EAB sits down with the University of Exeter’s Chief Information and Digital Officer to discuss digital transformation

Expert Insight

EAB sits down with the University of Exeter’s Chief Information and Digital Officer to discuss digital transformation

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that digital transformation (DX) is no longer a luxury, but a foundational investment for the higher education sector. To further unpack this new reality, EAB’s Nalika Vasudevan recently sat down (virtually) with Alan Hill, Chief Information and Digital Officer at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Below, Alan shares his insights on balancing immediate IT needs in response to the pandemic with longer-term digital priorities and offers up advice for those universities just getting started with DX.


Alan Hill is the University of Exeter’s first Chief Information and Digital Officer. He comes to the higher education sector from the UK Ministry of Defence, where he was responsible for global military network operations and cyber defence. Read more about Alan’s background and his work at the University of Exeter here.

This transcription has been edited for brevity and clarity.

EAB: What role did IT and digital services play in supporting the transition to remote operations at the University of Exeter in the wake of the pandemic?

Alan: Our response as a university was oriented first towards staff and student safety. In anticipation of the government’s direction to begin social distancing, I proactively moved IT staff and operations off-campus to minimise disruption. We had to be prepared to keep the entire university working. By going offsite early, we had a jumpstart on operational planning for staff and students as they went remote.

We then pulled forward some of our planned projects, like the rollout of Microsoft Teams and a new virtual private network. We took a risk because we’ve had previous challenges where we hadn’t invested enough in the adoption and learning process. But this was an emergency. In the case of Teams, we rolled out the platform to the entire campus community, students and staff alike, in a little over a week. Introducing these tools early allowed us to respond to COVID-19 more quickly than other institutions. And then we were able to focus on other issues critical to closing out the academic year, like administering exams in the virtual learning environment.

EAB: How would you describe the state of digital transformation efforts at the University of Exeter before the pandemic?

Alan: We’ve been building the digital transformation message for about three years. And we had a very good capital programme lined up, too. If you get product and culture right, you can have a straight path towards digital transformation.

In fact, we were just warming up our approach to building the culture of digital transformation when the pandemic hit. We were designing a plan for encouraging all colleagues addressing a business problem to consider digital solutions. It’s a mindset as much as an individual skillset. Of course, that’s always a challenge, given the variety of experiences and comfort with digital. There are some who are always asking for more, always pushing, and some people who really don’t want anything to do with it. And there are a lot of people in the middle, who want to do something, but don’t know how.

Adoption is now extremely important. When that goes badly, transformation fails. So, we’ve been investing a lot of time in moving that middle group forwards in the digital adoption journey. The infrastructure and financing is there—now it’s about the people.

EAB: What’s the outlook for digital transformation at the University of Exeter now?

Alan: There will be some hard decisions to make about investments. Budgets will be tight—no doubt about it. But we also recognise that digital and IT are the route to survival. In fact, you probably need to invest more now, in order to get through the next six months to a year. And what if we get a second or third coronavirus spike in what is now a very difficult-to-predict environment?

In the past, we’ve focused on the adoption of tools and technologies. And now we need to move faster and do even more. But thankfully we are beginning to get to a point where it’s business need that is driving the requirements, rather than me as the CIO/CDO pushing others towards digital transformation all the time. 

EAB: How are you balancing short-term digital needs and challenges that have emerged alongside the pandemic with the longer-term goals and transformation projects you already had planned?

Alan: We re-categorised our priorities into three buckets:

1. Essential: non-negotiable projects that are necessary to keep operating

2. Keeping pace with competitors: important projects, but needing some reprioritisation in terms of urgency

3. Being exceptional: projects that offer opportunities for real differentiation, which should be reprioritised based on ROI.

Fortunately for us, projects such as website resilience, implementing Teams for remote working, and improvements to the virtual learning environment were all priority areas before the pandemic. We brought some of those forward into the ‘essential category’ and reordered others depending on pressing needs, like online exams. Everything else moved down the priority list.

However, some components are ever-green areas that require continual investment. IT modernisation, for example, is absolutely critical: you can’t operate if your storage is end-of-life. You’ve got to move to the cloud, and you’ve got to invest in security. And now, in this new environment, having a beautiful user experience is critical because users can’t find the local IT person to answer questions. They have to figure things out for themselves. We’ve had to review our governance structures as well, because being able to respond quickly, at scale, is really important. If we take our usual amount of time to get approvals, to secure finances, to stand up a new project, etc., we’ll be in the same place forever.

EAB: What types of projects do you plan to take on as you look towards the autumn, particularly given evolving student expectations?

Alan: The most demanding autumn scenario from my perspective is one in which we have students both on- and off-campus. We have to plan for that kind of ebb and flow, depending on what’s happening globally, as well as within the UK itself. We’re preparing by thinking through two broad, but closely linked, elements of student experience: teaching and learning, and campus life.

For teaching and learning, we’re rapidly revising our offer to suit online learning. We’re planning to use about 200 graduates and/or furloughed staff as ‘learning technicians’ to help academics adapt their teaching content for a remote environment. We want teaching to move beyond just PowerPoint. We have the right platforms, and we’re rebuilding our virtual learning environment to handle the scale of this enhanced learning experience as well.

For campus life, we’re thinking through questions like: How do you onboard students when they’re at home? How do you get them to meet their classmates if half of them are on campus and half aren’t? If you want to play football, for example, can you come together in a group video-chat and actually get to know each other? And then go and play football on Xbox or PlayStation? This is a real challenge.

EAB: We know that the sector is facing financial drain in the coming years. How do you plan on making the case for ongoing investment in digital transformation?

Alan: We’re not going out and asking for money for the IT department. Instead, we’re letting business owners across the university make the case for investment. If the business needs it, they will create the case and justify the need. And we’ll be right alongside them to help. But it’s not nearly as convincing for me to argue for bells and whistles on various digital projects as it is for the business owner to take the lead.

At the same time, I have to make the case for the pure IT stuff, for platforms and modernisation. I make that argument using a risk-based approach. If storage is end-of-life, we’ve got to replace the storage. End of discussion.

EAB: For institutions that may not have a strong foundation of digital transformation experience and conversations on their campus, where should they begin?

Alan: Your senior executives and board must be fully aligned with the digital transformation vision. For some campuses, this is really difficult. If you don’t do online shopping, or if you don’t use a smartphone, you’re going to struggle to understand what it means to ‘put stuff in the cloud’ or ‘to make it elastic’.

To get that leadership buy-in, produce a product or experience so they can touch, feel, see, and understand the potential for digital. Literally hold their hand and take them through that journey, helping them imagine what things could be like. When you see and feel something, it’s a lot easier to understand. Once you’ve got that person on board, they become an advocate, and they really start thinking about how things can be done differently.

Now’s the opportunity for digital transformation to be at the heart everything, for you to sit alongside your colleagues in education, research, and professional services, and help them reimagine solutions to their business problems.

And that’s where I’d say to get started. If you haven’t started that conversation, you need to start it really, really fast. There are more business problems now than ever before.

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