Digitalization of higher education goes beyond IT
By Onno wasser
Education is personalizing thanks to technological advances along the principles of ‘any time, any place, any path, any space’. New parties are claiming a share of the market based on digital platforms with modern online and offline learning concepts. Traditional universities and colleges will have to make organizational, process and IT changes in order to keep up. Anderson MacGyver helps these institutions make the right choices.
Like any sector, education faces changing social and economic dynamics. Universities and colleges must move efficiently, quickly, agile and scalable with market developments. The broad digitization leads to changing needs among students and other stakeholders, which must be anticipated and responded to. The journey of the customer on the one hand, the student, must become central. On the other hand, also the journey of the employees, the researchers and not least the staff. The student and the researcher demand fit-for-purpose support, the staff demands workable technology to perform their work effectively and efficiently.
At Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU), in view of these developments, a digitalization ambition was formulated several years ago, aimed at personalized education, among other things. “With everything we tackle, we ask ourselves how this makes it easier for the student or teacher,” said Ellen Schuurink, who is responsible for digitalization. “Operations are organized so that students, teachers and researchers can focus optimally on their core tasks.”
“In everything we tackle, we ask ourselves how it makes it easier for the student or teacher“Ellen Schuurink
Freedom of motion
Many higher education organizations, however, are limited in their freedom of movement by the legacy of outdated technology and historically accumulated specificity in processes and IT. In addition, partially decentralized governance and mandatory tendering stand in the way of a proactive approach. The question is: how do traditional institutions in higher education ensure that they can still be agile?
The corona pandemic has emphasized the urgency even further. “It has become even more visible how important digitalization is,” said Ronald Stolk, Director Center for Information Technology (CIT) and CIO of the University of Groningen. “We are increasingly floating on IT. From a traditional structure, you are too slow to support that quickly and adequately. You therefore need to assign responsibilities further down in the organization: people must be able to make their own decisions to a certain extent in consultation with IT consultants.”
Fit for future
In these changing dynamics, a ‘fit for future’ design of IT is crucial: a stable foundation that is at the same time flexible enough to allow for customer-oriented innovation. Contrary to popular belief, technology is not the starting point of such a transition. On the contrary: you can only start thinking in cohesion about a suitable IT when business activities, operations and organization have been examined. After all, each component requires appropriate support.
Digital transformations are not limited to modernizing existing IT. “Such a fundamental change process is highly multidisciplinary,” said Rob van den Wijngaard, director of Leiden University’s Administrative Shared Service Center (ASSC). “If you pull a string within one domain, it irrevocably starts to move along elsewhere. The HR component in particular is very important and is quite often overlooked.”
The ASSC director promotes a multidisciplinary approach that includes aspects such as people and culture, processes, management & organization, customer interaction and information technology. As such, change is always embedded in the big picture.
“If you pull a string within one domain, it irrevocably starts to move along elsewhere“Rob van den Wijngaard
That holistic view was the starting point of the analysis Anderson MacGyver conducted at both Hogeschool Utrecht and the aforementioned two universities. In Leiden, this involved all major activities and stakeholders: managements of functional areas such as HR, finance and IT. Plus the people responsible for information management. “The result is a widely supported and driven report and follow-up process,” said ASSC director Van den Wijngaard.
Anderson MacGyver’s report confirms that for many basic activities, you can suffice with unified processes and solutions. “You can thus benefit, for example, in the HR domain from cloud-based platforms such as Workday or SuccessFactors, which are developed as ‘industry standards’ specifically for higher education or another sector.”
However, a lot of energy flowed away into insufficiently unified and harmonized basic activities. When you address that, people can put more time and energy into things that make a difference for the university. Van den Wijngaard: “Eighty percent of all things you can organize tightly and as standardized as possible. For the remaining twenty percent, you provide customization or specific solutions, with which you make the difference as a university.”
Anderson MacGyver helps make that trade-off between ‘uniform’ and ‘specific’. For supporting business activities such as finance, HR and procurement, ideally you want to set up the automation once properly and uniformly to have little to worry about later. In terms of effort – and thus capacity and budgets – the focus can then be placed on supporting the primary, mostly customer, researcher and other end-user oriented activities.
The technology available to support the uniformly arranged processes are mostly package solutions, the more integrated platforms such as ERP suites or best of breed applications for debtor management, invoice scanning and matching or procurement support, for example. In principle, those packages offer in the standard adequate functionality. Processes should be adapted to them instead of customizing the systems to fit those processes.
Manager Digitalization Business Operations Ellen Schuurink and her HU colleagues were helped by Anderson MacGyver in the ERP domain: a trajectory around the optimization of the basic administration. “By examining the entire work process and the supporting IT, you get a very good picture of the coherence, including the adjacent financial processes and systems.”
This also brings up the impact of choices. Schuurink gives an example: “For us, a contract student – who combines work and study – is of a different interest than a 17-year-old who chooses an advanced program in his or her region. The latter will come to us naturally, while for contract students we are competing with other colleges and commercial and non-commercial institutions at home and abroad.”
“Both categories relate to the administrative process, but for the young student from the region, in terms of CRM, we can probably suffice with a standard solution, while for the contract student we may have to differentiate.”
Ronald Stolk has been responsible for all IT-related matters at the University of Groningen since 2017. In addition to office automation, focusing on HR, finance and facilities issues, among others, there is the support of the research and education domains. The size and diversity of the organization poses challenges for Stolk – also a professor of clinical epidemiology – and his associates when it comes to secure, high-performing, available and appropriate IT support.
“Universities employ very special and important people,” said the Director of CIT and CIO. “They discover great things for society. This involves pushing the boundaries quite often: building their own solutions for research, inventing things. Those teachers and researchers are part of one of the 11 faculties, all of which are organized differently and thus have a certain degree of autonomy. As such, they have their own requirements regarding the same central IT service.”
Anderson MacGyver has helped deal with that in the best way possible. The Agile transformation that was initiated five years ago has been further developed over time in order to easily translate questions and requests into the most appropriate solutions. Stolk: “The optimal governance is clearly visualized with areas and colors. Moreover, a distinction is made between IT support that you can standardize and IT with which you really distinguish yourself as the University of Groningen.”
“There is a distinction between IT that you can standardize and IT that you distinguish yourself with“Ronald Stolk
As an example, recently a computing cluster costing tons that was funded from the decentralized research budget was incorporated into the infrastructure. “Sometimes there is a gray area, then somewhere a server is running under a desk or in a broom closet. Then you have a governance challenge. The approach of Anderson MacGyver taught us how best to interpret and adjust those things.”
In decentralized governance, you can start a dialogue about every solution that should make a difference, adds HU’s Ellen Schuurink. “With a lot of support processes, uniform systems suffice. It is a missed opportunity to do it all on a small scale and each to his own. That does require clear demarcation, where you choose technological solutions that fit the strategy and purpose of use.”
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