Digital Transformation: How to Adopt a Continuous Change Mindset

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We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Oriol Pujol, the University of Barcelona’s Vice-Chancellor of Digital Transformation, and a professor  in the Mathematics and Computer Science department at the University. 

Pujol is a telecommunications engineer with a doctoral degree in computer engineering and his research focuses on machine learning and artificial intelligence. At management level, he has been Head of Studies of the Computer Engineering Program, creator and director of the Data Science and Big Data postgraduate course, and creator and coordinator of the Fundamental Principles of Data Science master’s degree at the University.

Pujol shared some of his experience as leader of Digital Transformation at the University of Barcelona, and reflected on the importance of digital transformation as a cultural process rather than a technological one, focusing on people, culture, organization, and strategy.    

E-Learn Magazine (E.L.): What has been your biggest professional challenge to date? 

Oriol Pujon (O.P.): My career as a professor and researcher has multiple facets, so professionally it is difficult for me to compare the challenges that each one entails. At the teaching level, there are daily challenges resulting from the responsibility that comes not with the transfer of knowledge, but the influence that can be exerted in developing the critical thinking skills of our students. At the research level, challenges are based on the concept of facing the unknown; on mapping a terrain when we don’t know where it will lead us, though we sense it will have promising results, and which sometimes, has great social and economic repercussions.

It is at the management level where I have perhaps found my greatest challenge to date: namely the creation of the Vice-Chancellor Office of Digital Transformation, which didn’t exist anywhere else in the world and which I therefore had to define from scratch. Defining and setting out the challenges and action items, as well as the strategies to manage to move a large and diverse organization like the University of Barcelona has been a very complex and, at the same time, very rewarding process. Promoting and raising awareness of digital transformation concepts and the search for cultural change have been a daily part of my life. 

We’ve also had to reinforce the need for multidisciplinary teamwork, while finding the necessary agility to carry out the proposed projects. Most of these projects are strategic and have almost always been carried out in collaboration with other vice-chancellors and with associated work units. Defining a joint multi-target strategy with a digital component has been key to determining the role of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office.

How do you define digital transformation in education?

I wouldn’t start by defining digital transformation in education differently than digital transformation in any other discipline or industry, even though it does have its own characteristics. To me, digital transformation involves the continuous adaptation to an environment that is in a constant process of change. From one point of view, obsolescence must be avoided. From a more proactive point of view, it is the strategic use of a changing environment. Transformation is the adoption of a mindset of continuous change, which within the current global context, requires adaptation to a digital society.

When we talk about digital transformation, we talk about people, organizational culture and strategy. 

In a very concise way and on a general level, digital transformation affects education in two ways. First, it has to define how the organization establishes a symbiotic relationship with the digital society. And secondly, it prepares current and future generations with the skills, abilities, and knowledge to live in this new digital society. 

What should institutions intending to undertake a digital transformation project take into account? 

Adapting digital transformation to education requires an understanding of the current context [digital society], and plausible future scenarios based on an organization’s mission and values. There are multiple strategic vectors and therefore multiple paths to digital transformation depending on organizational objectives. 

Simply by focusing on higher education, there are multiple types of organizations depending on their mission, type of expected impact, focus, etc. For example, there are universities whose mission is the democratization of education and inclusion, while others are more elitist or exclusive. 

There is no single solution to how digital transformation is accomplished. However, I do believe that there are a series of action items from which strategies, objectives, and execution can be aligned and that can serve any institution. I simplify these areas into four: data, training, transformation, and leadership and culture. 

At the heart of the entire digital society is data. Therefore, the first step towards digital transformation is to understand, organize, and govern data unique to the organization. This must include the potential ¨datafication¨ of the products that are inherent to it. For example, at the University of Barcelona, we have created the concept of the “Data-driven University” in order to assemble all of the individual initiatives working towards this goal.. 

The second action item is training. Organizations must have the human and also the technological capacities that the “data-driven university” requires. A digital training program is essential to enable staff to adapt to the new and uncertain challenges of a constantly changing environment.

Third is digital transformation itself, which in higher education can be divided into three areas:

1. Improving the experience of students, researchers, and social agents in order to increase the effectiveness of knowledge transfer.

