Without these actions you risks failure

Without these actions, your university’s major tech investment risks failure

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Idea In Brief

Service and process

We have worked with many universities where tech investments are overpromising and underdelivering. While universities may make the technology leap forward, true savings are gained through service improvements and process optimization.

Reasons for problems

You might wonder why any leader would leave benefits on the table. We have seen four reasons: Leaders underestimate what is needed; Priorities shift; Reluctance to engage external experts; Accepting technology vendors’ assurances.

Chances of success

We have identified five actions to maximize the chances of success: Make decisive and evidence-based decisions; Have a dedicated project team; Plan for culture change; Integrate the new technology; Prioritize continuous improvement.

You’ve invested significant resources, spent countless hours working with the technology vendor on requirements and testing, and after months – even years – of hard work, you and your team have finally brought your new shiny object into the world! Congratulations.

But now three months have gone by – or maybe two years – and you’re left wondering, “Why haven’t I seen the return on investment I was promised?”

Sound familiar? Nous has worked with many universities in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia where technology investments are overpromising and underdelivering. For these universities, it is a frustrating place to be.

In our experience, there are four pitfalls that risk undermining investments and five critical success factors that will set an institution up to reap a strong return on investment (ROI) for their technology investment.

To chart the path forward, we need to understand how we got here

A university’s ability to achieve its teaching, learning and research goals relies on digital and technological investment.

Recently we released our global Nous Group Study of Higher Education Professional Services Leaders 2023, which found that 80 per cent of administrative service leaders increased their digital investments in 2023, up 20 per cent on the previous year.

Students, researchers, and instructional and administrative staff expect a digital operating and learning environment. However, institutions face uphill battles responding to the pressure to modernize significantly outdated technology.

This is because technology itself is not enough – a fact often overlooked.

While universities may make the business case for the technology leap forward, true savings are gained through a second step that is often ignored: service improvements and process optimization.

When this step is bypassed, inefficiencies prevail, benefits get squandered, and stakeholders get frustrated. We often blame the technology for not working when in reality, it is the organization that has failed to understand what the community needed and what process changes were required to make the technology work in the first place.

You might wonder why any leader would leave benefits on the table. In our work, we have seen four reasons.

  1. Leaders underestimate the time, effort and trade-offs needed to implement a multi-year investment. Many academic and administrative staff who hold leadership positions may not have previously worked on a large transformation project and don’t know what to expect. The capacity required is often grossly underestimated.
  2. Priorities shift during the project. With many demands on resources and budget, the people and process updates needed never happens. During the pandemic, universities were forced to address urgent priorities. They now feel progress on other activities has stalled and the list of strategic priorities is ballooning. “We get wrapped up in the day-to-day operations and lose the desire to solve transformation,” the Vice President of Finance and Administration at one Canadian university told us in our study. The result is that change is left for local units to address without the institution’s expertise and resources.
  3. Reluctance to engage external experts in favour of stretching internal staff. Institutions need the aptitude to plan, design and implement the required process optimization and people changes. Its absence is heightened when an institution lacks documented processes, does not have learning and development opportunities for managers, and does not have strong relationships with labour unions.
  4. Accepting technology vendors’ assurances for ‘out-of-the-box’ functionality. Global technology vendors lack out-of-the-box solutions that easily plug into (integrate with) Canadian infrastructure. Higher education leaders need to painstakingly work through options to support their existing enterprise resource planning (ERP), minimize the cost and customizations, and keep all stakeholders happy. This is sometimes a confusing and impossible balance.

The first iteration will not be perfect, so expect this and plan for improvement over time

Building momentum for change is critical to the project’s success. With the pitfalls identified – and hopefully avoided – we are ready to till the soil for a digital investment. We have identified five actions you can take to maximize the chances of success.

  1. Make decisive and evidence-based decisions. Change is difficult and sometimes decisions are unpopular. Academic and administrative services often have competing views of what is best, while the end user – often faculty and students – can be forgotten. Change may also require difficult labour discussions, affecting the speed at which your community can absorb the change. Understanding what all users need upfront is critical to ensuring the success of your transformation. A one-size-fits-all approach can leave users unhappy and resistant.
  2. Have a dedicated project team. You will need a team that can work on your initiative full time, with the necessary project management, process improvement and digital skills. Delivering a large-scale implementation off the corner of your desk will not work. You may think you are saving money by doing what you can with the resources available, but this may cost your community years of delays in realizing the technology investment’s value. Best practice is to rapidly undertake prioritized continuous improvement opportunities, then refine and evolve.
  3. Plan for culture change. Be patient, as this will take time if the change is new. As university staff near retirement, they may need additional training and support to adopt (trust) new technologies. Even small changes can feel overwhelming for employees who have been in their roles for long periods in stable environments. Understanding and planning for this need as well as setting realistic expectations of what the change will achieve with the community will significantly improve employee satisfaction, user adoption and productivity curves after implementation.
  4. Integrate the new technology into your people and processes. A technical vendor can only do so much. They cannot fix the broken internal processes; people structures or policies needed for optimization. Having an internal team (with technical competence and change expertise) that can accurately translate community needs into a robust change management plan will ensure higher adoption rates, faster processing time, fewer errors and benefits realized as promised.
  5. Prioritize continuous improvement. Seek to address defects, broken processes, policies, and people structures to optimize the technology and translate meaningful benefits to the community. Do not assume your technology partners will have capacity to do this. Remember that change will happen in stages. Start with something small to test, learn and grow as lessons are incorporated. You will never get it 100 per cent right on the first try, so aim for 60 per cent at the start. You will not understand the change’s impact on your community until you are in the thick of it. This will add complexity. Requirements and thinking will evolve; it is tempting to keep adding to the scope, but don’t. Best practice is to swiftly launch something of value – often referred to as a minimum viable product (MVP) – to start realizing benefits early and build knowledge and understanding among early adopters.

Leaders should expect to encounter challenges, but the community benefits make them worth navigating

Despite the challenges, digital transformation is an exciting career opportunity for staff to stretch their skills and embrace new opportunities.

These initiatives can be highly rewarding for improving employee happiness (morale, service levels, retention) and for realizing cost savings and other tangible benefits.

Undertaking a large transformation can be tricky. Having the right team, resourcing and expectations for change plays a significant role in the benefits your community will receive and how quickly.

Get in touch to explore how we can provide expert support for your digital transformation and process automation.

Connect with Janet Vanderlaan on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Zac Ashkanasy, Tim Kennedy and Bronte Smith.