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Bringing a digital strategy to life: expert advice from the University of Greenwich’s Director of Information and Library Services

July 14, 2020

It’s one thing to acknowledge the need for digital innovation and digital dexterity in response to student expectations and business continuity challenges—and another thing to bring those ideas to fruition. Digital strategies can be really helpful in this regard, aligning campus stakeholders around a shared vision for a digital university.

Among institutions not only developing but actually executing ambitious digital strategies, the University of Greenwich is at the front of the pack. In recent years, the university has introduced a comprehensive student-facing mobile app co-designed by students, major enhancements to the virtual learning environment, unified the library management system in a shared services model with two other universities, and implemented university-wide lecture capture automated through the timetabling system. Their digital strategy ranks amongst the most compelling EAB has found in its analysis. In fact, the University of Greenwich’s approach aligns closely with the five hallmarks of effective digital strategies identified by EAB.

If you’re interested in listening to EAB’s conversation on digital transformation with Paul Butler in full, you can do so below.

EAB recently spoke with Paul Butler, Director of Information and Library Services and ‘digital transformation czar’ at the University of Greenwich. We’ve excerpted the conversation below to highlight how the University of Greenwich has brought to life the five hallmarks of effective digital strategies, especially in light of increased focus on digital resilience and agility.

Paul’s comments below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Hallmark 1: Bold, future-oriented goals foreground the university mission

Paul: To create a digital strategy, you have to start with your institution. The strategy isn’t an island unto itself – it doesn’t sit in its own space. Rather, it needs to reflect and provide for the university’s corporate strategy, mission, and vision. You need to understand the DNA of your institution, you need to understand its past and present, its appetite for change, and its culture. Once you’ve understood that, you can partner with and lead the institution to facilitate and craft a vision that helps bring together key principles. If anyone looks at the structure of your strategy, they should be able to find a thread of principles that help university decision-making, prioritisation, and governance.

To do this, I’ve ensured that my team and I operate as an ally and a partner to university leadership. We’ve been baked into that process, making sure that the university is making the right decisions at the right time, and to ensure that solutions are in place with the right level of scale.

Hallmark 2: Academic and operational outcomes, not vendor contracts, herald success

Paul: The strategy needs to be authentic. You can’t lift a strategy from another organisation and superimpose it on yours. Your strategy needs to resonate and reflect your institution. That authenticity will motivate leadership and staff in the university to believe in its vision. A sign of authenticity is that, even during a crisis (such as the on-going pandemic), Greenwich’s digital strategy at a strategic level is unchanged. It doesn’t need an edit. It still resonates, and it’s still clear that it foregrounds the right initiatives. At a tactical level, in terms of practical 16-, 12-, 18-month plans, there may be some shifting around, with regards to timelines or prioritisation. For example, we’ve had to pause activity related to changing learning environments because we’ve not been able to get onsite. Instead, we are able to double down on our Virtual Campus model – facilitating remote desktops, VPN access, and student access to subject-specific software.

Hallmark 3: KPIs and milestones stake out a roadmap for transformation

Paul: KPIs and metrics are crucial, but it is also possible to have too many KPIs. A digital strategy shouldn’t be about over-measurement, or about granular IT and technology metrics. KPIs should focus on use and adoption. Universities should be thinking about which KPIs will help us measure the success of our digital strategy within the context of the university strategy and mission? That will help measure and plan for true transformation. The important metrics are the ones about how people feel, their satisfaction, and their response to digital change. This is more important than hitting a KPI on network availability.

Hallmark 4: Transparency and inclusivity are hardwired to promote campus engagement

Paul: We made sure to build our current digital strategy on the foundations of our previous IT strategy. It was a deliberate decision to openly articulate that our current strategic approach is not a re-set – we are building on work we’ve already been doing for five years, but with a change in focus. Instead of an IT focus on technology, infrastructure, governance, and support, we were now transitioning to a digital focus on people, experiences, processes, and culture. This transparency fosters open communication and gives staff an understanding of what came first, and why we’re now focusing on digital.

Hallmark 5: Training and education facilitate cultural change and technology adoption

Paul: The art of leadership is to make sure that there are key themes and principles that run through the strategy. Strategies will have a series of programmes and projects revolving around tactical solutions, but there should be overarching macro-themes to tie it altogether. The one theme that we’ve nailed through this process is around use-skills – ensuring that we can implement technology and have it effectively adopted to create impact. One of the most important things is not just the infrastructure and platforms, but a scaled support model to help people navigate training and guidance so they can implement these solutions effectively.

Final words of advice

Paul: The job of the CIO is to make sure that you are not only delivering on the strategy, but also communicating the strategy with university leadership. It’s important that they’re constantly briefed and a part of the conversation so that they can see the value of your digital transformation efforts. Because IT isn’t just a cost centre. It’s essential to the effective running of an organisation. The CIO needs to ensure that the university understands that if we stop digital transformation, the entire organisation will suffer. Of course, we will need to share in savings targets – that’s only fair for being a good citizen in the organisation – so we should think about what cyclical investment we can pause or push back, but also make the case for those initiatives that should not be paused.

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