The goal of the framework is to help senior leaders realise the benefits of a long-term strategic approach to digital technology.
Vice-chancellors, deputy and pro-vice-chancellors, and chief executives (as well as members of governing bodies) need to develop greater clarity around the role of digital in the delivery of institutional strategy. To support them, we have produced examples of questions they can ask to identify strategic opportunities and mitigate key risks to making the most of them.
Our aim has been to develop a set of questions that are contextually agnostic. The variety of the UK HE sector is arguably one of its greatest strengths, and makes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach impractical. Instead, we have sought to provide useful prompts. The answers to each question will vary from one institution to another, but we hope that, in the process of exploring them, ideas and strategies will emerge that put digital at the forefront of thinking about how to deliver the overall long-term vision and strategy.
The themes and questions
We have interviewed dozens of senior leaders and experts in digital technology for higher education, leading us to four key themes that the framework is structured around. Across each of the four themes, the framework offers ‘deep dive’ explorations of three example questions, and a list of other suggested questions, offered with no further exploration as prompts for internal discussions.
For each deep dive, our goal is to provide guidance in tackling the question, not a specific answer (as the answers will differ by institution). Specifically, we look at:
- Why is this question important?
- What strategic considerations or constraints would influence the way you would approach it?
- Ideas and initiatives to tackle the question. This framework is accompanied by a guide that describes relevant tools that could help answer the question, links to additional resources, and examples of universities addressing these questions well
The example questions in this framework are informed by the interviews we carried out in the spring and summer of 2020. Given the challenges faced by the sector in rapidly shifting delivery online during that time, the resulting lens is one that is perhaps more focused on teaching and learning than other areas such as research. However, we believe that the questions explored here can also serve as a model for further interrogations at each individual institution.
Where do we start?
To get the most out of the questions suggested in the framework, the university needs to start with a long-term vision of its future and the role technology can be expected to play in it.
The purpose of each of the four themes of leadership, staff, business model, and investment is ultimately to support the delivery of this vision for students, researchers, and all other staff in the university workplace. In turn, the success of strategic initiatives will depend on robust and appropriately resourced infrastructure, with different starting points for each institution determining the pace and scale of required digital transformation.
The four key themes
Institutional vision or mission statement
The specifics of this will depend on the unique mission, circumstances, and capabilities of each university.
We've found 2030 to be a useful milestone to look forward to – far out enough to leave time for impactful changes to take place, not so distant as to be impossible to plan for. Within that time frame, some universities will maintain face-to-face teaching as the core of their proposition. They may focus on operational efficiencies, reinvesting cost savings into the student experience.
Others may adopt a blended approach, moving lectures online but requiring physical presence for ‘high-value’ activities like seminars, tutorials, labs or fieldwork – initially as a ‘socially distanced campus’, and later as a reimagination of its role. Some will aim for a ‘mode-free’ approach that provides a parity of experience to online, on-campus, and commuter students and can shift between modes seamlessly.
Commitment to invest in strategic initiatives and required infrastructure
The success of digital strategic initiatives – and of the vision they are designed to deliver – will require the allocation of appropriate, and significant, resources, financial as well as human. Here, too, the specifics will vary – in particular, much will depend on the starting point in terms of infrastructure. Institutions will need to form a good idea of what to focus on and in what order.
Given the financial pressures the sector is experiencing, which are likely to continue, prioritisation will be crucial. One way to consider the options available is to use a matrix that places investment opportunities along two axes (see illustration below, with example opportunities). The first axis maps whether a measure or initiative primarily helps cut costs or generate revenue. The second is whether it is transactional (making things faster, safer, more efficient) or transformational (enables new types of activities that cannot be done without it).
There will be opportunities for universities in each quadrant of the matrix, and some will be more urgent than others. A judicious mix across all of them will help create a strategy that addresses the most pressing gaps and lays the foundations for the delivery of the long-term strategy, helping ensure the financial sustainability of the institution.
Digital strategy prioritisation matrix
Text version of infographic
Y axis is used to measure cost:
- Generate income (top of axis)
- Cut costs (bottom of axis)
X axis is used to show whether activity is:
- Transactional (left of axis)
- Transformational (right of axis)
If you are operating between:
- Generating income and transformational activity: Reaching new markets with mode-free (on-par online and physical delivery)
- Cutting costs and transformational activity: Replacing physical campus with digital
- Cutting costs and transactional: Workflow automation
- Generating income and transactional: Scaling up existing revenue streams (lift and shift)
Another key consideration is the level of risk across different areas of operation that institutions are prepared to take on. Given current perceptions of IT as a source of risk, it is not uncommon for universities to take a cautious approach and, save a few examples, adopt solutions that have been tried and tested by others within the sector.
The coming decade will likely require a change in mindset. Senior leaders should adopt a more stratified approach to risk in IT. This will mean formulating a clear view on which areas they are prepared to experiment (and potentially fail) in,: actively pursuing new initiatives, openly working with startup technology providers, and effectively taking the lead within the sector. In other areas, they may adopt a more cautious approach.
There may also be opportunities for greater risk-sharing across both higher and further education in the UK, with certain functions increasingly shared between institutions or outsourced by a number of them to external partners.
Experimentation is costly in terms of time, energy, and outcome, meaning that there is real scope for networks that experiment collectively across several subject areas. This can help the sector move towards joint services, shared services and joint investment into digital technology, as well as sharing of costs around software. In particular, those opportunities may lie at the transactional end of the axes in the matrix below, benefitting from scale and network effects without ceding control of the institution’s unique selling proposition to students and staff.
Taken together, all of these elements (the long-term vision for students, research, and staff in the workplace; the four themes of leadership, staff, business model, and investment; and a clear view of the required infrastructure) should provide senior leaders with the building blocks for a robust and transformational long-term strategy that puts digital at its heart.
This framework also raises issues that are hugely relevant to every institution in the UK but do not fit neatly into any specific theme.
As senior leaders, you explore the possibilities of how digital technology can support their institution’s long-term vision, they may also find themselves asking:
- What do these changes mean for the university’s relationship with the local community, its civic role, and its sense of place?
- How can universities work better in partnership with each other and third -parties, and what do these partnerships look like in a more digital world?
- What activities or processes would not work digitally, and why?
- What does this mean for any students, researchers or staff members unable to attend physically?
- How can we keep a finger on the pulse of the changes we are making, and understand where we are succeeding and where we are falling short?