The Changing Face of Technology in Higher Education

3 February 2020
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By Dawn McKenzie, Senior HE Consultant, Inoapps

In recent years, as universities have gone to market for solutions to manage the range of processes associated with their core activities of teaching, research, and service, their interest in adopting Cloud technologies has been evident. It is not unusual for tenders to specify that only Cloud solutions will be considered, as they represent the cutting edge and institutions don’t want to invest in yesterday’s technology. However, many institutions underestimate the impact of moving away from on-premises technology and this blog aims to describe some of the challenges associated with Cloud implementations.

Having worked with IT in HE for over ten years, the move from on-premises systems to Cloud computing represents a significant paradigm shift. There are many challenges posed by the Cloud, not only in relation to learning and understanding the products available, but also with regards to the way in which organisations adapt to the new technology. While the Cloud has many advantages related to efficiency, scalability, cost, and usability it normally represents a significant change in the way institutions are used to working.

While IT implementation projects focus primarily on activities required to make the technical changes necessary for the introduction of a new system, in my experience the social aspect of technological change and of process standardisation is an element which can be overlooked or considered to be an optional extra – a ‘nice to have’. Universities often struggle to move from fragmented methods of data-gathering and recording to on-premises enterprise systems and centralised reporting. This results in problems as people try to adjust to new process dependencies and to revised ways of carrying out their activities and users find themselves having to amend their ways of working so that they align more closely with other groups to ensure they are processing accurate and useful data. Also, the opportunities to redesign or extend Cloud solutions are more limited than they tend to be with custom-built or on-premise systems. As a result, change management takes a greater priority as universities attempt to standardise the way people process data.

Change management enables universities to gain a better understanding of their situation and to develop techniques to help identify and resolve problems and manage ongoing change. This is reflected in the results of my academic research into the subject, which demonstrated that effective change management requires the creation of both formal and informal structures to encourage collaboration and knowledge-sharing. This poses significant problems as university departments often exercise a high degree of autonomy and independence from the rest of the institution. However, without forums for cross-departmental knowledge-sharing and communication, it is almost impossible to design and build robust systems and structures which meet user needs. Universities, therefore, need to adopt a holistic approach to change to allow them to fully understand the range of processes and activities undertaken by staff and students and to identify weaknesses in their structures which inhibit vital communication and collaboration.

This requires a cultural shift for many universities, something they perhaps don’t anticipate or fully appreciate when going out to tender for a new IT system. The creation of expert knowledge and the validation and communication of effective knowledge require commitment and an investment of time and resources. I’ve found that user groups can be an invaluable tool as they enable the production and dissemination of knowledge from across different areas and varied contexts and they can help to build a shared understanding of processes, systems, and dependencies, while also exposing areas of complexity or obscurity. Such groups also help to mitigate against employee turnover by helping to ensure that organisational knowledge remains within the group and does not disappear as individual group members move on. I also recommend that universities look to their previous experience of change and identify issues which arose before, not to apply old solutions to new problems, but to look at the structures, policies, and behaviours which previously enabled – or inhibited – successful change and to learn from those experiences. A focus on the process of change and the results facilitates organisational learning which enables universities to better manage future change.

Inoapps recognises the investment involved in the procurement of Cloud solutions and we work together with our clients to prepare them for their move to the Cloud. Our project methodology embeds change management into the implementation process and facilitates knowledge-sharing and collaboration across different groups and parts of the university. These techniques not only help universities to make a success of technological change, but also assist them in learning how to manage future change and deal with unexpected outcomes and results. As the environment in which HE operates continues to evolve, it will be these tools and techniques which prove invaluable to the university, long after the technology has moved on.

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