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Universities must rethink the way they address digital transformation. Strategic planning must evolve to take advantage of opportunities in the digital world and organisations must learn to use data more effectively to improve decision making, writes EUA Digital Transformation Steering Committee member Pekka Kähkipuro.

Effective use of digital technologies has become one of the key competences for universities, for several reasons. Digital tools are already an integral part of our daily lives, and students and staff expect to have the same kind of experience in the university. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced universities to adopt remote and hybrid approaches, and this has brought with it several new digital tools and additional working practices. Also, increased competition and the lack of resources are pushing organisations to use IT to improve competitiveness and the student and staff experience. Digitalisation is here to stay.

In recent years, the role of digital technologies has gradually changed. But in many cases, organisations have not changed their ways of working and governance models accordingly. For example, IT management is still often seen as a cost centre, with the main goal being to spend less – as opposed to investing in IT as an asset that adds value to the university’s core activities. As a result, the IT landscape often consists of a sub-optimal, dispersed collection of tools and technologies, while IT departments are kept busy firefighting to resolve urgent problems. It is time to rethink the role of digital technologies to be able to keep up with the changing world. At least three changes are needed in how institutions address digital transformation.

Firstly, the use of digital technologies must be included in strategic planning and strategy implementation. This requires IT leaders to be involved in the planning process earlier than has previously been the case. There is a balance to be struck between the institution’s aspirations and the possibilities presented by the digital world – and IT leaders can provide insight into this. In the same vein, the role of IT professionals in the organisation needs to cover the middle ground between pure technology and education/research. Often new roles, such as business analysts, are needed to address this need.

The second major change is related to the use of data within the organisation. In the past, producing statutory reports based on transactional data has been sufficient. Data has not played a major role in decision making. However, in an unpredictable and rapidly changing world, better insight is needed to make successful decisions. Retrospective reporting needs to be transformed into analysis and predictions for fact-based decision making. This will require additional tools for business intelligence, systems integration and master data management. In addition, a shift in culture may also be required to achieve better data accuracy and therefore genuinely support decision making.

Finally, there is a need to change the innovation process and the way digital opportunities are explored and exploited. In the past, the use of educational technologies (edtech) was perceived as a hobby for enthusiasts, while mainstream teaching often continued to use traditional approaches. The pandemic guided institutions to extend the use of edtech in all teaching, and consequently, the drivers for innovation changed radically – digital tools are now a source of value and driver of institutional change. This new value-driven and widespread use of digital technologies is key for a university to succeed in the future.

Digital transformation imposes several challenges for universities. Here, we have identified three ways for institutions to address them – embedding digital transformation into strategic planning, changing the way organisations use data, and changing the way digital innovations are seen in the organisation. However, it is up to each institution to find the best combination of these and other tools and tactics for surviving and thriving in the new digital world.


Pekka Kähkipuro
Tampere University and European University Information Systems organisation (EUNIS)

Pekka Kähkipuro is Chief Information Officer at Tampere University and Executive Secretary at the European University Information Systems organisation (EUNIS). Previously, he worked as CIO at Brunel University London, Director of IT at Aalto University and in various senior roles in the private sector. Pekka holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of Helsinki.

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