In our latest webinar, we built on our topic of quick wins and looked at how these wins can be used to play a longer game, aligning your technology objectives across the wider institution.

Microsoft’s Elliot Howells walked us through some of the enterprise solutions available within Microsoft’s business applications platform to support common higher education functions such as student recruitment and student support. With the release of Microsoft’s Higher Education Accelerator for Dynamics 365, customers can get a fast-start to adopting the platform with the common data model set up ready for an education organisation to embrace

Elliot brought this to life by sharing real stories from the University of Nottingham, Staffordshire University and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Nottingham identified some time ago that they need to revolutionise the way they attract, recruit and engage with prospective students. Driven by the current HE landscape, their internal capability and the growing competitiveness of the sector, the university are rolling out Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Adobe’s Marketing Cloud to transform their customer experience.

Staffordshire aim to roll Dynamics 365 out across the institution and with the phases already completed, are seeing tremendous results. The first phase of delivery was focused on marketing and recruitment of home students. After the first year of deployment, they saw an increase of 11.80% in undergraduate applications and 22.96% in postgraduate applications.

Finally, UNSW in Sydney recognised that Microsoft’s technology ecosystem was vital for them to achieve their 2025 strategy of establishing the university as Australia’s global university with a stellar reputation for discovery, innovation, impact, education, and thought leadership. They were able to roll out Dynamics 365 and associated Office 365 services to consolidate 17 CRM systems saving $250,000 in their marketing recruitment budget in year one. They made an additional saving of $40,000 by decommissioning other systems and comment that they have never before delivered so much value for less money and in less time.

However, Elliot acknowledged and shared that this level of transformation isn’t always easy and it is critical to get people in board and to also look at culture and ways of working. Nick Skelton, SUMS Associate, went on to explore this further…

In March 2020 the HE sector did something extraordinary.

Within weeks of lockdown all teaching was online. We changed what some see as slow, lumbering, institutions, and pivoted in a sharply different direction. Before the crisis we would have expected a change of this magnitude to take years. But universities are full of intelligent, creative people who care about their students. They listen, learn and adapt.

So far the HE sector has risen to the challenge of the pandemic. We should be proud of what we have achieved. HE was able to deliver end of course assessments, while the school sector cancelled GCSE and A-Level exams. This was in part due to the autonomy of each university and the departments within them. Pragmatic decisions were made quickly which fitted the local circumstances. We made it work.

After this experience we may have:

  • A new recognition of the importance of digital technology,
  • An appreciation that change can happen fast when necessary,
  • An increased openness to new, more radical ways of operating.

Digital offers huge opportunities to improve universities. Technology can reduce barriers of time and distance and provide adjustments for students with particular requirements. We can serve our students better, by giving them access to learning in ways which suit them, whenever and wherever they are.

We might now expect universities to prioritise digital initiatives with new enthusiasm. But it’s not that simple. As ever the technology is the easy bit. If you want to use digital – whether to improve recruitment, teaching, assessment, or any part of the student cycle – don’t concentrate on the technology. Concentrate on your organizational culture.

New technologies open up new ways of working

When we kept track of our appointments on paper diaries, there was no way for your availability to be viewed by colleagues across the organisation. Now with a digital calendar this information can be shared openly. Changing the tool, from paper diary to digital calendar, can help you change the culture to become more open.

There are levels of maturity on how we adopt technology. To start, we simply replicate what we used to do, but just “do it on a computer”. It is only after a new technology has been introduced that we realise we can use it in completely different ways. Think about how we collaborate with colleagues remotely: first we replace synchronous, face to face meetings with synchronous Zoom meetings. The same as before – only worse! Later we start to ask: if we can share a proposal in a digital document and all collaboratively comment in the margin, can we get rid of the meeting entirely?

Towards a post-digital world

Changing the ways in which we work and teach takes time. Despite the upheaval of the global pandemic, change will not come overnight. However the coronavirus will substantially accelerate changes which were already underway.  We are moving towards a post-digital world, where digital is taken for granted as part of normal life.

Digital ways of working and studying will be accepted. They will not completely supplant the physical, they will be integrated into the physical. They will not be the only option, but they will be the default option.

The excessive hype about digital will be over. People will not feel as anxious using digital technologies. The concept of digital will move into the background, just as electricity is accepted as part of life today.

