The difficulties of digitising delivery

The march of digitisation seen in many other areas is now coming to many business schools. For some it is working out well, but in others it is a major challenge. I have found that whilst many are happy to agree with the rationale, very few are clear on either the ‘how?’, and the knock-on impact to other areas. This blog outlines the key challenges and suggests some ideas to overcome them.

The potential benefits of digitised HE are well known. Digitised delivery:

  • can be available without borders 24/7 (really appealing for mobile digital natives)
  • also allows regular, easy updates and fresh materials (ensuring relevance and topicality)
  • facilitates greater interaction (generating greater student engagement)
  • engenders much greater tailoring and student/tutor choice

Add to this list the realisation that many students are increasingly living their lives ‘on-mobile’ and are used to getting anything and everything digital. An ‘analogue/dinosaur’ approach will disengage and won’t compete well for their attention.

All this is without any mention of the increasing academic resource issue. Digitisation is not designed primarily to save money (developing excellent digital content is not cheap) but what it can do is allow this rightly expensive resource to be targeted much more effectively. Academics (and other areas of the business school) can and should use digitisation to remove much of the drudge work, and use this valuable time to focus on higher value and more enjoyable work. When HEI’s are being tasked to prove their value over and over, here is where digitisation can really be our friend. Digitisation begets automation, simplicity of systems, reducing the need for rework, lowering error rates and subsequent complaints over poor service.

So if all the above signs and more point to digitisation being a positive future, why are there so many significant barriers?

I would argue that digitisation of HE is a significant change to the whole modus operandi of Business Schools and needs to be so recognised. It will require, as claimed recently by the Boston Consulting Group, people with very different skill sets and competencies than those we currently have. Consider for a minute what would we typically advise our business and management students to do in such a situation:

  • Take a step back, before acting, consider your ultimate, larger goal or intended destination
  • Look at your current core competencies and what you will need in the new world, (do you train or hire new?)
  • Map out the probable journey and key gateposts etc.
  • Bring your team with you don’t ‘impose’
  • Consult with your end users, what aspects of the new opportunities hold most utility for them?

Are we asking ourselves the same questions?

Some of the more obvious hurdles to digital implementation are:

  • Established systems (timetabling, assessment, reporting, boards etc.) are based on ‘analogue’ (i.e. old model, pre digital) ideas
  • Many senior academics are not as digitally literate as we would imagine, and reluctant to let go of the present status quo (skill set mismatch)
  • Digital transformation, like any other transformation, will have winners and losers, but here the prospective ‘losers’ may hold the power

But there are also some less obvious ones;

  • Most business schools have been through so much change that they have major ‘change fatigue’. Additional resource hungry change programmes will not be popular
  • HEI’s in general are not built for speed and rapid change is what digitisation must achieve or you will never ‘catch the wave’ at the right time

So what should we do?

The answer starts with going back to change management fundamentals. Many change models protest that you first need to ‘loosen up’ the main players first (Google Lewin’s three step change model, or Kotter’s key steps for examples). Unfreezing will allow for digitisation to seep into the darkest areas of our operations and start to deliver some of the benefits available.

We should also fire up pilot digitisation projects to ‘socialise’ the new world and welcome it in. At my school we are about to start using a chatbot to support new students before arrival. This bot called ‘Differ’ ( is designed to let students make their own connections and develop a true learning community that is not run by the university but by the students themselves.


I see digitisation as a regeneration opportunity for business schools and the race is now on for establishing the ‘new normal’ where students will be the recipients of an excellent, digitally supported experience. Senior managers should use this transformation as an opportunity to both refresh and take out many inherited problems from historical models which no longer serve us well.


Dr. Stephen Ellis PFHEA is leading the ‘Differ’ pilot to improve student engagement. Steve has been Associate Dean of Faculty at the Business School at Regents University London for four years. He was previously in the financial services sector as a management development specialist and HR generalist. Steve is the author of ‘Knowledge Based Working – intelligent operating for the information age' (Chandos 2006).