Until we tame ‘digital sprawl,’ change fatigue is here to stay

The only thing we know for certain is that more technology and change are coming to higher education
By: | June 2, 2021
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Danielle Yardy

Danielle Yardy

With growing hope for a “return to normal” shimmering on the horizon, higher education leaders are now reflecting on the last year and a half to take stock of their successes and failures in an effort to plan for a more effective future.

There is one reality that’s glaringly obvious across all segments of the education sector: people are tired. Really tired. Educators, staff, students—everyone is drained.

Between deep staffing cuts, working from home, managing childcare, and maintaining an engaging learning environment from within the throes of a global pandemic and between waves of political and social unrest, the end of the 2020-2021 academic year couldn’t come soon enough.

Yet while many challenges will subside with the pandemic, the change fatigue associated with rapid digital transformation is unlikely to be one of them. Colleges and universities were forced to shift all operations online—from teaching and learning to advising to routine operations.

Some schools bought and installed new technologies at a rapid pace, while others patched together legacy systems to meet the complex demands of remote education. And although the promise of technology and digital workstreams has long been to simplify and reduce friction in daily operations, meaningful change is nearly always hard on the people who have to manage and adopt new technologies. That said, we’re making it harder than it has to be.

Caught in higher ed’s spiderweb of good intentions

As niche technologies have become more available in higher education, adventures in digital change have become increasingly haphazard on college campuses. The loudest voices, the squeakiest wheels, and the wealthiest departments have driven technology strategy from the bottom up. Or, rather, they’ve driven a series of incoherent technology investments that serve local purposes and processes, which has in turn resulted in uncontrolled digital sprawl.

At some institutions, three, four, or five versions of the same software are being run out of different departments. This lack of coordination is costly in annual dollars, but it also makes it more difficult for institutions to manage organization-wide change. Although enacting local innovation at accelerated speeds may seem enticing, the resulting digital sprawl has simultaneously entrenched one of the biggest impediments to effective change in higher education: our silos.

Despite a shared commitment to the broader mission of teaching, research, and community building, departments on a typical college campus tend to operate independently. Yet when a need to collaborate emerges—say, a global pandemic that requires an entire institution to pivot, and pivot, and pivot again in its responses—things get messy.

First, it requires a Herculean effort to determine the direction that an institution should take because different data from different systems tell wildly different stories, and nobody can verify the truth. Once a direction is chosen, the resulting implementation of change is further fragmented across different tools, technologies, and workflows which, although interdependent, are often functionally and operationally separate.

Institutional staff and faculty have been trapped within this relentless, Sisyphean loop for more than a year, and the only thing we know for certain is that more technology and change are coming to higher education in the years ahead.

In the words of President Gregory Crawford of Miami University, “There will be no more fixed five-year budgets or plans. Instead, we must move to continuous planning and change our structures to address student and societal needs more immediately.”

Breaking down tech silos builds stamina for change

To sustain the kind of organization that Crawford envisions, presidents and their cabinets must ease the process of collaboration on campus by addressing both cultural silos and the technology systems which have entrenched them. This is a feat easier said than done. There aren’t many examples of institutions that have made that shift successfully.

At times like this, it can be helpful to look to the private sector for ideas and inspiration—and Amazon is a shining example of silo-busting success.

Amazon emerged first as a humble online bookseller and now operates in a multitude of markets. The company and is well known for its ability to pivot fast, and—for better or worse—eat up new industries from retail to cloud infrastructure services as new opportunities emerge.

And while there are many factors in Amazon’s ascendence, the organization’s ability to collaborate and act quickly on shared information and shared technologies was an intentional strategy drilled home by the CEO. Now infamous in technology circles, the Jeff Bezos memo of 2002 demanded that all Amazon employees share data and tech functionality with their colleagues, even if they were working in different revenue streams, and leveraging different technologies. “Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired,” ends the memo—along with, “Thank you; have a nice day!”

Through the enforced sharing of data and tech functionality, Amazon was able to build an organization-wide platform for innovation. Teams continued to operate independently in pursuit of their unique objectives, but their data and learnings remained accessible to centralized leadership and colleagues across the company.

In turn, decisions were made more rapidly, executed more effectively, and were less disruptive across the organization. As the future continues to unfold, Amazon will continue to adapt—not because they have unique insights into the future, but because they have built an organization that has minimized the barriers to adaptation, intentionally, and by design.

Mandates, of course, are notoriously difficult in higher education. Yet even if delivered by committee and consensus, greater openness to collaboration and shared technology will be central to developing a sustainable platform for innovation in higher education.

In the decade ahead, universities and colleges have much to gain from technology and digital transformation. But for the path forward to be sustainable, there must be a reckoning with current processes and the unchecked digital individualism that runs rampant in most institutions’ technology ecosystems. To be effective, technology spend must be aligned to the broad purpose and mission of individual institutions.

To be sustainable, change must be delivered through shared technologies and services, and an organizational structure that thrives on trust, collaboration, data democratization, and a focus on student-centric innovation. Institutions that learn this lesson quickly will innovate to deliver better service, better value, and a better experience for their paying customers—students.

Those that don’t will struggle to survive.

Danielle Yardy is a data evangelist and director of strategic research for the education firm EAB