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How to make your digital transformation business case a reality in Higher Ed

Robert Mills • 19 minutes

In our recent webinar, Ayala Gordon, Head of Digital at University of Southampton, shared advice and techniques to help get stakeholders on board with projects. Using their recent and ongoing digital transformation work as a reference, Ayala offered examples and practical steps for effective multi-stakeholder management. This article is an edited transcript of the webinar (or you can watch the recording).

Putting users at the heart of everything

I want to share this important journey because it’s really about user needs and putting them at the heart of everything that we do. This is where a real impact can be made to any institution, especially in the university world.

The past 12 months have seen the University of Southampton backing a content-led transformation project. This is a time where the sector is seeing unprecedented changes, turbulence on so many levels, from Brexit, compliance, tuition fees, to name but a few.

So, although I won’t go into detail why you need a business case in the first place, the one thing that is worth iterating: nowadays it’s not enough just to do your job properly. You have to really provide the evidence that you are, in order to gain trust from your peers. When I started at the University, I had to build trust quickly, not just with executives but with a whole variety of stakeholders.

Coming from the commercial sector where we made decisions quickly, I was surprised how many papers we had to write. In a working environment like this, you have to do the thinking, because other stakeholders don’t have the time. So I did find that business cases in the form of short, coherent, consistently formatted reports can be a great way to get information across to a range of stakeholders quickly and easily.

Business cases in the form of short, coherent, consistently formatted reports can be a great way to get information across to a range of stakeholders quickly and easily.

This is really more about understanding the problem. I needed to build a case because the way we were doing things had many problems and was no longer fit for purpose. I remember speaking to many team members just to understand what had worked well in the past and what hadn’t, and what problems kept reoccurring. I got many different opinions. Some could be conflicting as well, but essentially you need to find your themes and ask for the evidence.

In our case, on the face of it, the university’s website looks okay. But what’s happening behind the scenes is a looming crisis. It’s important to look at the whole picture and recognise that what the organisation, and more importantly, its users, actually need, is something completely different.

The university’s website looks okay but what’s happening behind the scenes is a looming crisis. It’s important to recognise what the organisation wants, and what its users actually need, are completely different.

Once you get the picture from your team, you can start to put the pieces together, and it’s also very important to start talking to other decision-makers to understand their point of view and get some joined-up thinking. This is the beginning of forming a relationship.

We need creativity in order to break free from the temporary structures that have been set up by a particular sequence of experience.

Edward De Bono

I like Edward de Bono’s quote because he’s a big thinker around lateral thinking. You’ll hear a lot from many, many stakeholders, what can be done and what can’t be done and why? And things like, procurement takes too long, finances are done differently, this project doesn’t fit into the university government structure. These are things that I heard and I’m sure some of you have heard, as well. So it is important to develop your lateral thinking, and fast.

What I like about that quote is really it’s about the creativity and that you do need to break away from all the temporary structures and the particular sequences that have been established, and maybe that’s the reason why things don’t work anymore because things have moved on and we need to move on with the times.

It’s about finding better ways to do things. Lateral thinking, if we go back to that for a minute, it’s a really vital tool for organisations because this is the key to find new and better ways to do things. We need to understand that innovation is a necessity for competitive advantage and survival. As I mentioned earlier, the higher education sector is now described as turbulent, and lateral thinking is a creative tool that leads to more innovation.

The higher education sector is described as turbulent, and lateral thinking is a creative tool that leads to more innovation

Getting independent help to get you going is critical in terms of preparing your baseline and getting all your evidence together. We undertook a very thorough web audit. Sometimes to prove your point you do need to bring in someone independent to help and support you. We worked with Padma Gillen. He helped us navigate some of the uncertainty and help us shape some of the approach to content-led digital transformation.

A devolved publishing model not fit for purpose

Like many other universities, our current publishing model is highly devolved. We know that there are many problems, but we need an independent view of it to give us an accurate picture.

In the audit we examined a sample of 10,000 pages from a variety of sites. Some of them were defined as blogs, some of them were defined as micro sites, some of them were defined as our main corporate website. All of these gave us a very good evidence of what exactly the problems are.

The first issue that we had was around our publishing model. It was very evident that our publishing model is not fit for purpose. We have over 1,000 people publishing to the website, distributed across the university. The problems with a distributed model is that it’s very difficult to control and very difficult to ensure a culture of excellence in web content creation.

The problem with a distributed publishing model is that it’s very difficult to control, and very difficult to ensure a culture of excellence in web content creation.

