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Demystifying digital: Understanding the impact of digital transformation for universities

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IN BRIEF
Build understanding
Digital transformation success relies on three factors: a compelling purpose and strategy, effective change management, and the right capability to deliver. This means the university should have a shared understanding of the investment required.
Focus on benefits
Institutions should focus on the benefit of the new product or service rather than on the technical details. Focussing on the benefit helps to demystify digital by exploring the real driver for change before thinking about the technology solution that will enable it.
Six success factors
Ultimately, universities can take six steps to maximise chances of success in digital transformation: Set up for success, develop solutions for users, assess enablers, build in flexibility, understand user perspectives and challenge the status quo.

Recently Nous Group delivered a webinar for UK university finance directors on the topic “Demystifying digital: How to understand the real financial opportunities and impact of digital transformation”. The webinar launched the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG) Tech Week. Presenting the webinar on 3 October 2022 were Nous Principal Julie Mercer and Nous Directors Darren Leafe and Jessica Weereratne. We are pleased to share some key themes from the event.

By Julie Mercer, Darren Leafe and Jessica Weereratne

It is no secret that universities face growing challenges, including the ongoing impact of COVID, rising costs and high inflation, rising student expectations, a changing student body, delivering net zero and alternatives to traditional delivery models. At the same time, there is increasing demand from staff and students for universities to invest in digital. But understanding what digital actually means remains poor.

So what is the impact on investment trends? Recently we asked university COOs that question, as part of our Nous Group University COO Survey. Nearly 60 per cent of universities told us they had increased their investment in digital over the previous year. A good start, but we know making the investment in digital is not enough. To ensure a positive return on investment, there must be a strategic choice about what to invest in and how to do this affordably to secure the anticipated benefits.

In our experience, transformation success relies on three factors: a compelling purpose and strategy, effective change management, and the right capability to deliver. This means the university should have a shared understanding of the investment required. Project leaders can prepare their staff for the challenge by setting a clear direction and having in place the right people with the right capabilities to deliver.

There are significant opportunities at play. Given the rapid development of digital technologies over recent years, and with the pace of change set to accelerate, universities must set themselves up to take advantage of the opportunities digital provides.

Digital priorities for universities may include customer relationship management (CRM), curriculum management, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and data and analytics.

Many institutions consider themselves data rich and knowledge poor. This means that, whatever the priority, institutions should focus on the benefit of the new product or service rather than on the technical details. This requires flipping the conversation to talk about “improved customer experience” rather than “CRM”; or “improved back-office efficiencies” instead of “ERP”.

Focussing on the benefit helps to demystify digital by exploring the real driver for change before thinking about the technology solution that will enable it.

Leaders of digital transformation projects must be able to articulate the technology needs from a user’s perspective and have a broad view of the change required across the organisation. Project teams must lay the groundwork for what is required by understanding what is important to users and what needs to happen across the organisation to guarantee success. Focussing on all moving parts – including culture, people and processes – will help to achieve the desired impact.

Ultimately, universities can take six steps to maximise chances of success in digital transformation.

Six steps to maximise chances of success in digital transformation

  1. Set up the partnership for success – have a shared understanding of the scope and of the capabilities and resource required.
  2. Develop digital solutions that users want to use – start with the needs of service users and the benefits you want to see, then create products and services that are user-centric and fully accessible, enable high-quality experiences, and generate data to provide new insights and understanding.
  3. Assess core project enablers – know who makes the decisions, the implementation principles and the organisation’s level of change readiness.
  4. Build in flexibility to focus on what matters – plan the project in a way that will ensure it can be designed, delivered and implemented within the organisation’s preferred timeframe. Build momentum early on to allow for any unforeseen delays in timing later down the line.
  5. Understand and balance user perspectives – spend time upfront to understand the current pain points of the various end users so that the output meets the needs of all staff and students.
  6. Challenge the status quo on service delivery models – reduce the risk of ‘lift and shift’ (changing systems but ignoring underlying problems) by reflecting on how the institution delivers services across the organisation, then remove duplication, redesign roles and build common understanding.

Get in touch to explore how we can help your university undertake digital transformation.

Connect with Julie Mercer, Darren Leafe and Jessica Weereratne on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Shona Sutcliffe.

Published on 17 October 2022.

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