Universities: Time to stop creating burning platforms to acquire budget

By Paul Hoskins, chairman and founder at Precedent.

You may have read my previous post ‘Branding for Universities in the Digital Age’ and felt that the challenge presented by the currently shifting landscape of media consumption and proliferation of channels, is all too familiar. Although coming to the realisation that digital offers a way to manage this shift is quite simple, actually implementing digital change which does more than scratch the surface, in the face of deep-seated barriers such as siloed systems and complex governance structures, is an entirely new challenge.

My recent research with universities around the world suggests this siloed structure, and the practices they encourage, must change to enable institutions to achieve the transformation digital can enable.

The place to start of course is people. Specifically, internal attitudes to change, and how to embed a more collaborative attitude towards this deep within institutional culture. Often, the organisational change that digital can facilitate is perceived a threat by many staff, and treated as such – our natural response tends to the instinctive, fight or flight. In reality, staff should view it as an opportunity. Opportunity inspires, threats lead to retrenchment. Transformation within the sector is about motivating people, (internal and external), evolving processes and enabling staff to see and buy into a broader vision which extends beyond their silo. Get this right and the technology becomes the easy bit.

However, the typical business case in many universities starts with the description of a problem as identified by a particular silo; be it recruitment, IS or academic, and warns of dire consequences if the problem is not tackled. It might be having to pay an ongoing licence fee beyond a certain date, system support expiry or a digital led recruitment campaign in response to falling numbers, or any of the other myriad problems a university may face with technology as the core driver.

In an environment where money is limited, it pays to emphasise the burning platform and associated risk, thereby ensuring a bigger proportion of the budget. This works with the current procurement process where the focus is on ensuring that any spending exercise is based on clearly identified deliverable, with a corresponding hypothesis and measurable. In practice, it means innovation is stifled and ideas and opportunities for cross-silo integration are lost. This leads to a culture which cannot frame the use of resource in terms of opportunities and objectives, incapable of embarking on projects for which the outcome is only partially identified – which is essential when embarking on a substantial period of transformation.

There are many instances in the sector of universities who have managed, at least in part, to adopt a joined-up, inspirational view of digital. Georgia State in the USA has achieved a huge amount in terms of tackling disparities in student outcomes by employing a joined-up view of staff, data and systems. UCL is redefining the student experience through its Digital Masterplan very much from a people first perspective. Monash University, early to the party, already have many of the basics right and have moved on to initiatives like Monash Talent, its gamed-based job and career platform, which is one example of how it is taking an ambitious outcomes-led deployment of digital to the next level.

These successes point to different departments working together to achieve a ‘student first’ goal, building on the opportunities digital has to offer to take student support and education service design to the next level. What they did was set themselves ambitious people, product or service outcomes to achieve and then choose the methods to achieve them within the context of day to day business. What they are not is examples of defensive procurement to mitigate risk.

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