That takes me nicely to governance model because again, our current governance model is not fit for purpose, and that was highlighted in the audit as well. It’s about having really strong subject matter experts responsible for accuracy of the information on this site, but it’s also about bringing in digital content specialists that are responsible for the way the information is presented to the users. So, clear roles and responsibility definitely need to happen.

Similarly, our domain model was not fit for purpose, so although at first glance it looks like we have a website, in reality it’s many, many websites all knitted together, and the information architecture is not clear. There are multiple redirections in place, it’s slowing the speed of the website, it’s causing big overheads around website maintenance, and as a result there is often a very long and broken user journey, an unintuitive experience for users.

Finally, our content strategy wasn’t fit for purpose. Our content creation model is not fit for purpose either, because there is no quality control built into the publishing workflow, quality content is not really required. It means individual publishers can unilaterally fend for themselves and publish whatever they want, and then it means that the central digital team have to negotiate with other people around the university in an attempt to minimise any damage to poor quality of content on the website. This brought everything to a head and also allowed me to have a lot more evidence to built into their business case.

We also needed to show other elements around the business case. Some of it was around the complexity of our digital web estates and why this was affecting content creation and the strategy around it. This really helped us determine some of the cost associated with supporting and maintaining this model, but also gave us a view on where to commission or decommission processes and requests for content.

Additional tools that we wanted to use were concerned with SEO, site speed and accessibility. One of the things we did was compare SEO calls with our server calls and do some accessibility audits around it, given how important accessibility is. We documented incidents around cyber security and although this isn’t directly within our remit, there was a good liaison with our IT department around it. I used all of these findings to illustrate the key points to the university stakeholders and no one really likes hearing how many spelling mistakes of the word university or opportunity are on the website, so that’s always good evidence to bring and demonstrate the risk to reputation.

Users have a choice

The bottom line is that users have a choice. They really don’t have to come to your university, and we compete out there not just against any other university, but against any other good online experience. With 16 to 18-year-olds, they are tech savvy. They are using technology on demand. If they can’t find the information that they need, they will go elsewhere, and if you have some evidence of people struggling to find information, this is a really good use case for your business case.

The bottom line is, users have a choice! – Taken from: How to make your digital transformation business case a reality in Higher Ed

Our conclusion was that the future is already here, just not evenly distributed. There was already a burning platform for us. It might be one for you as well. It might be competitors, it might be the state if your IT infrastructure, it might be your content management system, it might be the inability of the organszation to use data in a meaningful way. What I found that it was easier to articulate a narrative around the burning platform and why we need to deal with it.

Part of a business case is always the financing part, and that’s tricky especially if you’re looking to deliver a business case or if you’re looking to deliver your project in an agile way. So, in contrast to articulating the narrative, articulating the financial argument is much more complicated.

There will always, rightly so, be risk averse in committing funds over multiple financial years, and if they rely on student numbers, that will definitely be the case. They will want to see that value for money, they would want to be convinced that you will be drawing money only when milestones has been achieved and it can be tricky. Because in an agile project you may not always know what the milestones are and what the outcome might look like, because when you’re proposing to tackle a particular theme you will identify a solution after you’ve done a discovery.

The emotional journey of creating anything great

One of the biggest obstacles is how organisations work and changing the way it works by undoing the years and often the decades of institutionalised inertia, the way things have always been done. There is a comfort in doing things the same way and it made us successful, and it made us big, and perhaps most persuasive argument, no one ever got fired for doing it that way. All of these things happen.

The emotional journey of creating anything great is from John Saddington. What he’s saying is that it’s often, and in my opinion almost always, going to be emotional creating something great. It is inevitable.

It’s interesting to go through those stages with your team. Some people will be coming out of the dark swamp of despair, still feeling this sucks, but all of a sudden something changes. You can see really there the big bright light.

All businesses experience major shakeups from time to time. It could be due to internal initiatives or external drivers. The one thing you can do is speak to as many stakeholders as you can, with opposing views in order to find that unique creative perspective to explore how best to navigate them.

I try to meet with my biggest opponents straight away. I found out who they were, what would be the objections, and yes, I did do my own research before meeting them in the hope that we could establish a common ground quickly. It didn’t always work, but what I did learn was that many of them really mean well, and they really care and passionate about what they do. I also showed that I’m talking to them with no judgment, because maybe there was some history and legacy behind, and the way to really do it is to truly listen and reflect.

I won’t claim that it was perfect at all time. It wasn’t, but it was very valuable, and even if we disagreed, at least it gained some common ground and respect, we were joined in our thinking on the same level.

