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Taking a holistic, people-centred approach to digital transformation 

  • 25 September 2023
  • By Liam Earney
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Liam Earney, Managing director HE and research, and executive director of digital resources at Jisc.

Universities are at a critical time of change, balancing the need to innovate with the many challenges they face to delivering the world-class education for which our sector is known; tight budgets, staff juggling multiple responsibilities and students needing more support. At Jisc, we believe that digital innovation isn’t yet another on the list of demands: it offers institutions the ability to deliver on their priorities, ensuring a high-quality student experience and research excellence.  

Digital transformation is the sustainable, long-term approach that responds to many of these ongoing challenges, allowing institutions to continuously adapt to a changing education landscape. A wholesale change like this can be challenging, especially for the higher education sector. The technical jargon alone can be overwhelming and the fostering of a new culture, updating infrastructure, and reshaping the way we work, is a journey that requires effort and ongoing engagement at every level.

Throughout my time at Jisc, I’ve come to appreciate a fundamental truth that runs through all our work. Any successful digital programme needs to focus on the people, processes and cultural aspects of successful business change as much, if not more so, than the technology.

The benefits of digital transformation are manifold: a university that uses technology to its maximum potential stands to not only enable a healthy research culture and high-quality teaching and learning experiences, but will also leverage the use of data, improve accessibility, optimise efficiency, bolster cyber-security, protect itself financially, and even reduce its environmental impact.

The evidence is already available across the sector: strategically embracing technology has produced success at those universities that have already embarked on the journey.

Earlier this year, our report, Digital strategies in UK higher education: making digital mainstream, found that more and more universities consider technology as ubiquitous. Many are weaving digital strategies into overall institutional strategies, so technology is no longer a bolt-on, but an essential part of university operations. As digital is now so vital, some leaders have noted that if organisations still need to write a digital strategy, they should make it their last. 

The path to successful digital transformation is not without challenges. It demands targeted investments, digitally aware leadership, robust and secure infrastructure, engaged stakeholders, uniform data practices, digitally proficient staff and students, and, perhaps most crucially, a cultural shift towards digital adoption. As Jisc CEO Heidi Fraser-Krauss noted in Times Higher Education earlier this year, it also requires a relentless focus on simplifying organisational complexity.

Change needs to come from the top, with digitally confident executive leadership and governing board modelling behaviours. Overcoming these hurdles takes money, time, support and dedication, but early investment will pay dividends later. Each university starts at a different base level, yet everyone has shared experiences, not least the rapid transition to online learning during the Covid pandemic.

Given the obstacles, and that sector progress towards digital transformation is by no means uniform, Jisc has created three invaluable resources to guide universities on their digital transformation journey, no matter their starting point.   

To create these, we worked with a 200-strong working group as well as a host of sector bodies: Universities UK,Advance HE, UCISA, the Association of Higher Education Professionals (AHEP)   the Association for Learning Technology, the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), SCONUL, and Vitae

Later this week, universities will have access to a framework for digital transformation in higher education, a digital maturity model, and a comprehensive transformation guide.

Digital maturity model

Our new digital maturity model will allow universities to identify their baselines on digital transformation against sector benchmarks and give them the tools and insights to make the necessary progress in relevant areas. 

To complement this, we have also produced an action plan and roadmap template for institutions to use, identifying actions, KPIs (key performance indicators), investment, responsible owners, relevant stakeholders, supporting resources and documents, and assigning priority levels to activities. This can be used to help inform the development of an actionable digital transformation strategy or review and adjust existing strategies. 

Our digital transformation in higher education guide

Our guide shares how universities can review and implement digital transformation across their organisations, comprehensively covering all aspects of university operations, from the digital and physical infrastructure to effective digital leadership and organisational culture.

We’re confident that these resources will be a valuable part of the digital transformation journey and are looking forward to supporting higher education providers with their use. UK universities now stand at a critical juncture – with the successful delivery of digital transformation, staff, students and institutions can thrive. However, there is still much to do as a sector to work collectively on unlocking the benefits digital transformation can bring to address the challenges we are facing.

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