Dr. Thijs Broekhuizen is the Scientific Director of the University of Groningen Business School, and the director of the Executive MBA. This educational programme consists of four tracks, Food & Retail, Energy Transition, Health, and Sustainable Business Models, offering theme-based MBA programs to ambitious participants across five continents. As a conference presenter, keynote speaker, moderator and author, he has contributed to the field of digitalization, digital transformation and AI. His contributions include several academic papers in leading innovation, marketing and management journals, and a recent impact report for the Economist on digital transformation. He often helps public and private firms to digitalize or digitally transform by providing workshops, masterclasses, and consulting services.
On October 11, I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion at the EduTech event held in Amsterdam. We explored the realm of educational institutions’ digital strategies, focusing on aligning assets, stakeholders, expertise, and technology to deliver real value to talents. Four lessons stood out that can help managers and leaders to recognize, deliver, and capture this value.
The digital transformation of academic institutions is not a novel concept. In the early 2000s, there was a prevailing belief that the rise of technology would revolutionize education, potentially rendering physical campuses obsolete. Online course providers would leverage the digital medium and offer highly flexible, customizable programs that cater to the needs of individual learners. Some projected a tsunami of online course offerings that would quickly replace the inflexible and costlier education offered by traditional campus-based universities. Over time, it became clear that the anticipated radical shift towards a purely digital distribution model did not materialize. However, technology has unmistakably emerged as an indispensable strategic asset and tool for modernizing existing educational methods and aligning curricula with the ever-evolving technological landscape and the demands of the future workforce. The allure of making learning more accessible, efficient, and engaging through technology has drawn many in. Yet, as initial enthusiasm subsides, we now confront the intricate reality of integrating technology within academic universities.
Lesson 1: Embrace Digitalization as a Continuous Process
At the outset, universities must recognize that embracing digitalization should be managed as an ongoing process rather than as a single radical change project. Digitalization transcends the mere adoption of the latest gadgets or software; it entails a profound transformation of the education delivery and experience, a journey that continues over time.
Successfully incorporating technology is not merely about innovation for its own sake; instead, it involves addressing practical, mundane, day-to-day challenges. It revolves around ensuring that the foundational elements are firmly in place, that the infrastructure robustly supports digital initiatives, and that educators and students know what to do and possess the requisite skills and resources.
Lesson 2: Seamless Integration with Corporate Strategy
Digital strategy should not be considered separately from the corporate strategy of academic institutions. When digital departments or teams operate independently, striving for digitalization without alignment with other departments, a lack of coherence often ensues. Such a disconnected approach can lead to the perception that digitalization is a distraction or an afterthought, especially when it doesn’t align with the institution’s core academic mission and objectives.
Rather than viewing digital technologies as an end in themselves, they should be seen as tools to help universities articulate their corporate strategy clearly and guide stakeholders toward achieving the institution’s most critical objectives. For instance, data analytics can play a pivotal role in monitoring student performance and engagement. This data can provide valuable insights for strategic decision-making, whether it involves identifying areas requiring additional support or optimizing course offerings to meet evolving demands.
Lesson 3: Collaborate and Co-Create to Breed Enthusiasm
The key to the effectiveness of digitalization in academic education lies in fostering collaboration among diverse stakeholders. It requires harnessing the power of teamwork and co-creation, involving various contributors such as educationalists, students, future employers, and technology providers. In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, tapping into the intellectual resources of these stakeholders is imperative for driving innovation in education.
To embrace this lesson, universities must transform into innovative ecosystems where students, faculty, administrators, and industry partners can come together – either on virtual platforms or in real-life – to collaboratively shape educational experiences. This collaborative approach not only enriches the learning environment but also ensures that technological solutions align seamlessly with real-world needs and challenges.
Lesson 4: Strike the Right Balance between Autonomy and Prioritization
While the potential of technology holds great promise, integrating new technological applications into existing academic practices remains a significant challenge. Grassroots projects serve as valuable starting points for exploring the possibilities technology offers. These small-scale endeavors often serve as testing grounds for new ideas and tools.
Innovators or leaders behind these grassroots projects thrive when they receive sufficient senior support and autonomy to explore and find novel solutions to existing problems. Nevertheless, the true test lies in seamlessly incorporating these innovations into the institution’s core framework and activities. It’s insufficient to have isolated pockets of excellence; the objective is to foster a culture of innovation where technology becomes an integral part of the educational landscape.
To stimulate innovation but also integrate these new applications and tools into educational routines, universities need to strike the right balance between bottom-up autonomy and top-down prioritization. To manage this multi-level paradox, universities should empower educators with the autonomy to experiment and innovate, while establishing clear strategic priorities to ensure that innovative projects align with the institution’s overarching goals and contribute to its progression.
In the words of David Allen, ‘You can do anything, but not everything.’ Prioritization is needed. Universities should carefully select the initiatives to invest in; otherwise, they run the risk that these initiatives do not receive sufficient attention for fruitful development or misalignment with the university’s strategic goals and educational outcomes.
Lesson 5: The Human Side of Technology
While the promise of digitalization, especially with the advent of (generative) AI, holds immense potential for reshaping university education, it is essential to recognize that its success hinges on managing the human side of this transformation. As universities navigate this exciting frontier, they must consider the profound implications of the use of digitalization for inclusiveness, privacy, sustainability, and data-driven decision-making.
Nonetheless, it remains imperative for universities to embark on this journey while preserving core human values, ethics, and individuality. Achieving the delicate equilibrium between technological progress and a human-centered approach to teaching is essential for unlocking the boundless transformative potential of digitalization in education.
In conclusion, the integration of technology at academic universities is an ongoing journey that goes beyond the hype. It’s a process that demands careful analysis, co-development, and strong steering towards embedding technology into many facets of education. As we move forward, it’s essential to remember that technology alone cannot transform education. It’s the thoughtful and strategic application of technology by humans that holds the power to revolutionize learning and prepare students for a rapidly changing world.
I would like to thank Marinke Sussenbach, Diana Andone, and Carlos Garriga for their contributions to the event.