The Broken Hearts Club is a metaphorical way of trying to explain something. Any failure of previous attempts leaves scars. It also dulls the appetite for change. Stakeholders may want to fall in love again, believe that this time, this is true love, this is for real, but they’re unsure you’re going to be the one and if they can trust you when they got hurt so many times before.

You need to explain why this is going to feel different and excite stakeholders again, and you need to show, not tell, that this is about relationship-building. You are there for them, and they have to do some of the heavy lifting as well. So it’s relationship, right? We’re building something together, and this will create positive change culturally. This is where the vision is really important, as well as a clear demonstration of why the current situation is no longer acceptable.

You want to get your buy-in really early on. Change is not always complex, but it’s hard and uncomfortable. If you get the buy-in to the overall approach early on, this could be really powerful.

User needs workshops

One of the first thing that we did after the audit and after our executive board agreed for me to explore further, was carry out 23 user needs workshops across five campuses in three weeks. Our university is pretty big. There are approximately 6,000 members of staff. Five campuses in the UK and one abroad, and this was pretty challenging.

The above is a diagram from XKCD. I used it in the user needs workshops and I facilitated those with external help from Padma and his colleagues. The aim was to build the case and also to get the momentum behind OneWeb, and to pitch the concept of a user-needs approach to the rest of the university. It was a really good opportunity for stakeholders to get everything off their chests as well. This is the point. You really do learn quickly of all those people who’ve been scarred by previous attempts, and it was good to hear from them.

23 user needs workshops across five campuses in three weeks. That was part of getting stakeholder buy-in for the University of Southampton’s digital transformation mandate.

It was an opportunity for them to tell us where they think there is a problem, unpack some of the issues, but also give them an opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of the external users and get them to articulate user stories. We captured all the user sessions and stories, and it helped us to see where the gaps were. The next phase was to validate it against the real users’ feedback, and share this data. The workshops themselves were facilitated. We invited a bigger group to the first half an hour. We gave a very quick presentation around user needs and what it means and what the difference between pushing content and pulling content, and about how you articulate users’ stories and why it’s important, and invited everyone to ask questions.

Then other people left and key people that some of them are in high level positions and some of them are literally facing our users on a day-to-day basis, stayed in the room. That was a maximum of eight people, and we started articulating user stories together, and what they think people are coming to do on the website and why.

Once we’ve done the user needs workshops, there is a point here to really make around leadership and seizing opportunities. For those of you that work at universities like me, you understand how difficult this is because there is no real hierarchy. Yes, we have the Vice Chancellor at the top, but you can’t just go to the vice chancellor and say, “Can you please tell all the Deans to listen to me now?” Let’s face it, it’s never going to happen. There’s never going to be somebody’s boss at the university, so how do you really get all of these people to collaborate?

In addition, it is almost guaranteed that at some point you will experience change in leadership. These circumstances can range from favorable, so I would gain support from all parties, to potentially disastrous with lots of unknowns. This is important to make that point, because it encourages you to create holistic connections across many different stakeholders representing different parts of the university communities, from education, from research, from enterprise, from professional services, from research centers. All these different functions, so that if one disappears, all your hard work and support don’t go with them.

In political terms we need a strong coalition, so together we learn to see digital services as a core to user needs values. In our case I ensured that I spoke to all faculties and services as soon as possible after the user needs workshop. I followed it up one by one with senior leadership teams or faculty executive boards, then with the next level down. Making sure that I debriefed everyone, told them what happened, what were the outcomes of the user needs workshops, what we were going to do next.

Demonstrating a solid solution

It really allowed me to engage with other stakeholders that didn’t really have an opportunity to attend the workshops, and it also allowed me to set up an advisory group to see who would be interested in this sort of project, who would like to put themselves forward to it, and who has a real vested interest in it. Because I met quite a few people during the workshops, I already had some expression of interest, as well. Once I had some strong individuals in the mix, the word got out. So when I did my next rounds of debriefs, more people wanted to join this group, and that was really important.

Back to lateral thinking, thinking outside the box again. You want to try and find something that could demonstrate a solid solution to an existing problem and show it to your stakeholders. So we created a pilot for course pages in order to demonstrate that value. The strategy was to deliver something so popular and robust and useful that it would be absolutely crazy to go against it. It was solid and it had good rationale for doing it, and was a good way to demonstrate to stakeholders how we can make improvements quickly.

You also want to win friends outside and inside your institutions. I attended some meet-ups outside my organiSation. I spoke at conferences and also worked with some of the experts that have done this before. It’s also about designing for continuity, so living behind a set of standards based on common sense, usefulness for digital service design.

