Digital transformation is of huge importance across sectors, and across the world. 

Research conducted by North Carolina State University’s Enterprise Risk Management Initiative and management consulting firm Protiviti Inc., found that digital transformation was seen as the biggest risk factor in 2019.

Protiviti MD Jim DeLoach told The Wall Street Journal:

“Organisations need to gear up and align the culture, people, processes and intelligence gathering to embrace this rapidly changing environment.”

What does ‘digital transformation’ mean?

Digital transformation is a broad term, but largely refers to the process of incorporating digital technologies into an organisation in order to streamline and improve working processes, and reach organisational goals.

This means that digital transformation is increasingly about change management; how staff and senior leaders respond to the digital technology available to them, and how it fits into an overall organisational strategy for improvement of services and working practices.

Chris Thomson, subject specialist in digital practice at Jisc, said:

“Technology holds out the promise of transformation, both for the individual and the organisation. But it’s no longer news to say that adopting new technology – despite its benefits – can be extremely troublesome. It’s something that’s especially relevant for the people responsible for leading change in their institutions.”

So how can educational institutions manage their digital transformation most effectively?

It all starts with culture

Change involving digital is inevitably complex, which is why strategy is key. Thomson said:

“As well as having a robust e-infrastructure, leaders have to consider how any change relates to a wider strategy, and what new processes and policies have to be designed to facilitate the change in practice. This is something that’s applicable at any scale.”

An article published in The Harvard Business Review in 2019 promotes a similar approach, stating that the first lesson in digital transformation is to “figure out your business strategy before you invest in anything”.

Digital technology is already relatively popular with teaching staff both in FE and HE. Jisc’s digital experience insights survey from 2019 reveals that 43% of staff in FE and 48% in HE see themselves as early adopters of digital tech when they can see clear benefits.

The digital experience insights survey foreword by Professor Ian Diamond, chair of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, also notes the importance of technology in future workplaces and the imperative to improve digital skills and services. He said:

“It is well known that the UK has a digital skills gap so it’s encouraging that survey responses show teaching staff are highly committed to ensuring their teaching practices prepare students for their future careers – the majority of which will involve technology.”

However, there is a question around whether technology should be the starting point of any digital transformation. Andy Powell, Jisc cloud CTO, said:

“This may sound counter-intuitive, but applying tech without thoroughly understanding the problem is unproductive.

“None of this is really about technology. While [digital transformation] is highly likely to require significant migration to the public cloud, for example, the primary challenges will be around leadership and culture more than around technology.”

Start with the why

Thomson explained:

“Although new tech is often very tempting it’s rarely the whole answer to innovation. Using innovative technology doesn’t inevitably make you more innovative. Most importantly, if you want to achieve transformation, start by thinking about why you want to change and what practice should look like, then work backwards.”

Weston College identified that digital classrooms with collaborative learning capabilities improves course delivery. But before investing in this development, the college’s assistant director Jon Hofgartner worked with Jisc to run a ‘sticky campus roadshow’, allowing college stakeholders to try out a fully outfitted digital classroom before committing to any purchase. Hofgartner said:

“We ran a traditional roundtable meeting with all of our heads of faculty and deputy principal in the roadshow classroom. At first, we struggled to work out how to use the space, but working in groups, we used the technology to share activity happening in the meeting – that was the lightbulb moment.”

This allowed the college to reflect on how digital tools would help support its goal of increased collaborative learning, and the option for remote access.

Weston College has since rolled out development for two new spaces, including a digital classroom as a collaborative space, and a virtual classroom geared towards distance delivery.

There are many further resources available to both HE and FE institutions to help with implementing a strategy that fits with each institution’s goals. For instance, in 2018, Lawrie Phipps, senior co-design manager, and James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at Jisc, wrote a paper for leaders in education to provide a structure that helped with the planning of technology implementation (pdf).

They called it a “digital lens”. It’s a way of taking a step back to look at the wider picture of digital change and suggests a step-by-step approach to project planning that provides room for effective consultation, reflection and evaluation.

What a digital strategy really looks like

For the University of Stirling (UoS), student experience was a key factor in its digital transformation strategy. During the 2017-18 academic year, UoS used the digital experience insights survey to monitor student experience as it developed its digital learning approach. This allowed monitoring of patterns and changes as the university’s digital learning transformation initiative evolved, and an understanding of students’ reactions.

Key to success was a clear strategy, starting withspecific goals and defined influences. Only then was it able to decide how (or whether) technology fitted into this journey.

The main point? As Thomson and Powell suggest:

“Start with why your institution wants to transform, then use the tools at your disposal – digital and otherwise – to help you enact changes.”

For more information on digital transformation, the following resources may be of use.

Useful resources