UCISA24 Thought leadership - Chapter Three

23 May 2024 - UCISA24 Thought leadership - Chapter Three


AI and Digital Strategy – How Will Technology Cause Disruption and Demand a Strategic Response?

I can’t lie, there was a temptation to type the above title into ChatGPT and get it to produce a blog. But then Andy opened this series with a story about Dickens, and since Dickens managed to produce all his works without the use of a large language model, I thought I better do the same.

I guess I was tempted because AI is becoming part of the technology stack everywhere you look. I’m writing this in Microsoft Word, where AI is just a click away in the form of CoPilot. Thinking back to the UCISA Leadership Conference, I was reflecting how many times AI was mentioned in presentations, around the vendor stands, or just in conversation. But also let’s face it AI has become a catch all for a lot of new shiny things, and some of them are not really artificial intelligence.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of higher education, AI can’t be ignored - not only as a disrupter in how we do things, but also as the catalyst for strategic innovation. As we all grapple with the financial pressures across the sector, the integration of AI into our digital strategies is no longer just an option, it is going to be a necessity. And that’s not just me, at the Thought Leadership session in Edinburgh, 87% of us in our group thought it would be a part of our next strategy.

This pivot requires a nuanced understanding of how this technology will reshape the academic environment. Emma mentioned in her blog, the role of the CIO is changing, it’s time to break the mould and rethink our approach. Maybe this is the means to do it.

So where to start? I guess first and foremost, if a university digital strategy is going to incorporate AI as a core component, it will need to seamlessly align to the overarching institutional goals. The significance of this alignment cannot be understated —as Vipin highlighted in his blog, technological initiatives that do not explicitly advance strategic objectives may find themselves on the budgetary chopping block as resources become increasingly scarce.

Herein lies the challenge. If we’re going to put AI into our digital strategies, so we can be disruptive and break the mould, we’re going to have to construct a robust business case, that is linked to the university's strategic goals, for a technology that is changing frighteningly quickly, over a strategy timeline that is normally years.

Possibly the easiest answer is to integrate AI into the digital strategy with some broad-brush statements, emphasising not only the potential enhancements in educational quality but also the operational savings and efficiencies. But this isn’t really thinking strategically about the disruption AI could cause.

Going to the other extreme, a new digital strategy could really push the boundaries of disruption in the sector. As an example, we could envisage a strategic move to all marking, assessment, and grading of students to be completed automatically by AI tools. This would certainly have operational efficiencies; save significant amounts of time and we would never need to worry about marking assessment boycotts again. Certainly, high impact. But how comfortable would we be? Would our students be comfortable that their degree was marked and graded by AI and no human was involved in giving them their final qualification? How would our academic colleagues feel about having no input into assessments?

And so, if we are going to be disruptive with AI in our digital strategies, we are no longer just thinking about a technology stack. The traditional view of our IT departments as an in-house contractor of all things IT is rapidly giving way to a broader recognition of our role as central enablers of educational and operational excellence. In this context, AI becomes a key player in transitioning IT from a support function to a strategic linchpin and a trusted partner for the entire business. This transition is critical as the role of AI in higher education shifts from automating routine tasks to enabling complex decision-making processes, thereby enhancing both learning outcomes and institutional efficiency.

So, our response to the disruption of AI is that we’re going to have to be the trusted business partner that understands how the technology works but also ensures everyone is comfortable with the technology. We will need to show the value and answer the “so what?” question. And in doing so, we will need to consider transparent and effective measure to justify AI investments and prove their worth to the sceptical stakeholders in a climate of financial challenges. We will also be at the centre of the wider debate on ethical and moral concerns, privacy, bias, and sustainability. Developing an AI-enhanced digital strategy is going to become an increasingly collaborative effort.

Given we are at the top of the seemingly never ending hype curve, as new products are constantly entering the market on an almost daily basis, there is no doubt there will be an expectation that as technology leaders we will have AI included in our roadmap. We can also be pretty certain that all our suppliers will be pushing AI as part of their solutions, as none will wish to be left behind. The disruption is coming and its probably out of our control. The strategic response we can influence though is to be at the centre of the discussions.

Just to provide some balance and contradict myself, maybe the hype in AI will burn out quicker than we think. AI fatigue as the novelty wears off and a blasé attitude towards AI could find its way to consumers. The chance of consumers and businesses being desensitised due to the rapid pace of AI development is real, as we start to see advancements as incremental improvements rather than revolutionary changes. But as digital leaders, even in a world where the hype dies down, we’ll have to manage the expectations of our students, who will grow up with a level of technology outside of their university lives that they expect to see when they come to study at our institutions.

To end, I couldn’t really resist, and I probably need some more lessons in prompt engineering, but it’s over to ChatGPT to wrap up

... let's recall Charles Dickens' insight:"Change begets change. Nothing propagates so fast." AI is reshaping our world at breakneck speed, touching everything from healthcare to art. As we ride this wave of tech evolution, it’s crucial to keep it real and responsible. Embracing these rapid changes thoughtfully can lead us to a future rich with possibilities. Let’s make sure it’s a good one!

Dr Simon Corbett, CIO, Northumbria University