Reflections on digital transformation

I was recently asked to write a blog post for Jisc’s main site. In the end some of the ideas that went into it became part of a news feature. This was the original draft. Some of the points are made in other posts on this blog.

Education seems to be in a state of constant transition.

It isn’t unique in this respect; but it is keenly felt, particularly at the point where digital technology meets learning.

Digital technology holds out the promise of transforming education and learning. But it’s well known that adopting new technology can be extremely troublesome. It’s something that’s especially relevant for the people responsible for leading change in their institutions.

In response to this, Jisc started its Digital Leaders Programme back in 2015. I’ve been part of the programme team since its launch and for me there are 3 key points I’ve learnt about leading digital change:

Innovation isn’t always what you think it is

The allure of shiny new technology is seductive. It’s tempting to think that if we adopt cutting-edge trends like mixed realities or AI, then these things will automatically bring transformation  and our work is done.

The issue is that using innovative technology doesn’t inevitably make you more innovative. It’s entirely possible to transform practice using the simplest of digital tools.

I remember watching a video recently of a school in Washington DC where 2 teachers were radically transforming their curriculum to better suit the needs and backgrounds of their students.

The thing that struck me the most was that their use of technology was a little, well…boring! They used PowerPoint to create narrated videos that were hosted on their virtual learning environment, technology that’s been available for 20 years.

The change was all in the way they supported learning in the classroom; the activities they devised, the assessment methods they used and the relationships they were able to build with individual students and groups. Without a single VR headset in sight! 

Quite often the path of least resistance to change lies in using technology that is already at hand.

Most importantly, if you want to achieve transformation, start by thinking about what practice should look like and work backwards.

For more on this, check out this post.

Change involving digital is inevitably complex

In order to achieve the change in practice, many more things must happen as well. It would be nice if implementing new technology was as simple as flicking a switch, but the picture is much more complex.

As well as having a robust e-infrastructure, leaders have to consider how change relates to a wider strategy, and what new processes and policies will need to be designed to facilitate the change in practice. This is something that’s applicable at any scale.

In 2018, Lawrie Phipps and James Clay wrote a paper for leaders in education. It was designed to provide a structure that helped with the planning of technology implementation. They called it a “digital lens”.

It’s a way taking a step back to look at the wider picture of digital change and suggests a step by step approach to project planning that provides room for effective consultation, reflection and evaluation.

It’s a framework based on many years collective experience of working with our members, experiencing change alongside them.

Culture is as important as bits and bytes

We adopt new technologies because we want to enable people to do different things. Or to do the same things but more effectively.

Often, as subject specialists at Jisc, we’re asked to help support the adoption of existing technologies within an organisation. It might be a specific system. Or it could be a general approach to something, like online learning or public engagement through social media.

The key question we ask is “so why aren’t people doing it already?”.

It’s a simple question. But once you start to dig down it uncovers a wealth of information about the nature of successful organisational transformation.

If the issue is about skills or knowledge, then this can be fixed relatively easily through awareness raising or staff development.

If the barriers are in other areas, things get harder to solve because. If the barriers don’t concern systems or processes, they tend to be about culture.

Unfortunately, culture is one of the hardest things to change in an organisation. Culture is constructed from a stubborn knot of publicly stated values, artifacts and stories which must be teased out without the whole thing unraveling.

It requires leaders at all levels who, as well as being digitally capable and good project managers, are also aware of the human component. They are effective listeners. They challenge in-grained assumptions and received wisdom.

And they model the behaviours they expect to see in the people they lead.

By this, I don’t mean they have to be technology evangelists. They show that they are willing to adopt the mindset they ask of others, to demonstrate creativity, risk-taking and sometimes vulnerability in the face of change.

Take heart

If this seems overwhelming, don’t panic. Jisc is here to help whether it’s in developing new solutions to problems, providing you with support and advice or putting you in touch with others going through similar experiences.

It’s also encouraging that, despite technology evolving on a seemingly daily basis these themes of managing change, influencing culture and supporting practice are the fundamentals of organisational transformation.

The lessons learned from doing something once remain relevant regardless of what new technology comes over the horizon.

1 thought on “Reflections on digital transformation

  1. MR Z D F GRIBBLE

    Completely agree Chris. The importance around identifying that challenges maybe about culture rather than processes is something I often find myself discussing with members. It can be a very illuminating experience to unpack barriers when really exploring where the root of the challenge is.

    Reply

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