achieved. This not only helps the change team identify any flaws in the plan (as front-line employees will often have a better idea of problems and challenges) but also ensures the workforce feels as if they are contributing to the change.

This is particularly true of academic staff who are often siloed into niche research or teaching areas and are individual ‘knowledge workers’, making it challenging to ‘on board’ them in organisation-wide initiatives. “Get people on board by consulting very early on and engage them by providing channels for participation and feedback,” Chris advised.

4. Consider partnerships and collaboration

Partnerships – whether they are cross-academic or with commercial enterprises – can lead to increased innovation, increase revenue from research and act as a competitive advantage when attracting students.

Before setting your digital transformation roadmap in stone, it’s worth engaging a consultant to scope out the market for partnership opportunities that could reap rewards in the long run. For example, Chris pointed out that, “universities are about developing intellectual property in the form of knowledge content and research. However, they are not always the best at identifying a means of projecting or applying that IP.” This is where partnerships and collaboration can be particularly beneficial.

5. Align technology with the end-goal

Universities need to be clear on what they want to achieve and then choose the technology that will enable them to achieve it, not the other way around. Change leaders can often become ‘distracted’ by new technologies and ‘add-ons’ that might offer a unique capability but only loosely help achieve the digital transformation’s objectives. This is where overspending and extensions of the projected implementation timeline occur.

If your aim is to improve the learning experience, then a technology like LINC, an online facilitation service that augments the academic course delivery by making ‘live’ individual student interactions, is probably something worth considering. On the other hand, a technology like Keypath which monitors and extracts information to create a more engaging experience for students to travel through their study journey, may improve the student experience but isn’t necessarily aligned to the goal of improving the learning experience. Have a clear goal and then choose the technology that will facilitate that goal.

Whilst digital transformation is a challenge for the higher education sector, the opportunities that result from it are significant. As Chris explained; “from the student perspective, it creates an innovative educational experience that enables supportive progression through studies. Staff can create an immersive learning experience and overall, universities can increase their market share, increase enrolments and increase their margin.”

For more information please contact Martin Searle and Alex Burr.

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