UCISA24 Thought Leadership - The Final Chapter

19 June 2024 - UCISA24 Thought Leadership - The Final Chapter

Digital Strategy – The Last Chapter

I write this final chapter in my final week in my role at UCL and possibly my final week in HE (although never say never).  Firstly thanks to my fellow CIOs and collaborators in this endeavour: Vipin Ahlawat, Emma Woodcock, Simon Corbett, Brian Henderson, Jason Oliver, James Crooks; and to the workshop participants at the UCISA Leadership conference in Edinburgh. This article builds on the key ideas and provocations that come from their work over the last few weeks. There is lots of excellent material and I am delighted to draw some threads together with their help and support. Also thanks to my UCL team who have helped me to learn HE and tolerated my impatience over the last four years for as Dickens says “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

When in my initial article I spoke optimistically about the CIO in HE being able to follow a path to success on Digital Strategy, Emma was right to offer caution that this is not always the case and that there are structural reasons why this can be particularly challenging in universities.

From my own leadership journey, one of things that has stayed with me is the “Stockdale Paradox” that is described by Jim Collins in “Good to Great”. Please have a look at the book for a fuller explanation, but the gist of it is that a leader needs to do two things which could be seen as in opposition (hence the paradox) – they need to confront the brutal reality of their situation and they need to sustain belief that they (and their team) will overcome these challenges. I firmly believe that this is the role of the leader and what is necessary to realise Digital Strategy in HE.

Emma does a great job of laying out the brutal reality: CIOs in HE struggle to wield the “influence to shift organisational behaviour” and often don’t have the literal or metaphorical seat at the top table that this requires.  New approaches are needed and “Transitioning to iterative, product-based delivery necessitates a rethink of funding mechanisms”. Finally, to really engage on Digital Strategy you need to be able to be understood by the wider leadership of the organisation, and it is still very acceptable for a senior university leader to say “I really don’t understand how technology works”. Ours are not easy environments for realising change. My UCL colleague Alan Harper shared with me the new book he is reading called “Whatever it is, I’m against it” which is the story of trying to deliver change in HE. I try to discourage my team from reading books, but what can you do.

Vipin shares the reality of the current financial position and the fact that “Budgetary focus is narrowing to shorter time periods and increasingly fixated on cost saving rather than investment .. but we all know that the challenging operating environment makes digital transformation more important, not less”.

We need to confront all of this reality and still sustain the believe that we will overcome. The overcoming won’t be quick and we need to be realistic about the step we can each achieve in the institution we are part of.

As Jason says there is a synergistic relationship between Digital Strategy and Digital Operating models. One way in which we overcome our challenges is by aligning our strategy and our operating model. The strategy nudges the operating model forwards and the operating model reinforces the principles the strategy espouses.

I have AI firmly in the opportunity bucket for CIOs. As Simon says, “AI becomes a key player in transitioning IT from a support function to a strategic linchpin and a trusted partner for the entire business”. The prospect of AI galvanises progress on a data strategy which might otherwise be stuck in the mud and can join-up the critical leaders in Education, Research and Operations who can then engage on the wider strategy.

Brian and James bring to life some of the inherent opportunities of working in a university as they say “Education institutions are powerhouses of knowledge and talent. By looking beyond our own IT department, we can harness valuable resources and expertise from across the organisation”.  The options for this are as varied as the institution’s own students to the local business community.

To achieve progress requires collective action and to harness points of change recognising that they will occur asynchronously across different institutions.  This could over time cause the work of a CIO to be easier and more downhill because as Dickens notes,  “In journeys, as in life, it is a great deal easier to go downhill than up”.

So in concluding I would encourage you to:

Take advantage of points of change

For CIOs, if you have the luxury, don’t take roles where the CIO is not part of the top table. If this is not possible then ask questions about how the role will have a voice in the wider running of the organisation and how Digital connects to the institutional strategy. If at least one serious person in the interview process is saying this then it enters the consciousness of the organisation, and with each new appointment we nudge this along. You are never listened to as much as when you have just been appointed and you need to make the most of this honeymoon.  I think that this initial period, when you have the most influence, is the perfect time to push the digital strategy door wide open and frame the questions it should answer.

Don’t be shy about money

In these challenging financial times, I think it is very important that we don’t self-censor and settle for a very constrained view of a strategic digital agenda. It is our role to lay out the opportunities and the choices, and I have found that putting money on the table, and being persistent, drives interest and engagement from university decision makers.

Harness the natural advantages of being in a university

The more we align with our mission the greater our chances of success. Ensuring that the Digital team is involved in education, innovation, and research and that we speak this language brings credibility and alignment. We should seek out and partner with the related disciplines whether those are computer science, cybersecurity, strategy or psychology. For our strategy bringing those disciplines in to partner with us is a win-win to economically access skills and for credible  voices to lend weight to our story.

If you can do all these things then I think you position yourself to be the hero of your story or, perhaps the genie of the digital lamp that gets asked to do sensible things. Thanks to UCISA for being our publisher and supporting this exploration for thought leadership. If these ideas have resonance, please think about the opportunity you have to take some of them forwards.

All the best,


Andy Smith, CIO, University College London