Six ingredients for successful digital transformation

For forward-thinking universities, technology is not an afterthought but a core part of their activities. Here, Nick Skelton distils insight from UK higher education leaders into six components of successful digital integration

Nick Skelton's avatar
3 Mar 2023
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Forward-thinking universities are weaving digital into their overall institutional strategies. This is an approach that can address age-old challenges, create new and impactful ways of working, and better meet the needs of staff and students. For these organisations, technology is no longer an afterthought but an integral part of university life.   

Of course, using technology can provide efficiency savings through slicker processes, but by changing business models, universities can potentially combat financial challenges and promote organisational growth.   

On behalf of Jisc – the UK’s digital, data and technology agency for tertiary education and research – I interviewed higher education (HE) leaders to understand how they are incorporating digital into institutional strategies. The resulting report, Digital Strategies in UK Higher Education: Making Digital Mainstream, offers a snapshot of how HE leaders are using digital to solve practical problems and improve their institutions. 

In the coming weeks, Jisc is also releasing a framework for digital transformation that will support HE leaders and organisations to create their own strategic visions, helping to devise actionable plans. 

In the meantime, here are six key components for success:  

1. Invest in infrastructure and systems 

Even institutions with ambitious digital agendas are focused on upgrading basic infrastructure, making sure it works reliably and securely. These fundamental building blocks include campus networks, sign-on and identity systems, and integration layers that exchange data.

As Jisc CEO Heidi Fraser-Kraus noted on THE Campus in 2022, building on poor foundations simply increases complexity and risk. 

2. Lightweight processes to manage investment and change 

Traditional project-management approaches are common within HE. Before anything is put into practice, it can take months to prepare comprehensive business cases setting out costs, benefits and timelines. But for digital initiatives, the technology landscape changes so rapidly that projects can quickly fall out of date.  

Instead, universities should start small and respond to what works, governing digital initiatives as if planning a garden. There should be a long-term plan, at first planting only a few seeds to see what flourishes. Where something fails to grow well, dig it out before too much resource is spent. Where something succeeds, give it the resources to grow further.  

3. Focus on people and skills 

During the pandemic, the HE sector showed that it can deploy technologies  such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams remarkably quickly. However, staff and students need to be given the time and space to gain confidence in making the most of new platforms and technologies.  

Some institutions have addressed this by putting people and capabilities, not technology, at the heart of their digital strategy, with a focus on training and skills development.  

Where staff are already over-stretched, this can be a big ask and so it needs clear and genuine commitment from executive leadership. 

4. Strong engagement and customer focus 

It is essential to focus on the needs of the staff and students using digital systems: the annual Jisc Digital Experience Insights survey is a tool that shows organisations how students and staff are using technology on offer, what is making a difference to their learning and working experiences, and where improvements can be made. I recommend combining this tool with focus groups and using findings to continually adjust efforts, giving staff and students the best support possible. 

In digital, an incremental and iterative approach works best, so do whatever possible to get some benefits out to users early. Either pilot in one area or build the minimum viable version and make it available to all, then adapt in the light of feedback. 

5. Digitally aware strategic leadership 

Digital transformation comprises many moving parts that touch all areas of an institution. For this reason, it needs clear direction from the top with a digitally confident executive leadership and a governing board that models behaviours. Several universities have created top-tier roles to lead on digital transformation. This is a great start but can still lead to digital being siloed.  

In universities where multiple executive leaders have digital experience, digital strategy conversations do not start and end with technology; they start with the significant challenges institutions face and how digital can be used to solve them. 

6. Evidence-based digital research centres 

Some of the universities I have studied have small but well-regarded research institutes in digital education and broader digital society. They work alongside the professional digital education services, helping to develop institutional strategy.  

A research institute can provide a welcome focus on evidence; a knowledge of what works. This level of rigour is particularly useful in persuading colleagues of the need for change. 

Nick Skelton is digital consultant for universities and author of Jisc report Digital Strategies in UK Higher Education: Making Digital Mainstream, available now. Jisc’s digital transformation framework will launch at this year’s Digifest event on 7-8 March 2023. 

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