Ensure your team retains that knowledge, the skills and culture to navigate any period of transition, and it’s really not that easy. You also need to establish what needs to die/born/reborn, but it’s effectively stop/start/continue.

Champions and stragglers is about identifying the change champions and stragglers. It’s about speaking their language. For example, if they come from the world of engineering, use precision, numbers. Speak about the project like you’re building a machine. It might sound really simplistic, but it helps. Some leaders are not really afraid to say that they don’t understand and ask me to articulate things in plain English, but with some other people you can see that they totally switch off. I don’t want that. I want them to stay with me on what I’m explaining them, so I will always check if I was clear and if they would like me to clarify things further.

It’s about spotting the influencers. You may find them in places you wouldn’t really expect. it’s about trying to find out what are likely the objections to be before you enter the room and before you have time to reassess your position.

If you’re presenting a proposal, remember who is in the room. You always want your supporters, your cynics, and you want the reasonable people that might be swayed either way. When you present it to them you really want to show them a draft proposal and you want to tell them that we’ve done this work, we have identified this problem, here is the evidence. Look at these horrible videos of people trying to do something and can’t do it, or look at the data. I think we have a solution here, or I think we want to suggest a discovery to find out what the solution is going to be. This is the proposal and what do you think?

What will normally happen when you ask them, “What do you think?” this is it. You’re no longer part of the conversation. They are now telling you and this is really important.

The OneWeb Advisory Group

If we present this proposal as a journey, the same journey that I took them on right at the beginning, whether you’re a content strategist, whether you’re head of digital. Wherever you are in the organisations, we showed them the evidence. Recently we took them through a whole proposal and showed them the evidence. We arrived at a solution. We gave them the opportunity to ask lots of questions.

Normally what would tend to happen is your supporters will always say yes, no matter what. Your cynics will always say no, no matter what. Those reasonable people, those that were neutral, will probably follow that journey with you and will have landed in the same conclusion that you have landed. So you want to make sure that that’s what you want them to reach.

When you get to that solution and you take a step back and you say to them, “What do you think?” you basically sit back and let them critique it or say no or say yes, or get the people in the middle to take either … ideally they’re a yes side. Then they’re negotiating with one another whether it is a right solution or not. The beauty is that you picked those people to actually represent the entire spectrum of stakeholders because you chose them carefully.

My advisory group is brilliant. They are passionate, they are challenging. I know that if I put something in front of them they will debate it. Some of them will challenge me no matter what, and some of them will agree, and some of them will remain neutral until convinced. What is good about this group is that if they are there to support me and that’s their job, they know their area better than me and they will most definitely tell me if they think that I’m about to make a big mistake that will be bad for the project and bad for the university, and I need them because they will help me to bring the delivery of the project closer to the university community. This is the key to success and this is what their role is about.

When my colleague Mark and I were trying to meet a really tight deadline with our program board, we set up meetings with each of them individually in advance, made all the changes from the meeting, and then took everyone through the draft live at the board meeting. We asked all the members to come prepared with comments. We reminded everyone in advance the deadlines, and then drafted the final version together at the meeting. When you present it to everyone, you no longer say, “This is a proposal.” This is now no longer a draft. You say, “this is the solution to whatever we decided and we created it together, and with your peers.” This is a really big way of saving yourself time and it makes a huge difference in universities where central teams normally, not always, but can be perceived as detached or sitting in their ivory tower.

Never underestimate how many times you will need to repeat the same message in so many different ways. I think my line manager told me right at the beginning, he said, “You will need a lot of resilience.” And he was right. You will need resilience and patience, but good communication really goes a very long way, and you can never do enough of it.

The OneWeb Festival

I mentioned the alpha earlier, the course pilot that we did. This was done to show a real thing to stakeholders, especially those that couldn’t quite grasp what will be different. The pilot concentrated on three key areas. It was about testing different options to content and design, and it was about testing governance, and roles and responsibilities. We used GatherContent, for the workflow around it. We started doing weekly notes and we invited people to subscribe to our blog.

The other benefit that came out of the course pilot was understanding how we should scale this up when we get the full approval, and we had a lot of lessons learned from working in a multidisciplinary way and assessing the appetite for it. We did two show and tells for the university. At the end of week 10, which was the length of our pilot, we did one for the key decision-makers and our advisory group, and we opened the second one to the whole university.

At the end of the alpha, to illustrate that OneWeb is really a thing, we created a mission patch. It’s an internal engagement tool. It’s to give that sense of community.

We also did the OneWeb Festivals. I always said that when the project has got the green light, we would do something big to launch it. We hosted a festival for our students and staff. This was an opportunity to raise the profile of our team members and the expertise, but also to start changing the mindset by exposing more people to the concept of user needs, of agile, of content strategy, of governance, social listening, how to use social data, and user research.

