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Scrums and squads: how Exeter’s agile culture is paying off for digital transformation

Scrum master, squads, fortnightly sprints, backend developers… These might not be everyday terms in most UK universities but they’re behind the approach powering digital transformation at the University of Exeter – and it’s working.

Helen Cocks headshot

“You’ve got to be prepared to go outside the comfort zone,” says Helen Cocks, head of digital strategy and engagement at the university. She’s delivering Exeter’s digital strategy by drawing on approaches and techniques – design thinking, product management and agile development – already familiar in industries that have digitally transformed ahead of the HE sector. Now it’s Exeter’s turn.

“Even as job titles, some of them can sound brand new,” admits Helen, “never mind the work that those kinds of roles deliver or the salary levels they attract. HE is not necessarily used to competing against those competitive markets. And so we've worked very closely with our HR and recruitment colleagues to make sure we've got the right job descriptions, recruitment policies and procedures, reward and remuneration packages to help us be competitive.”

It’s paying off. Although Exeter is only in the second year of its digital strategy implementation – with a vison to be the most accessible and connected university destination for any user – it is already seeing results.

Among the initiatives it’s delivered are an online and in-person digital hub for students and staff where they can access help and support with digital tools and digital skills. This runs alongside a digital upskilling programme for staff and students to help everyone understand more about all things digital. A new student app includes features developed to solve the top pain points students shared during the workshops and drop-ins that Helen’s team ran as part of their user research programme. These include ‘my day’, which lets students see their class timetable in one place along with directions to teaching spaces. There’s also data on the location of bookable study space around campus, as well as university updates, news and location-sensitive event feeds. Helen explains:

“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned has been that having access to data and the right development infrastructure have been fundamental to making quick and effective progress.”

Other essential building blocks have been support from the senior leadership team, who recognise the need to be champions for digital and to invest in digital and digital ways of working – not just in technology. Helen is also convinced of the importance of adopting an agile approach to communication. She explains:

“We don't just wait until something is completed to share the story. We're making sure we're actively including people along the way so that they're part of the change, part of the transformation and part of the story, and are telling the story themselves.”

Exeter’s students are definitely part of that story. As well as the user-led research programme, student ambassadors are embedded in the digital hub and there are also student intern roles on the digital transformation team and graduate business partner roles looking at digital operations. Helen says:

“It's really amazing to be able to have that insight with former students, and alumni being able to feed into the changes that we're implementing for students to come.”

However, it’s not all plain sailing. In comparison to some sectors, HE is “ancient”, so there are inevitably legacy systems to deal with, and issues with access to data which is held in multiple different systems and is not integrated or joined up.

“The challenge is, how can we improve the approach to data across the sector to make sure that we are able to maximise the powerhouse that it can be behind us, delivering brilliant journeys and personalised experiences for our students and staff?”

For Helen, the sector must up its game to be where its users need it to be – offering quick, easy and responsive processes that make their lives easier, just like the digital products they use everyday, from Netflix to Amazon.

“We've got academics who are researching the technology sector and industry that we can use and bring them on board, to help us shape where we're going,” she urges. “In that way, we can make sure we are supporting our students, our academics, our researchers to be able to deliver education and research that's helping solve global problems, which is really the magic of what's happening across the university and the HE sector.”

Helen’s digital transformation advice for other HE leaders:

  1. Practice what you teach. There are academics across the sector teaching digital transformation, AI, computer science. It's really important that we harness that expertise and use the content that we're educating others with to benefit our own practice.
  2. Be very clear in the definition of digital and digital transformation you’re using and what it means at your institution, especially if you've got a digital team that's separate to your IT team.
  3. Lead by example – embrace digital tools and digital skills.
  4. Foster a culture of agile. While we can be ambitious and think big, we need to start adding value as quickly as possible. So try, learn, try again, iterate and don’t put things off by waiting until everything's in place to start.
  5. Learn from other sectors. We, and particularly our students, are all benefiting from the digital transformation that's happened in other sectors, such as banking, retail, travel and telecoms. We need to make sure we're offering the same sort of benefits in education and research.

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