Lay firm foundations
With campuses on a World Heritage Site at Greenwich, HMS Pembroke at Medway and the site at the Avery Hill which has delivered teaching on its grounds since 1906, the University of Greenwich is no stranger to history and culture. Their digital transformation is also not a recent arrival.
Dr Jodie Wetherall, associate director, Office of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the University of Greenwich says:
“It's been a long time in the making. Looking to 2030, we're on a mapped-out 18-year journey of digital transformation and the 10 or 11 years we’ve done so far have paved the way for where we are today.”
The roots of Greenwich’s current digital progress can be traced back to 2012 when they developed their first major IT strategy. Running from 2013 to 2018, it focused on getting the basics right, from infrastructure to governance. It was followed by a digital strategy, spearheading digital transformation at the university from 2019 to 2022. Jodie comments:
“That was the first real strategy that was not about technology but more about people and process.”
Now, post-Covid, Greenwich’s new digital strategy has evolved again. No longer aimed at an IT department, it is a fully institutional strategy, articulating the university’s digital ambitions through to 2030 and touching the entire community. It is one of six enabling sub strategies designed to support the university in achieving its ambitions, with digital transformation a prerequisite for all the university’s priorities: student success, inclusivity and culture, impactful research and knowledge exchange, and connected and sustainable campuses. And it’s only been possible because of the university’s long-term commitment to digital transformation. Jodie says:
“We've gained a very positive reputation across the institution and the sector for delivering both IT and digital change. That reputation’s been built because of the work we've done over many years. You can't achieve this level of change overnight – these aren't quick fixes. These are fundamental foundational pieces we've had to put in place over a long period.”
Get buy-in from the top
At Greenwich, the CIO is part of the executive leadership team, sitting at the top table and ensuring that the digital strategy and corporate strategy are aligned. Jodie warns:
“This may be slightly controversial, but I strongly believe that centralisation of technology and process is very important. In fact, I would say it's key to our ability to deliver effective digital transformation. Gaining buy-in at an executive level is crucial. The senior team are all pulling in the same direction, all understanding the importance of digital – not just IT, but digital – as a shared endeavour. It makes the world of difference.”
Inside the digital Strategy itself is a clear and shared set of guiding digital principles for everybody within the university to work towards, ranging from ‘digital by default’ and ‘inclusive by design’ to ‘cloud first’ and ‘digitally competent’. Jodie says:
“Collectively, we're able to deliver our digital strategy, but number one for me in terms of how to make this effective and how to get the culture right is to get your CIO at the top table.”
Engage and keep on engaging
At Greenwich, digital transformation is treated as a whole-organisation activity – while leadership from the top is essential, it wouldn’t work without buy-in throughout the university. In the new digital strategy, a digital engagement plan has been embedded and placed front and centre for the first time.
Engaging the student community was essential in developing the strategy. Keen to get a “raw sense” of what students felt about what his team was proposing to do, Jodie decided to take himself and the CIO out of the picture entirely by hiring a third-party consultancy service to run the engagement sessions. He laughs:
“We didn't even turn up! It was quite bold, but we wanted to really know what they felt, not know what they felt with us in the room. We wanted to ensure there was an element of independence in this process, too.”
And it worked – the process resulted in valuable feedback, which formed part of the digital strategy, and the engagement has continued with regular sessions with the students’ union, as well as student involvement in digital transformation projects.
Engaging and supporting staff has been equally well thought out, with a three-part process around managing change, enhancing communication and enabling digital learning, to identify where staff have skills gaps, produce a baseline and offer support with appropriate training. There is also a planned transformation of the Information and Library Services directorate to build and strengthen digital engagement. Staff engagement is a work in progress – “we've got a lot to learn ourselves around this space. We we're not quite there yet” – but there is optimism around the building blocks that have been put in place.
Support transformation through projects
The extent to which digital transformation is an aligned, whole-organisation programme can also be seen in the broad sweep of the digital initiatives and projects underway to support transformation in the university.
For example, the Student Lifecycle Management programme is delivering a Digital Student Centre for self-service access to services, where traditionally students would have to turn up in person, queue in a student centre and then possibly be redirected before their query could be resolved.
Looking at estates, the classroom enhancements project seeks to learn from the Covid and post-Covid space usage changes and take it to the next level.
Meanwhile, the digital transformation programme around the research and knowledge exchange area is exploring whether taking a more strategic perspective to integrating systems might help to capture research data and outcomes better.
Stay flexible to meet challenges
Finally, while Greenwich’s digital strategy might have firm foundations, it is not set in stone. There are clearly challenges in the current financial climate affecting the whole sector and an effective digital transformation programme needs to be able to respond to changes rather than be a juggernaut, motoring on regardless. Jodie says:
“Our digital strategy was built to be relatively flexible so we can operate at a pace which works for our university. Our digital priorities aren't IT ones that we must deliver for next year and the year after, rather they are corporate ones. So if we choose to speed up or slow down an area's activity, it's a business decision, not an IT decision. We'll go at whatever pace is comfortable for the university.”
There are certainly large programmes underway and ambitious plans, such as data transformation. There’s a desire to be in the cloud, taking advantage of AI, by 2030 and empowering colleagues to maximise their requirements around data. However, plans are always underpinned by an awareness that projects will need to be prioritised and the strategy is flexible enough to be revised around what is appropriate for the university.
- Hear more about the University of Greenwich’s digital transformation from Dr Jodie Wetherall in our Beyond the Technology podcast.
- The University of Greenwich is hosting a Jisc demonstrating digital transformation event.
- Our framework for digital transformation in higher education is a comprehensive perspective on how the digital environment can support positive work, research and learning experiences, and promote a sense of belonging and wellbeing.
- The Digital strategies in UK higher education: making digital mainstream report is a snapshot of the UK HE sector at this point in time. It describes the aspirations universities have for the future, where they are right now, the challenges they face and what they know they need to put in place.