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Agile in education: responsive projects in an era of rapid change

Jon Baldwin
May 16, 2018

A new generation of students is forcing Australian universities into an era of rapid change. The processes and workflows that have supported their functioning for decades are no longer sufficient. Any institution that pretends changes in the sector are not occurring, and refuses to alter its work practices, risks losing out to more nimble and farsighted rivals that do. If universities are to continue to effectively meet the requirements of students, some essential shifts will be required.

Much of the force of change faced by universities is coming from shifts in the expectations of students. Predominantly individuals who have grown up surrounded by digital technology, they think and act differently from the generations that have preceded them.

Comfortable with using everything from social networks and online banking to Uber and Amazon, they are looking for similar experiences when they interact with their chosen university. Where once they would have been happy to fill out paper forms and patiently wait in queues to have questions answered by staff, they now want online transaction channels and instant access to information.

Typically, they now expect digital portals that are accessible from mobile devices. Students are looking for efficient ways to manage everything from their course enrolments to the submission of papers and receipt of exam results and they see digital channels as the way to achieve this.

They’re also not content with a traditional, one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to communications. They expect their tertiary institution will tailor interactions based on the personal knowledge they have of them. They want to be treated as individuals.

Effectively responding to these shifting student requirements also requires a new approach and pace of working. The old methods of establishing steering committees and running projects over many months (or even years) will no longer suffice. Instead, new processes and the systems supporting them will often have to be in place within weeks, rather than months. In many cases, this will be achieved through the adoption of agile project methodologies.

Just as agile methodologies have reshaped the software development sector, so too can they deliver significant advantages to universities. With them in place, an institution will be much better placed to meet current student demands and be ready to change as those demands shift over time.

The cultural challenge for universities

Faced with these fundamental shifts in expectations and demands, universities must change or streamline many of their existing internal processes. Each process and communication channel should be carefully examined to determine whether it’s providing the level of service required. Any that are found to be below par should be either amended or replaced.

It must be noted, however, that this is not just a matter of investing in new technologies. While technology will be an important component, the needed changes must also encompass university culture. Cultural change is vital because, without it, even the best planned transformation projects are very likely to fail. New tools will go unused and new processes ignored. Instead, people will continue with the traditional ways of operating they have been familiar with for years.

Such resistance tends to stem from an innate resistance to change that exists within humans. Most would rather things remained as they have been rather than embracing new ways of thinking and working. For this reason, the benefits of planned changes must be clearly communicated to everyone who will be affected. Ideally coming from senior management, this communication should spell out the reasoning behind the changes and clearly outline the business benefits that will result.

Once staff have a clear understanding of why the changes are taking place, the impact they will have on them, and the efficiencies they will generate, the likelihood of them embracing the process is significantly higher.

A roadmap for success

To successfully put an agile methodology in place and use it to create real and sustainable change, a university will need to follow a series of steps. These include:

  • Listen to the students: The student body already knows what it needs and wants. Take time to listen to their input and the guidance it can provide.
  • Communicate broadly: Ensuring all staff are aware of the need for change and the benefits it will deliver is crucial. Communicate effectively and regularly with everyone across the university. Consider daily 15-minute stand-up meetings to keep projects on track.
  • Examine management practices: Old bureaucratic structures will have to change and become more flexible. It’s important to recognise that this will be an ongoing process and one that could meet staff resistance.
  • Constantly monitor progress: Becoming more agile and responding to student requirements is a journey, not a destination. Constantly monitor the progress being made and use this to steer future projects and initiatives.

By undertaking a sustained strategy based on agile principles, a university can ensure it is not only able to meet the student demands of today, but is well placed to evolve along with those demands over time.

Author avatar
Jon Baldwin
Jon Baldwin joined Tribal Group in May 2014 as Managing Director – Higher Education. He was previously Deputy Vice Chancellor (Professional Services) at Murdoch University. Jon has also held management, teaching and administration posts at the University of Warwick, Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh and Lancashire Polytechnic in the UK.
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