After Digital are delighted to have had the opportunity to work with the University of Buckingham on their digital transformation roadmap. The university is the UK’s oldest private higher education institution, having opened in 1973. To date, it is the only private university with a royal charter.

As a private university, the UoB receives no state funding and is reliant solely on donations and student fees. The university receives some of the highest levels of student satisfaction in the country, as evidenced by being rated 1st for student satisfaction for 3 consecutive years by the Complete University Guide. The University of Buckingham is also home to the 2-year degree, which is seen as an attractive offering to older students, where taking time-off to study can be challenging.

 Image taken from the University of Buckingham website https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/

The brief

In the Spring of 2019, AD was invited to pitch for the development of the university's new website. What became apparent very quickly was that the website was seen as the solution to some deep-rooted issues, including: system integrations, training and a need for a more cohesive approach to their digital landscape.

AD took the bold approach of offering a complete digital roadmap consultation before beginning any work on the website, this was to ensure that any solution that was created for the website dovetailed into the wider digital strategy of the university.

This fresh thinking was welcomed by the senior team and we were appointed to carry out a full digital transformation roadmapping project across the summer of 2019.

Why After Digital

The University of Buckingham’s digital transformation was the 15th roadmapping project our strategy team have completed. Our previous experience with various organisations (both in and out of the education sector) led them to realise that the website, and in fact any digital touchpoint, is only as efficient as the team, systems and data that support them.

The senior team welcomed the opportunity to create an in-depth plan aligned to the strategic vision of the organisation, whilst capitalising on our rich expertise in this area and ensuring that any digital platforms they eventually commissioned were fit for purpose.

the university of buckingham campus

Challenges

The university had a strong desire for rapid growth, however, it was stressed that this was not to be at the expense of the high level of care and community, which students had come to know and love from the university. This attitude of “going the extra mile” for their students is reflected by the fact that the university also attracts twice the average number of students with disabilities. The UoB also takes a proactive stance on one-to-one tuition and personal contact and have become somewhat of a leading voice in the industry for mental health in higher education.

Providing this level of care day in, day out is inevitably resource-intensive, and this was starting to show. Whilst individual teams and departments had gone above and beyond to solve their individual needs for their staff/students, there was little consistency in their approach as they made use of digital in their own way. This resulted in duplicate effort/incompatible systems; making it hard for the various departments to work in sync and creating a high strain on the IT department.

“This place works in silos. The initiative for any change drops into a silo. The people in that silo choose how to deliver it. There is no big picture, other than the very broadest picture to double student numbers in 5 years”

With just 14 members of staff in the entire IT department, it was already proving difficult to keep up with the day-to-day running of the university; before even considering any changes or improvements. Of the 14 staff, only 2 were responsible for the day-to-day support of the management of information systems, meaning frequent bottlenecks in terms of knowledge/resource.

The various faculties, finance, admissions and alumni departments were all using separate processes and CRM’s, including the likes of: SITS, Microsoft Dynamics and Raisers Edge. Often this resulted in students falling through the cracks during their time at the UoB, where details weren’t passed through to various departments as students passed through the student lifecycle; leading to time-consuming manual rectification.

Discovery insights

Over the course of a four-day discovery, we conducted 22 one-to-one interviews and 8 workshops. We explored topics as diverse as student journeys, data discipline, infrastructure, staff training, student onboarding and alumni engagement, course administration, marketing and their organisational structure.

Prioritise what’s important

It was highlighted that previous attempts to redesign the website had failed due to a lack of consideration around the volume of content and functionality that exists. Given the volume of content was so high, we were curious as to understand just how much of this content was useful to their users. So, we conducted a miniature version of an exercise called “top tasks.” This simple exercise aims to highlight all the possible tasks needed to fulfill any given scenario and organise them by priority.

We asked the participants to list all of the tasks they believed were important to students when considering which university course to choose. We then asked participants to vote for those they deemed most important. After much deliberation, we managed to identify 32 tasks in our workshop; over half of those tasks received no votes at all and just 6 tasks received over half of the entire vote share. From this, it was also clear that many of the tasks that were ranked important were also seen as either not being done, or not done as well as they should.

