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Beware HE Digital Transformation (and… Brexit a Gift Horse?)

  • 22 October 2019
  • By Ian Anderson

This blog was kindly contributed by Ian Anderson, Enterprise Architect at Ellucian.

This morning (Friday 18th October), the Sky News Channel’s Brexit Countdown clock informs me that there are 13 days, 13 hours and 48 mins until B-Day, while scrolling tickertape advises that the DUP won’t support the latest ‘new’ deal and at some point soon it would appear we are on the verge of a general election.

Brexit remains the story that relentlessly keeps on giving.

Just when we think we’ve caught our breath, something new and more dramatic comes along. Other issues and stories that try to raise their heads are continually swamped by the next set of concerns, analysis, allegations and recriminations.

I’ve worked in the Higher Education sector for more than 30 years and for the most part we only get our time at the front of national consciousness every few years: 1992 was the conversion of polytechnics; in 1998 it was the introduction of tuition fees; in 2010 it was the Browne review; and 2019 was supposed to be our time again with the release of the Post-18 Education Review chaired by Philip Augar. Of course, ‘we’ – the Higher Education sector – are still evaluating the potential ramifications of the proposals, but is anyone else?

Augar tweaked the lid on tertiary education provision and started to ask, in public, the questions many close to the sector have considered – and maybe feared – over the last decade or more.

At a recent event I attended which discussed Augar’s proposals, I was surprised by both the seniority of those in attendance (Vice Chancellors, Governors, CFOs and CIOs among others) and, if you park for the moment the thorny issue of funding, the overall acceptance on the need for change. From my perspective, when our turn eventually comes around again with the next government and after Brexit, it should be about focusing on the opportunity to understand the importance that post-18 education plays in the development of our economy, and by virtue of that, it should make it onto everyone’s radar.

I live in a village close to one of Jaguar Land Rovers’ main sites and consequently many neighbours are employed by JLR. This is a company which the media often uses as a barometer to gauge national economic performance and is currently having to undergo a major transition as it converts its product offering from mostly diesel to more sustainable fuel sources. Time and again I hear (admittedly mostly anecdotally) from those at the forefront of this conversion that the lack of access to the relevant skills associated with the development of the latest automotive technologies is detrimentally impacting this absolute need to transform. In 2018, Steve Nash, CEO of the Institute of the Motor Industry, highlighted the issue by estimating that only 1% of technicians working in and around the motor industry had the relevant training required for this burgeoning market. Similarly, Deloitte’s paper New Markets, New Entrants, New Challenges: Battery Electric Vehicles (2019) identifies one of the key challenges is that ‘the design and manufacture of EVs (electric vehicles) will require a substantial investment in new talent’.

This throws up some questions for the Higher Education sector:

Did universities see this new technology coming? Is their ability to forecast future workforce needs adequate? Can new course offerings be developed quickly? Is their operating model flexible enough to rapidly switch direction to meet new business needs? Or all of the above and more?

Small questions with huge implications!

Beware the Panacea

In my current role as a consultant within the HE sector, I still get a sense that the underlying issue is that many universities are land-bound super-tankers – hugely complicated mega-structures with a single purpose, difficult to manoeuvre with inflexible operating models that have evolved simply to support this configuration.

But not to worry universities have a solution: Digital Transformation!

Currently it is virtually impossible to attend any HE related conference where digital transformation is not the focal point. Supported by numerous examples of how a university’s recruitment time has been halved due to the use of ‘Alexa’, and implementing ‘the cloud’ reduces risk and “solves integration needs” (Yes, I’ve heard someone say this!). Warning folks – this can just be a band-aid!

Real transformation requires more than a buzzword led programme. It demands a mindset change that leads to:

  • the ability to appreciate the alignment of strategy, business and technology philosophies;
  • an environment where the business leads and not follows the latest IT trends;
  • data driven decision-making becoming the norm because the raw material is trusted;
  • the removal of barriers so that different departments can work together to provide great customer centric services; and
  • ingraining a design for change mindset that allows the organization to switch direction quicker.

Digital transformation cannot, and must not, be a single momentary activity.

Are universities really ready for this? No, I mean really ready?

Other sectors through necessity are changing at a phenomenal pace and businesses are running to keep up both in terms of product development and delivery methods. But have Higher Education institutions ever embraced change effectively?

In Heflin & Snyder’s book ‘Goliath’s Revenge’, it identifies and explains which businesses have survived the onset of both digitalisation and digital disruptors in their sector. The key is about valuing and understanding your ‘Crown Jewels’ and leveraging all that you can from them. In many instances the ‘key’ to survival in this modern business environment is converting the physical assets at the heart of historical success into virtual products, adapting where necessary to meet the needs of the target audience. Think Spotify over CD purchase.

In our sector, how long have we been playing around with all aspects of online course delivery? A decade? Yet, it still mostly remains just a business goal for the majority of UK universities. It is worth noting that Uber was founded within the last decade!

Of course, we do have to briefly consider other impacting factors, and I alluded to the first factor earlier around the economic and social trends. The second factor is regulatory, which is both confusing and disjointed and currently, in my opinion, not aided by the Office for Students, who are still seemingly trying to define its overall role despite the government’s willingness to give it free reign, which is in fact probably the main issue.

However, to fully meet the change, which is surely coming, universities must ready themselves by focusing on the things that do, and will, give them competitive advantage. They will achieve this through a process of understanding their key business capabilities, value streams and related strategic alignment, reducing complexity via simplifying and standardising the internal operating model and adopting a change mindset. At Ellucian, we have continually promoted this as a way to both prepare for potential negative financial funding adjustments, and to make businesses leaner and more responsive to change.

So, at some point, post the current Brexit shenanigans, I hope we agree that Augar—or the Child of Augar—will return and again pose similar or even deeper questions that the HE sector will need to respond to. The question is: will the sector spend the seemingly extra time it’s been given effectively or not?

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