Planning in the sand: building your institution a foundation of resilience and adaptability
Planning for the long-term viability of your institution is a tough prospect in a period where we’re all facing daily social, health, and financial upheavals. The situation is particularly difficult in higher education, where the need for adaptability, strong governance, and transparency have never been greater, with questions around changing demographics, enrollment fluctuations, tuition cost, value for money, and public trust, with the digital experience gap raising real concerns for future viability.
Digital transformation – particularly in the form of moving to the cloud – has emerged as a strong part of the solution to these challenges. Particularly to help institutions strengthen data-driven decision making.
At this year’s X4U our Head of Higher Education Nick Schiavi spoke to The Tambellini Group’s VP of Industry Relations and Corporate Strategy about the nature of the challenges faced by higher education and how institutions can hope to forge a path forward even as the ground shifts beneath them.
The status quo in higher education: a slow trend towards change
Digital transformation as a process in the higher education world has been slower than in many other sectors. There are many reasons for this, but we can characterize the situation broadly as a combination of a lack of awareness at the highest levels in institutions of the possibilities afforded by technology, and a generally conservative attitude towards change in general, compounded by limited resources.
Beyond this, we should also consider the maturity of solutions in the sector – which has also generally lagged behind maturity in the wider marketplace. It’s also impossible to downplay the role of finances and budgetary squeeze – which have been a reality in higher ed since long before COVID came along.
But despite this slow progress, we’ve seen some excellent examples of pre-COVID digital transformation projects that have been implemented extremely successfully. From individual tools to full-scale, modern ERP system replacements. We can use these examples as the basis of how to plan for the future even as requirements continue to change rapidly.
New challenges – responding when change is no longer merely optional
COVID has accelerated every challenge the industry faced before its arrival even while adding some new ones to the mix. Financial uncertainty has been an issue for over a decade, and has now worsened. Access equality and demographic challenges take on a whole new urgency in an environment where remote learning is a must – as do the problems of disjointed legacy systems, immature remote capabilities, and slow speeds of adoption and less-than-stellar change management practices.
But the best example of change inspired by COVID has been a complete change in the strategic thinking around research and teaching and learning. We’ve been concerned around online learning as an option, but we’ve seen huge changes and innovation in the use of these tools as they become the only viable option for getting the job done. As in many other industries, concerns have overshadowed the opportunities presented by new technologies, and COVID has acted as an abrupt catalyst to overcoming many of those concerns.
Planning in this kind of environment requires us to think about the future in different ways, and embrace new technologies much faster. We know now that it’s possible – because we all just proved we can make large-scale changes in short order. And we’ve already heard many leaders tell us they’re never going back to the way things were before.
The biggest obstacle to the future is the current way of doing things
Our plans for the next few years have to be focused around addressing the biggest challenges to long term success. COVID has revealed that many of the business models we built our institutions on are fundamentally extremely fragile, and we rob ourselves of the ability to deliver exceptional experiences and outcomes to learners from all backgrounds if we are unable to change them and remain flexible to respond to whatever the future has in store.
What will the modern institution look like – and how will we get there?
Higher Education is very good at building for what we know. But it’s much harder to build for uncertainty. When we’ve built facilities, we’ve designed them for our needs right now – and then been confronted with a finished product that isn’t fit for purpose by the time it’s done. The same can often be said of the way we’ve designed and scoped for technology.
The institutions of the near future look quite different than the institutions of today – we’re already beginning to see many consolidations and mergers announced. They’ll need to be strategically built as much around digital architecture as physical architecture – focused on student experience and on a flexible model of learning and teaching.
Because of this, the technology choices your institution makes now will be the most important element of their long-term viability.