‘Lower tolerance for failure’ on technology as finances dive

Financial constraints reducing appetite for risky experimentation but pressures can also help to ‘clarify minds’, say experts

April 17, 2024
Source: iStock/DenKuvaiev

UK universities “do not have a high bar for failure”, which can hamper innovation when developing digital strategies, with more pressure on projects to deliver as finances become increasingly constrained, according to experts.

Institutions want to see large-scale changes right away, as opposed to taking more experimental and potentially time-consuming approaches, according to Stella Ekebuisi, head of digital education futures at the London School of Economics.

“The change I am feeling is that there is less of an appetite to tolerate failure, so what the institution wants to see is positive change at scale, quickly,” she told Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities UK event at the University of Exeter.

“In my career, those things usually come out of an array of experimental, exploratory concepts where you do many things and some fail and some take hold, and then you look at ways to scale those things up.”

Organic innovation within the higher education sector was “really positive”, said Ms Ekebuisi, but this was “happening a bit more under the radar now because what we want to see is large-scale, quite slick [projects] and to demonstrate success and build confidence”.

Tracey Jessup, chief transformation officer at De Montfort University, agreed that the sector’s appetite for risk was low.

“The sector doesn’t have a particularly high bar for failure,” she told the conference. “But if you think about innovation, if everything works you are not being innovative enough.”

Ms Jessup said that although the university’s digital strategy had been developed without an emphasis on cost savings, the shifting financial climate in institutions was leading to an increased need to save money as part of the changes being made. However, she said, if they are done right, digital strategies can lead to efficiency savings anyway.

Andrew Greenway, managing director of the Public Digital consultancy, who advises universities on institutional reform, said that while financial constraints could alter the emphasis of a project, they could also help to clarify things as it “is much harder to do transformation when things are good”.

“One of the dirty secrets of digital transformation – which is often framed as a very creative process, and it is – but it is also about stopping stuff,” he said, adding that it was incumbent on leaders to “make some difficult calls about what should be prioritised”.

The sunken costs in many digital projects often made these decisions tough, Mr Greenway added, and universities could find they were “locked in” to expensive contracts with outside partners. He said institutions had a role to play as “intelligent customers”, working closely with these firms to shape their offer as well as developing their own solutions that were not dependent on outside help.

Sam Brenton, the director of online education at the University of London, said he felt there was a “new appetite” to reassess what the institution does and a “realisation that universities need a new business model, but I don’t think we’ve got that yet”.

“There’s a danger in transforming the old and missing the fundamentals, which is that we need to think differently about how to create value for students as well as optimise what we do now.”

Institutions embarking on such projects should recognise that they might not solve everything, added Mr Brenton. The “elephant in the room”, he said, was that the “legacy complexity of universities is staggering”.

“We are complex, complicated, quite devolved organisations with layers of presumed opt-out everywhere you look,” he said.

“The challenge is how we go from that to this shining city on a hill that has one system for this, one for that and everyone has absorbed the policies…it is probably impossible to succeed fully in doing that.

“In doing a digital transformation, you have to be realistic about what the main problems are and where the gains are. Unless we say we are going to wipe everything out and build it again, you are never going to resolve all of that.”


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