Transforming into a virtual campus: Is it time to reassess your institution's priorities?
A discussion with the University of Greenwich’s head of IT infrastructure
- The quick pivot to digital has accelerated modernisation in higher education.
- Integrating, understanding, and protecting data is a central goal of transformation.
- The three elements of transformation are simplification, unification, and replication.
Digital transformation has been a hot topic for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has truly underscored its importance for higher education. From digital delivery to data-backed decision making to greater operational efficiency, digital transformation offers vital benefits that institutions need in this challenging environment.
In light of this new urgency, how can institutions revisit their plans and priorities to act more quickly? What principles should drive them, and where should they start?
In a recent webinar, Mehmet Batmaz, head of IT infrastructure at the University of Greenwich, spoke with Ian Anderson, enterprise architect at Ellucian, and Richard Forrest, Ellucian’s vice president of digital transformation. Following are excerpts from the conversation. (Questions and answers have been edited and condensed.)
Ellucian: What changes have you experienced as a result of COVID-19?
Mehmet Batmaz: This crisis has provided us a sudden glimpse into a future world, one in which digital has become central to every interaction. We all know that behaviors and adoption were always going to be the main blocker for long-term digital transformation. This has almost overnight forced our university and individuals further up that digital adoption curve.
With this massive shift to remote working across our university, and every organisation, IT has not only been pivotal in helping support our users get online, but also enabled our move to a fully virtual campus through the provision of tech and technology.
Fortunately for us, projects such as secure and resilient virtual private networks (VPNs), virtual desktops, mobile telephony, single sign-on, multi-factor authentication (MFA)—these were all priorities for us before the pandemic, which has been profound because these are all critical to the day-to-day operations of the university. These are services that we've simply had to turn the dial up to support such an increase in demand.
Furthermore, big improvements in our portal, our virtual learning environments, lecture capture over the past couple of years has certainly made the transition to an online delivery model for teaching and learning easier.
Ellucian: What were your top priorities as you started shifting into remote mode?
Mehmet: Our response as a university was orientated first and above all else towards the safety and well-being of our students and staff, and this continues to be our number one principle.
In IT, we proactively started to move our teams off-premise in anticipation of the inevitable lockdown to a) protect them, b) protect others, and c) ensure that their setups would effectively function remotely.
Priorities then shifted towards scaling remote working services, getting our contact centers up and running remotely, and, importantly, reassessing our digital initiatives—then prioritising those that provide near-term help to our staff and students to help them get back online and interacting as effectively as possible, and digital initiatives that position us for a post-crisis world.
Ellucian: What immediate steps did you take?
Mehmet: We fast-tracked the delivery of a range of technology to Greenwich. We brought forward videoconferencing for staff and students. We fast-tracked exchange online migrations across our entire organisation. We started leveraging cloud-based storage, application streaming, online assessments, and better integrations with our virtual learning environment to improve user experiences.
As you can imagine, this is a very different delivery model to what we're used to. Releasing these services at such an accelerated pace meant that we had to ensure our users had the right level of guidance and training to be able to use these new tools effectively, something that under normal circumstances we would spend a lot of time and care on.
But these aren't normal times, and so we very quickly put together a crash-course presentation on our digital offerings, how to use them, what to use in what situation, et cetera. We ran three of these over the course of a week, broadcast live and recorded via lecture capture, and these were very well attended and well received across our university. It gave users just enough to get going without having to flood our service desk, which was obviously key.
And actually, all the things we did were either objectives on our digital strategy or things we were already working on in line with our strategy. So, a lot of the foundational work for us and analysis had already been done, and it was more a case of fine-tuning and expediting these from our government structures for signoff. That has been really key as we've needed to move fast. If we took our usual amount of time to get approval, they would never get these services in fast enough.
Ellucian: What were the results of these fast deployments, and what kind of feedback are you continuing to receive from the community?
Mehmet: Despite our worries and concerns, the fact is, they got delivered, they're being used, and they're being used effectively. We're getting really good, positive feedback.
With red tape and bureaucracy gone, the speed and decision-making and simplicity have provided us that agility, and something I hope we can transition into normal operations.
So, for me, and I hope most people, the value of digital transformation is clearer than ever before now. Digital and IT have not only enabled our university to go virtual, but they will also be key to survival moving forward.
If there are any nonbelievers out there that didn't value the digital ways, I'm sure they do now. And the university senior management team, who are fully behind digital anyway, absolutely understand, more than ever, that digital has to be front and center, and are thus fully supporting us in any way they can.
Ellucian: To achieve this kind of agility, what should other institutions look at first, and what should change in terms of their strategy?
Richard Forrest: To move from a traditional format—which is siloed and disjointed across campuses, departments, and even within departments—to a more integrated and agile state, you want to drive a simplification of systems, unify your data, and create repeatable processes. To break down these three key elements:
- Simplification. Digital simplification one of the key things we want to promote and drive. At most institutions, there are often a lot of ways of getting from A to B, and people are probably using multiple ways. To get to a future-ready state, determine whether you’re taking the simplest path and discontinue doing things multiple ways.
- Unification. Simplify the overall architecture, moving from diversification of systems and business processes to really streamlining and easing that data integration. That movement of data is one of the largest headaches for many institutions. But it's not just about getting data into systems—it's using the power of that information. If you can't coordinate that information, then it really does hinder the process and the move.
- Replication. Again, don't do things multiple ways—have standardised processes that can be repeated with efficiency.
Ian Anderson: Yes, the actual things that we need to do are quite simple. The key is to align your strategy and your business.
What we're really talking about is being effective and efficient with the admin functions—and they need to be based and driven by what the business wants to achieve.