Separately, we asked some volunteer students to highlight what they felt ranked at the top, the results differed again. It became evident there is a strong need to further investigate perceptions around what was important to students, as it was clear that student needs and what staff assumed were students’ needs were vastly different.

The need for shared learning opportunities

Much of the skills and knowledge that were required by the organisation already existed amongst individuals, but were not being shared throughout the university. There was a need for skills across the organisation; both practical (technical and physical skills such as utilising the CRM) and meta (soft skills that are an enabler for digital such as collaboration, adapting and critical-thinking).

Center decisions and processes around the student journey, not around departments
Whilst individual touchpoints with students were being catered for day-to-day by each department, these learnings and decisions were always assigned to an individual department. This led to solutions being created in departmental silos, where, often, much smaller interventions by one department earlier on would avoid larger issues down the line for other departments or the student.

People have lost focus in some instances and we’re trying to work out how to make the space, for a more creative, strategic and user-centred process for our projects.

Scaling with care

At its core, our strategy’s main focus was “scaling with care” and how the university could tackle both scaling and caring without compromising either. We delivered a 2-year digital roadmap to the team, alongside a supporting business case and a range of detailed appendices covering various topics and recommendations. This included the following points.

Focusing on, and listening to, student needs

Before scaling any solution, it’s imperative that you check the current solution is fit for purpose; as to avoid costly mistakes. Whilst the university had a strong focus on what their students’ needs were, this approach wasn’t taken when considering digital.

The UoB has a unique proximity to their students, given they live on-site, we recommended they capitalise on this. There was a great opportunity to conduct regular learning sessions with their student-base to learn what students really think and need; be it via surveys, testing or interviews; ensuring decisions were based on insight rather than a hunch and ensuring value for money and improvements where they mattered most.

Understand the student lifecycle and what effect it has on every aspect of the UoB
Every touchpoint between the student and the university consists of the following aspects: Communications, responsible staff, data/systems, time and processes. Any of which can have potential downfalls or opportunities, which will affect the thoughts/feelings of the students experiencing them. Each of these moments present an opportunity to highlight better ways of doing things or avoiding issues altogether.

We recommended that the UoB complete a customer experience map for all 3 stages of their student lifecycle, with the aim to use this as a central point of reference for all of the business to empathise with both their students and other departments. This would allow them to pinpoint problems and solutions at specific points in time; highlighting the relevant individuals, systems and processes.

It's that link between getting it as smooth as possible between first enquiry/prospective student; right through to current students, to alumnus, to donor and then perpetuate the cycle.

Better utilisation of existing systems and data discipline
Naturally, the UoB had a high volume of students, for which there was vast amounts of data which was often sensitive/critical to their success. The wide-ranging nature of the university meant that throughout a student's life cycle, many departments would need to access and input data into their various systems. With volume, the cost of incorrect data scales exponentially; in order to scale effectively, it was imperative that good data discipline was instilled across the organisation.

Benefits & Results

We separated the core recommendations into 3 key areas that we saw as being critical to success over the next 2 years:

Organisation and training

Enabling staff at the university to use digital to its highest potential.

Systems and infrastructure

Ensuring the systems were efficient and connected to deliver data effectively.

Website and digital marketing channels

Laying down the foundations that will enable the original aim to reinvigorate their web presence.

We confirmed that there was no need for any new capital investment in their existing systems or platforms. However, it was clear that provision was needed for better training in said systems to enable all staff to use them to their full potential and effectiveness. We identified a variety of free or inexpensive ways to share knowledge and skills across the University.

Whilst there was no major organisational restructure required, there was a recommendation for a small and flexible training team to be created. The purpose of this team would be to support the digital upskilling across the practical and meta-skills that are so vital to the success of their roadmap.

As part of the training, we also defined the level of data discipline they needed to instil, as well as outlining the processes for delivering this discipline over time.

Their 2-year roadmap gives them a clear route for development, integrates previous investments into a more coherent plan, ensuring that the relevant skills are in place and that their students are at the centre of any decision; allowing them to scale with care.

Want to learn more about our work in education and digital transformation? We’ve completed digital transformation projects for numerous clients in sectors such as utilities, arts and education. Our work within the education sector includes institutions such as; Glasgow Caledonian University, Robert Gordon University and the University of Southampton. If you’re involved in the education sector, or have questions about our digital transformation offering, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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