June 2024

Digital transformation in Higher Education: Launch, learn, iterate

Driving digital change in higher education has traditionally been perceived as challenging and laden with connotations of daunting, never-ending journeys of change. Whilst universities have begun to embrace digital transformation in efforts to enhance student experience and academic success, many institutions approach this as a massive overhaul, requiring years of planning and implementation. 

Does this still work in this modern era of rapid change and advances to technology, or is it time that we explored a radically different approach to transformation within higher education? Should we not look at the components that make up the overarching change? At Loomery, we’ve worked with teams that shipped products in days, and in organisations that have taken over a year to deliver. The outcome? Teams that released their products earlier achieved better results. 

Below, we explore our thoughts on why this might be the case..

Starting small helps you learn effectively 

It sounds simple, but breaking down the digital transformation process into smaller, more manageable components is key. Targeting progress against shorter-term milestones provides valuable insights into what works, and what doesn’t. This doesn’t have to be an arduous process: gather insights from users and build something that responds to these. You achieve zero value, and learn nothing, until users have and use a product. You can take a year building an all-singing, all-dancing, feature-rich product but it’s all cost and no benefit until it's deployed. Shipping something (even if it's one part of a wider change project), however small, is helpful. 

For example, during our student app build for the University of Bath, we sent our team out into the frontline of freshers week and seized the opportunity to recruit student testers. These students became the basis for a diary study, which rewarded students for sending us feedback detailing how and why they were using MyBath in their day-to-day life. The results were outstanding! 

Urgency forces prioritisation

Moving quickly forces ruthless prioritisation, and makes people focus on the tasks that truly matter. 

This pressure makes people get serious about why they’re doing something, leading to more efficient decision-making and execution. It can often reveal underlying issues within the organisation, such as conflicts or misunderstandings about who is responsible for the product and related services. It highlights any lack of clarity regarding roles, responsibilities, and process, which can then be addressed to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation.

Deploying a live product brings to light the processes that urgently need improving and changing. For example, how are you going to fuel this with great content? How are you going to support this new service? These insights are invaluable for continuous improvement, and identifying them early on ensures alignment with overarching strategic goals.

Shipping early creates value

Shipping an early version of a digital product allows universities to start delivering value to their students right away. It’s better to deploy a basic but functional version quickly than to delay for months or years in pursuit of a perfect product - and is there such a thing? Early deployment also helps identify any issues or gaps, which can be addressed in subsequent iterations. 

This approach is how we rapidly delivered an enhanced digital experience for new students joining Exeter University during COVID-19. We had the first version of a 'new students guide' website up and running within the first week of development, allowing for daily testing and constant improvements. After three weeks of development, we launched the first version of the site, a week ahead of our target deadline. And over the next three weeks, we released three more iterations, enhancing filtering options, content, and categorisation. Quickly testing a product in a real-world environment is the best way to understand how it will perform. Teams need to get it out there! 

Quick iterations create better products

Engaging students and staff from the outset is crucial for the success of any digital transformation initiative. Early adopters are often eager to provide feedback and be part of the development process, helping to improve the product, and building a sense of community and ownership.

Another big advantage of shipping a product early is that changes can be made quickly and at a lower cost, as there is less technical debt to manage. This mindset shift from seeing digital transformation as a massive overhaul to viewing it as a series of iterative steps can significantly enhance the effectiveness and success of digital transformation initiatives in higher education. Getting a live product out there quickly, reveals actual student behaviour, giving you more reliable data to make better decisions, and allows universities to start delivering value quickly. 

To find out how Loomery can help your organisation make product progress, get in touch.

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