Higher Education & Digital Transformation

Having worked with over 30 higher education institutions I have come to consider myself a part of the sector. I have battled with the same challenges. Challenges to bring about digital change in the face of institutional inertia. This has led to the following thoughts. I hope they help.

This post was originally written for UK Web Focus

It’s time for us to face an uncomfortable reality — the way we are approaching digital is not working. I am not talking about how our institutions are approaching digital, although there are problems with that. I am talking about how we approach it as digital specialists. We are failing our organisations and feeling frustrated in our jobs.

We see so much potential. But if we continue to follow our present path, will will not fulfil our potential.

Our digital vision won’t succeed

We all share a similar vision for the future of digital and education. A day when students have a joined up, integrated digital experience. From their first encounter with a university until they are a well established alumni.

We talk of augmented reality apps to help freshers find their way around campus. E-learning environments that widen the reach of the university. Student portals that save users time and the institution money. Unfortunately, this vision is never going to happen if we continue working the way we are.

At the moment every step is a battle. We fight management, get resources, navigate committees, deal with politics and resist scope creep. By the time we succeed in putting one part of our vision in place it has become out of date. We complete one redesign just in time to start the next.

We need to a different approach.

Our tactics have failed

Many of us have resigned ourselves to ‘the reality of university life’. We work the best we can within the system, making small incremental changes. We hope that one day, somebody with authority will realise how broken the system is.

We hope that maybe this will be the last redesign of the site, with management realising the need for ongoing evolution. That this time governance will be just as important as a new visual appearance.

We spend our days addressing symptoms. We struggle to stop yet another pointless mobile app or unnecessary microsite. We endeavour to set standards and bring order. But never do we address the fundamental problem. We never try and fix our organisations.

After all is beyond our pay grade. That has to come from the executive. But how are they going to know what needs doing? How are they going to even recognise the problem? They are not digital experts.

We fear moving beyond addressing symptoms because it means sticking our heads above the parapet. It means risking stepping on somebody else’s shoes. Most of all it means venturing into areas that we are not experts in.

But here is the thing — nobody is an expert in this kind of digital transformation. It’s new and scary but sooner or later things will have to change.

What it does offer is a unique opportunity that we must grasp.

The opportunity of digital transformation

Digital transformation has crept up the agenda of both public and private organisations. From the British Government to Starbucks, organisations are restructuring for the digital age. These high profile digital projects provides us with a unique opportunity to do more than treat the symptoms.

Now is the time to show management the barriers that prevent your institution adapting to digital. No more working within the constraints imposed on you. Challenge the operating procedures of the past and become agents for change.

Digital transformation projects in well known organisations gives us a precedent. But, we still need to present an attractive vision that gets the executive on board.

Forming an attractive vision for change

As digital professionals we are often bad at communicating the need for change. We talk about user requirements, frustration with organisational structures and the need for speed. But the truth is management don’t care about things like that. They don’t care because they cannot see the connections to things that matter to them.

If we want to see change happen in our institutions we need to speak in terms management care about. We need to help them make the connections. We can do this by focusing on three areas:

  • Opportunities that will benefit the institution.
  • Threats that could disrupt the status quo.
  • Possible cost savings.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Highlight opportunities

Management are always looking for new opportunities. In the case of senior management that is opportunities that benefit the whole institution.

For example, don’t waste your breadth talking about the need to make your website mobile friendly. Instead talk about how a mobile friendly website will help attract overseas students from Asia. These students are valuable to the institution and rely on mobile devices. Use data to backup these claims and you have a compelling case.

Middle management are a bit trickier. They don’t care so much about the bigger picture. Instead they are more focused on their own position and influence.

Moaning about their blinkered vision does not help. Recognise they are in a vulnerable position and work hard to present arguments that make their lives easier.

Take for example forming a digital transformation team. This often involves consolidating staff from other departments. Soften the blow by suggesting secondment rather than a permanent move. You might even suggest this is only for a limited time. Anything to prevent managers feeling that you are stealing their staff. They will interpret this as an attempt to undermine their position.

Try suggesting to management that they want somebody on the digital transformation team. This will ensure they have somebody representing their ideas on the ‘inside’.

Use threats

Another powerful weapon in your arsenal is fear. Large institutions are reluctant to embrace new opportunities. They don’t see a need to change what has worked so well in the past. But if you can prove that past tactics will no longer work they will respond to this threat.

Spend time talking about the threats to the higher education sector. Competition from educational startups, shifts in student expectations, changes in student behaviour. The list could go on.

Reference sectors that have been decimated because they were too slow to act when change came. Talk about how the music industry had a clear sign that things were changing when Napster arrived, but how they failed to act. Apple stepped in with iTunes and HMV and Tower Records went out of business. Also reference stories like Kodak, Blockbusters and many newspapers. There are no shortage of stories that show the cost of failing to adapt.

The key here is demonstrating that not acting will lead to disaster. Change is coming anyway. Those who fail to adapt will become extinct.

Focus on cost savings

Finally, talk about cost savings. Money talks, even in a large institution like a university. At the moment most university’s are inefficient in the way they manage digital assets. Each part of the organisation is doing its own thing. If you can show how a single approach to digital can save money it will get the executives attention.

I recently helped a higher education institution put together a case for digital transformation. As part of that I met with a member of senior management to explain why this needed to happen. We covered a lot of ground, but one simple argument won the day. We calculated that to redesign all school websites using the current approach would take seven years. If we implemented a transformation plan that figure would be closer to seven months. We could achieve this by restructuring how things worked. There were no extra costs. This simple argument of more results for the same money was enough to tip the balance.