Universities will not have digital strategies. They will just have strategies. Digital touches on all aspects of the university. We won’t talk about digital transformation, we will talk about cultural change.

Working across boundaries

Today many universities behave more like loose coalitions of small businesses than integrated organisations. To achieve cultural change, we need to change our mental models of a university. The symbols we construct shape our thinking. If I could snap my fingers and change one thing, I would ban the org chart! A student with a query shouldn’t have to navigate an organizational chart to find the relevant department before they can get the help they need.

The big challenges within universities require working across previous boundaries. The old dichotomy of support staff and academic staff is increasingly unhelpful. There is increasing recognition of the importance of ‘third space’ staff, who straddle the traditional divide and see all perspectives. You probably have such people in your organisation already. If you have a Centre of Excellence in Teaching & Learning, with a group of learning technologists, you’ll find them there.

Staff need to take a holistic view of what is right for the institution and its customers, rather than looking after their own department​. Think from the students’ point of view, and focus on the experience of each student, rather than the process of running the university. You can go a long way with this. One possibility is to create a student experience directorate, and make traditional process-oriented functions such as Registry sub-ordinate to that. But I’m not a fan of focusing on structures. I’d first look to change the culture, purpose and priorities of the organisation.

To achieve change successfully

To successfully change an organisation, start small and grow responsively, constantly adapting and improving. Think of developing an organisation as we develop a garden.

A gardener will have a long-term vision. However, they start small, and focus on what is achievable right now. They will plant many seeds, of which some will flourish, and some will not. The gardener adapts. They feed and water the garden. They nurture green shoots which flourish and remove those which struggle. They take a small success and develop it into a bigger one.

The garden is constantly changing. It adapts and weathers the seasonal storms.

The garden is part of a broader ecosystem. It is managed but not controlled. Organic gardeners don’t attempt to impose mastery over nature with pesticides. If aphids are a problem, they encourage butterflies to eat the aphids.

If we care for it, in time the garden will be beautiful, productive and sustainable.

Infrastructure matters: don’t build your house on sand

Once you make the decision to treat and engage with people as individuals, prioritising their experience, you then need the technology infrastructure to deliver on this.

You need systems that join up your data across multiple departments, so when a student or applicant contact someone at the university, that person can have a university-wide view, not a departmental view.

You need systems which make the experience simple from the student point of view, so things just work seamlessly – true single sign-on. You authenticate once to the university, and after that, all services are accessible in one place, through an app or portal.

In conclusion: the change we need to make

The big challenges universities face require working across previous boundaries. To better serve our students we need to work together.

  1. All staff should focus on what is right for the institution, not their local department​. Develop and encourage new generation of third space staff, who straddle the traditional divide between academic and professional.
  2. Change how projects are run – we need Agile projects: business focused, with participants from across the organisation, and regular, small, quick deliverables.
  3. Consider the cultural assumptions embedded in your university about the purpose and priorities of the organisation. If these no longer fit, think carefully about how to change this. In a crisis it is essential to have a clearly articulated strategy for right now, and this needs to be top down. But find time to map the future, bringing all levels of staff together to shape the longer-term response.
  4. We used to procure and deploy process-centric IT systems, designed for one vertical function within the university. Instead we need a whole-institution enterprise architecture approach, that maps out the connections and data flows between systems.
  5. Strengthen your IT infrastructure, it is the foundation on which everything else is built. Implementing single sign on and Identity Management (IDM) presents a unified experience, so students can easily access what they need. Implementing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) gives staff helping students a holistic view of each individual and their relationship with the university.

Help is available

If this chimes with you, but you’re not sure where to go next, then you’ve come to the right place. SUMS Consulting are HE experts, not-for-profit, and owned by universities. We are here to help – from identifying short-term quick wins to supporting you in making the case for more fundamental change in your technology and culture.

Our expert team of consultants are highly experienced and ready to hit the ground running. Please reach out and we’ll be happy to discuss with you. Contact Joel Arber in the first instance


Webinar Recordings:

View the full video recording for webinar 1,  Cutting through the COVID noise: the need for transformation today, here.

View the full video recording for webinar 2,  Proposed solutions: the quick wins, here.

View the full video recording for webinar 3,  Playing the long-game: learning from the quick wins for the long-term solution here.

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