So that's what we're looking to do: understand what it is as a business we want to do, then apply the right set of applications and technology that's going to deliver that.
Ellucian: What's an example of this kind of misalignment?
Ian: Recruitment is a good example of how the university has grown organically. When we talk to universities about recruitment, it's not unusual that the international office will be responsible for the international recruitment, and they will have their processes and tools to deliver that. The postgraduate office will be the same, and the undergraduate office will be the same, and the research office as well. They'll all have their own CRMs and processes and technology.
But that becomes very difficult, then, for a university to protect its data. And data is key here. If you look at the world in which we operate and the companies that are hugely successful in virtual environments, look at the ways that they protect their data, and the way that their organisations are driven by what their data tells them. Data is king.
Ellucian: How did the University of Greenwich start its journey?
Mehmet: Rewinding back to 2013, we had no form of IT governance, no senior oversight governing IT investment, no real alignment between IT and the business objectives. There were a lot of devolved IT functions across the university, sitting in both faculties and directorates, all with their own budgets and their own ways of doing the same thing, all building local solutions for local problems and not real much strategic value there.
From an IT perspective, we didn't really have any standardised project methodologies. We had no project management function. We had no standardised processes and a very inconsistent service delivery environment. Infrastructure was quite old-fashioned, a large estate of over 600 physical servers across three data centers, a very flat and sprawling network, very little investment in security network resilience. Budgets came in peaks and troughs, there was no real capital planning or enhancement budget there. And we had no technology standards, no architectural disciplines or anything like that.
So, this first strategy was all about creating that all-important foundation environment that gave us the platform for the future, and one which allows us to be flexible and adapt to change with ease. That did require a lot of investment and heavy lifting, but all that is actually all in place now, which is great.
We have a fully embedded governance model. An IT strategy board was formed back in 2014, which is a representative decision-making board chaired by our deputy vice chancellor. It has a chief operating officer on there, all the directors, all the senior academic staff—so practically the whole senior management team of the university. We have a very capable project management team assisting. Running our own private cloud now, operating costs are down, complexity has gone away. We have a fully triangulated network.
And really, the important point to take is that over the course of this IT strategy, we invested a great deal of time and money to ensure that those core capabilities of IT and those critical applications, those mode-one systems and records that the university so heavily rely upon, are resilient, reliable, secure, and scalable.
The bottom line is that there is no point in talking digital transformation or trying to get management on board with the idea if we keep getting network outages or if email doesn't work. So, having that solid and proper operational core front was crucial.
Ellucian: What other benefits are you realising now?
Mehmet: In the process of delivering this five-year IT strategy, there's no doubt that we, as an IT department, became more professional. We are seen to be more professional, reliable, and cost-effective. That's been really important in building trust between the university and the university senior management team. The business finally started to understand that IT isn't just about IT. Digital isn't something that IT owns; it's something that the business needs to own and participate in for it to be effective.
Every faculty and professional service directorate has a role to play in digital transformation. This really is the only way that those levels of cultural change required for us to become a digital university can be achieved, and that's taken a long time. And for us, over the past couple of years, this newfound relationship between IT and the business has manifested in the form of partnerships between IT and other senior leaders around the university with whom we're working hand in hand with on big, strategic, and in some cases, transformational projects. And these aren't IT projects. IT is a strategic enabler, or a leader in it in some way, shape, or form.
This model is how we're starting to make big leaps forward in respect to digitisation. For example, we've just gone live with moving our HR and payroll system into the cloud, a project which has reached a whole raft of legacy and complex processes across the business, which will have a profound benefit in many ways.
One of the most important things about this digital strategy is our driving principles, our guiding compass. With a belief in our driving principles such as “One University,” consistency, integration not duplication, and cloud first, we should always be moving towards a more unified university where there's less complexity and waste and one which makes us more agile and flexible in response to change. There's a big theme around that at university at the moment, which focuses on standardisation of systems, better sharing of data, and simple and consistent processes, all centered around our “One University” principle.
Richard: So how should institutions look at their roadmaps, review their strategies, and move towards that position of success?
I think the first thing to point out in terms of the digital transformation delivery framework that we've been building is that data truly is at the center of this. Again, we have to ensure that we're bringing the right data through the process to really drive those decisions and help move the institution forward. That's what it's all about.
The first three segments of the framework are not a long journey. We're talking days and weeks, not months and years, in terms of reviewing, formulating, and pulling together the ideas and the strategies of the organisation and understanding how those capabilities really need to be delivered. So, whether it's reviewing the strategy assessments, reviewing your operational fit, reviewing how your maturity fits to the capabilities that are really going to deliver on your strategy—that's the starting point. And really understanding, with those capabilities—what’s your system of record?
There's process and policy around a lot of things institutions do, and if you're doing them in a non-standard way, then let's look at that. Are those non-standard ways differentiating, innovating the institution? If not, let's template them, let's simplify those processes. In some cases, actually, they may be differentiating, they may be providing some form of innovation, and let's focus on those. But get that full understanding first, then move through with a clear success plan based on a clear route to success with elements of business cases and ROI.
And it's not just about money; it's also about the values being driven through these processes. It’s the simplification, the agility, the innovation. Throw away processes that are redundant or not giving you that replication, that speed. Think about the processes you don't need to do. If it's just keeping the lights on, upgrading software, maintaining servers and everything else—is that really providing value for the institution that couldn't be done elsewhere? Why not free up those resources to really look toward innovation?
As you keep moving forward, again, keep looking for that agile approach. When you're in the cloud, look at how you can simplify some of those processes even more. You don't have to do full business process re-engineering before you lift up. That can be done on the journey. It's an iterative, bite-sized process.
To hear the rest of the conversation and the follow-up Q&A, you can access the webinar recording here.