Talking the language of management will get their attention. But, highlighting threats, opportunities and even cost savings is not enough. You must also present a clear plan for change.

Providing a clear vision

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have persuaded management that change needs to happen. That the way you currently work is failing and they give you free reign to change. What would you do?

Often we moan about the current state of affairs, but lack a clear vision of how we want things to be. We focus too much on fixing the immediate problems with our process, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

Lets take a moment to consider what our roadmap for change might look like. The first step is to form a digital transformation team.

Form a digital transformation team

Most public institutions have expertise scattered across the organisation. They have web developers, IT specialists, content creators, photographers. Often they have all the skills they need, but they are not working together.

Step one is to bring these people together into a digital transformation team. Notice the name I have chosen. There are two parts to it:

  • Digital — The implication is that this is more than the web. You cannot consider social media, the web, email or mobile apps in isolation. They are apart of one whole.
  • Transformation — This is not a service team. It doesn’t exist to serve other departments. Its mandate is to change working practices across the institution.

This team should not support the ongoing maintenance of existing digital assets. If things are going to change, updates and fixes cannot distract them. Too many web teams spend the majority of their time providing support for the existing site. Form a separate support team for that job and put new development projects on hold.

Once the digital transformation team is in place, start looking at customer requirements.

Map customer journeys

Any digital transformation project has to start with the user. For too long institutions approach to digital looked inwards. They focused on what it was they wanted to say. This led to a proliferation of content. Many institutional websites run into hundreds of thousands of pages.

One of the best ways to break this thinking is to focus on user needs. This provides an opportunity to rebuild digital assets from scratch. No more porting content from the old site to the new.

Mapping the customer journey identifies user goals when interacting with an institution. They outline the various touch points users use to achieve those goals.

Some argue that as an institution they already have a good idea how users behave. But, behaviour has changed since the arrival of digital. It is important to step back and understand exactly how things have changed.

Customer journeys help show that much of your website’s content is not required. They also help identify organisational problems. For example, they show how many departments prospective students have to deal with. Unfortunately these departments rarely present the same message. Customer journeys shows that to serve the needs of students you may have to make organisational changes.

With a clear idea of who your customers are and what they want to achieve it is time to move onto the prototype stage.

Build a prototype

When the Government Digital Service(GDS) began its digital transformation project it started small. It took a handful of people and built a prototype site. This site only encompassed the first few levels. It then deep linked into existing content on other government sites. This became known as alpha.gov.uk and we can learn much from this approach.

First, it allowed the government digital team to bypass the normal sign off process. Because they were only creating a prototype they didn’t need to get approval for every part. Some higher education institutions have adopted this approach with dramatic results. One institution even achieved design sign-off in less than two week!

Second, it allowed them to show other stakeholders what the future might look like in a much more tangible way than a written report. When people could see the possibilities in a working site they were much more inclined to listen.

Finally, building a prototype allowed the team to gather real data about user behaviour. This helped them to build a compelling case to support their new approach. It was no longer about opinion but rather hard numbers.

Form a digital framework

Digital transformation projects should lead to the creation of a digital framework.

This digital framework consists of guides, policies and processes needed to support the new way of working. They outline what needs doing and methods for achieving those goals.

Although this framework will vary between organisations, typical elements might include:

  • Key performance indicators.
  • User personas.
  • Top tasks.
  • Design pattern library.
  • Content style guide.
  • Accessibility policy.
  • Business objectives.
  • Content management policy.
  • Responsibility assignment matrix.
  • Analytics dashboards.
  • Working processes.
  • Service standards.

This framework is like the GDS service manual. It provides the institution with a pattern for working on digital projects. The digital transformation team should use this pattern. But other internal teams and even third parties should also work within this framework.

In short the digital framework helps educate colleagues about best practice.

Educate and disband

The primary role of the digital transformation team is to bring about organisational change. This will only happen through a programme of education.

What must not happen is for the digital transformation team to become yet another silo in the organisation. It needs to engage with colleagues across the organisation at every level. The aim should be to help them better understand the role of digital.

The best analogy for this role is that of Chief Electricity Officer in the 1900’s. The arrival of electricity was changing business, but most organisations were unsure how to use it. Their solution was to appoint Chief Electricity Officers to help them make the transition.

Today the idea of a Chief Electricity Officer seems absurd. Electricity is ubiquitous and none of us would be able to do our jobs without it. Yet, at the time they needed somebody to show them the way. Somebody to help them make that transition. We don’t have Chief Electricity Officers today because they did their job in the 1900s.

In the same way, the job of a digital transformation team is to make the use of digital ubiquitous across the organisation. Their ultimate aim is to become redundant, with digital embedded in the DNA of their institution.

Maintaining this aim is essential. One day we will no longer need digital transformation teams. Transformation is a finite process.

This goal is important for two reasons. First it makes it clear that the aim is to empower others to use digital, not manage it in a single team. Second, it helps reduce the political backlash associated with the creation of a new team. Some middle management will feel threatened by having their team members and areas of authority taken away. Knowing it will not be forever maybe of some reassurance.

How long we will need digital transformation teams will depend. But, if one day they are not disbanded then they have failed. Failed to change their institution’s mindset from thinking of digital as a bolt on to digital being ubiquitous.

  • Greig

    What a load of rubbish, your clearly do not understand higher education. You sound very arrogant.

  • Lois

    Great food for thought. Thanks for this.

    BTW, looks like you have the “core digital team” slide twice. :-)

  • http://www.hirephpdeveloper.co/ DaisyOntas

    @boagworld:disqus Thank you i have also found this manifesto it’s duplicate..

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