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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Opinion| Pressure mounts on universities to continue their digital journeys

By Liesel Grobbelaar, principal consultant at Analyze Consulting

THE pandemic forced universities to adopt various cloud-based technologies. With students being stationed all over the country and simply not allowed to go to lecture halls, universities had to modernise their teaching. Online interactions are normal in almost every industry today, including tertiary education.

For universities, it means that institutions can interact online and provide online resources for students, while some newer players in the industry offer a fully remote learning experience. While some organisations may not have been considered competition before, they certainly are now, as they have provided options of convenience, speed and efficiency for students that have the means to partake in online education.

Most tertiary institutions in South Africa run on a not-for-profit model, and so don’t traditionally assess competition and competitive advantage from a commercial perspective to be as important as their academic and research credentials.

On the other hand, a traditional business – and there are businesses offering education in the tertiary sector – is driven by the pursuit of profits and pressure from shareholders. While these businesses do not run in the same manner as traditional tertiary institutions, their efficiency and innovation is providing compelling options for prospective students, in the form of fees, convenience and – for lack of a better description – user experience. Let’s not forget that we live in the era of digital natives who demand certain levels of online experience and speed.

While traditional tertiary institutions draw most of their operating income from research income, grants and the charging of student fees, we are certainly seeing that there is far more focus from university councils on the importance of managing the business side of their institutions.

They are analyzing things such as how profitable different courses are within their faculties, looking at the value of introducing new courses based on demand, unique selling points and profitability. In order to be able to do this effectively, councils are looking towards the administration and support functions within universities, such as finance, human resources, student fee administration, and more, to pull together different numbers and insights to make business decisions.

The big problem for many institutions now, is that their current operational or administrative systems are almost entirely on-premise and not providing them with these answers quickly or easily. It takes an inordinate amount of effort and time to extract the relevant data from their systems, which also may not be entirely up to date. Then, when they do actually get to the information and report on it, too much time has passed to be able to make relevant and agile decisions.

And so, just like the pandemic forced the digitisation on the front end, it is fair to suggest that the pressure to remain relevant, attractive and profitable is forcing the digitisation of the back-end, to move from fully on-premise to a hybrid or fully cloud ecosystem. Migration to the cloud, and its immense ability to provide real-time, actionable insights, has therefore become non-negotiable.

Where universities do decide, despite mounting pressure and warning signs, to delay their cloud transformation journeys, they risk far bigger problems further down the line, because as there is more adoption of cloud technology, vendors will increasingly stop supporting the older versions of their technology.

As universities go through their transformation journeys, they have to go through a tender, selection and procurement process and most institutions have fairly stringent procurement frameworks.

A good starting point for any university is to understand that software vendors are trying to sell their products. They display the absolute top-shelf, prime examples of what their products can do. Now, if we are honest, tertiary institutions don’t go through these types of processes often – we are dealing with one now that last did this 13 years ago, while others last upgraded their systems even longer ago.

Without a partner present, who is an expert in transforming organisations such as theirs, they will not know where the caveats are: do they buy this module, add that, or buy the whole suite, what are the licensing implications, and does it actually solve the institution’s unique problems or does it simply put a new software face onto the same old processes?

It is crucial to understand that digital transformation, whichever guise it takes, is about more than just changing systems and processes. A successful transformation requires change from a people point of view.

Change leadership is fundamental to a project’s success. This starts with assuring current IT resources that their jobs are safe, albeit different, and it is followed up with comprehensive training and support to guide all of the university’s staff through the change, and to empower them to unleash the power of the new technology.

And so, as they embark on the second leg of their digital transformation journeys and bring their back office, administration, HR and finance systems into the cloud, universities can go a long way towards reducing the pain of delays and failures by always choosing a partner who has experience, and scars, in implementations within tertiary institutions. This gives them access to industry best practice every step of the way.


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