At the university we have some very strong STEM subjects, so we actually have some really big experts around web science and around web semantics and accessibility and structure and user experience and gamification. So it really did give a really good platform for all these experts to come to see us and ask questions, and also to really bring it to the forefront that there is a way of collaborating.

How do you go about gaining and maintaining the attention of less digitally-minded leaders? This is more about gaining and maintaining political attention, because it’s really easy to bring external expertise, but what do you do when that’s gone? How do you equip your team with the right skills. There are a few tactics around it. First of all, it’s about showing the thing. Leaders are more excited by a live demo of a service rather than a proposed product or a screen grab. This is why the pilot was really important and we actually had something to show.

If you don’t have something as such, it is really quite useful to show a current service that is failing and how it can really help the bottom line. So something they will really care about. For example, registration for open days. But a cautious note, be prepared to justify why you haven’t fixed it if you’re showing it. Present the numbers to relate to the university’s core goals, or example, around number of applications, number of open days, bookings, these sort of things.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Winston Churchill

This is Winston Churchill. “Now this is not the end.” To me, it’s all about governance. We are not only just at the point where we are starting to tackle this. This is really integral part for a case for change, and depending on your organisation, this is where it can feel uncomfortable for some leaders. Occasionally you may need to alter the governance model, depending on the type of content.

The technology is the end point of the conversation. It’s really about the process. Again, there are many elements that are already well understood in this space, things like continuous deployment, split testing, incremental development, but in contract there is a really big elephant in the room almost every single time. It is the larger social and scale challenge. Models for accountability, oversight and management of digital platforms. It’s a really big deal, and this is where I think OneWeb is really critical for success. There are also other benefits associated with it, like control, access, which are ever so important now in a world where we have a lot of non-compliance elements, like the general data protection regulations, competition market authority and accessibility directive.

Powerful institutions

It’s really not just enough to have one powerful person behind you. You really need powerful institutions.

Stakeholders of the university will question where your mandate comes from. As part of your early discussions, you will need to establish your mandate. Ensure it is solid even when there is a change at the top. You need a horizontal mandate. Everyone knows and understands that OneWeb is the key priority. The vice chancellor, the VPs, the chief operating officer, the executive directors, the deans of faculties, the associate deans, head of operations, the school of directors, head of departments. They all know it, they understand it and they respect it.

More and more of these leaders understand that it’s not just about technologies and user-centered services. It also means new ways of working and new ways of governing. So it is about funding teams, not just projects, and working intuitively. It is also about shifting away from rigid hierarchies towards multi-disciplinary teams. This is where it can get very exciting. We don’t yet know if this is the ideal design for the University of Southampton, but we’re currently trying it out. We’re testing it out, our assumptions, and we’ll reevaluate how it’s working in a few months. This is the things that probably excites me the most because this is where the real difference can be made.

What our users want is access to the services they need, the content they need, at the right time on the right channel in the right phase of the journey, and faculties should not be building their own websites or data centers or CRMs. Taking a service approach that fades into the overall ecosystem is much more efficient, it’s much more secure, and it’s also better for our users.

Budgeting for success. We’re not there yet with all of it, but this is very interesting from Harvard Kennedy school. It’s about digital maturity around financing projects. You can see the low scale where digital services budget is scraped together from funds allocated to other departments, or the ultimate way that you want to be working is in future state, where you have more budget, including funding for operating as well as capital expenditure. That’s the ideal state.

Like many higher education institutions, we’re in the lower medium part, and this is where a lot of my work was focused in the latter part of 2018. So to agree a multi-year budget for this project.

Write your case with good data and a convincing argument. It is essential that you pick the people that make you uncomfortable and the people that you trust implicitly with good arguments and good data, and they will all arrive at the same solution that you want them to arrive.

There is no way of avoiding the cost-related question. Change is expensive, and it is really important to demonstrate that it is also expensive in relearning. So people will remember the last project that went badly that they were involved with, and they will have no problem pointing the fingers at you. You can only show them why they should trust you and why this is going to be a real value for your higher education institution. Try to communicate the real benefit of this change and get people who are not always close to the project to check that you’re saying it in plain English and that you explained yourself really well.

You can watch the recording of Ayala’s webinar, check out our blog for lots of practical advice for content teams, find all upcoming and past webinars in our resources, or learn more about GatherContent for Higher Ed institutions.

Webinar transcript: How to make your digital transformation business case a reality in Higher Ed.

About the Author

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent

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