2. Simplifying the processes in order to attain excellence in operations.

3. Exploring new models for how the institution can accomplish its various missions.

Finally, the fourth action item is leadership and culture. Digital transformation is a reality that affects all units, processes, procedures, and staff, among others; therefore, it affects their culture. Starting the transformation process requires a clear vision at a strategic level, and it requires having all members of the organization adopt that vision.

What common mistakes can an institution make when undertaking a digital transformation project?

I think the most common mistake is to approach the concept “technology-first,” i.e. to think “technology provides new opportunities, therefore I will look for ways to implement it within my organization.” For example, thinking “blockchain and artificial intelligence are disruptive technologies, so where can I use them in my organization” is a mistake, in my opinion.

At a high level a technology helps solve a concern based in the optimization and improvement of an educational experience as a whole, in the solution to a key issue, or in uncovering a new opportunity. For any given issue, the answer may or may not have a technological component.

In my opinion, using technology in and on itself is not digital transformation. At the University, we talk about the digital transformation of teaching, of research, of operations, and so forth. Therefore, it’s about collaboration with all the people responsible for all these areas. As a result, the transformation must be a priority for the leaders of each area at the managerial level. Ideally, the university president should be the main transformation driver. Alternatively, a vice-chancellor. 

Do you have any anecdotes that you can share with us about University of Barcelona’s digital transformation process? 

From the first day of our office’s mandate we were clear that one of the most important systems in our organization was the virtual campus. Its migration to the cloud was vital if we wanted to establish an adequate service level and a user experience that would meet our students’ expectations. This is how we proceeded to dedicate considerable effort to this project.

As a result, the virtual campus, which is high-performing, scalable, designed to meet our students’ needs, capable of supporting new learning models and with special emphasis on inclusiveness, was deployed in a pilot phase for 20,000 students in January 2019, and for the entire university in September 2019. This strategic move has had a particularly positive impact during the pandemic. The learning management system was ready to support intensive platform use and facilitate the implementation of online and hybrid learning solutions. And although it was not a smooth ride, I cannot imagine the difficult situation we would have faced had we not made this move.

What advice would you give to educational institutions and even companies that are lagging behind in the face of the imminent technological change we are experiencing?

 Digital transformation is an inevitable step. We need to prepare ourselves for a society that changes rapidly in a digital context. As I have said, the technological component is important, but it is not the main change component. In my opinion, it can be addressed practically by dividing the initiatives into four action lines: data, training, transformation, and culture and leadership.

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, how do you think education can evolve? 

Unfortunately, we are still dealing with the reality of COVID-19; hopefully, this situation will be resolved soon. The decrease of in-person classes has forced us to accelerate the adoption of technological measures to maintain our level of commitment to society and to students. This has had a strong impact on institutions with in-person classes as one of their fundamental characteristics and has precipitated a rapid exploration and adoption of hybrid, synchronous, and asynchronous online teaching methodologies. It has forced teaching staff to upskill and train in the digital teaching skills necessary for the new era in education.

This haste has made it impossible to properly assimilate these modalities, but it offers an undeniable opportunity as it has brought them to the table, forcing a leap forward and accelerating what in a ‘normal’ situation would easily require five to 10 years.

This time represents an opportunity. All teachers have had to step out of their comfort zone, and that effort has to allow for an expansion of the capacities and methodologies within their reach. Many taboos have been broken, and many of these changes are going to become considerable improvements that will allow us to distill the best of face-to-face and remote modalities.

Of the changes forced by the pandemic, which ones do you think will remain and which ones will not? 

I hope that this time will allow us to internalize the methodologies, techniques, tools, and ways of transmitting skills and abilities. I believe none of the changes we have made at the technological and methodological level will be reversed. We will go back to a face-to-face modality, but it will not be the same as before. A balance  between in-person and online learning will remain. 

Anything else you would like to add?

When talking about digital transformation, the word that resonates most is “digital”. It is indeed a crucial term, but in this interview I wanted to highlight the aspect that I believe is even more important: transformation.

As a technologist and researcher in artificial intelligence, I am very much in favor of the use of technology, but it must be used wisely: with knowledge, in a conscious and ethical way, and with respect for its multiple implications. Above all, digital transformation refers to people and to culture—it’s an opportunity for improvement and to achieve greater flexibility. I do not want to end this interview without mentioning the phrase: The idea isn’t to simply stick what we’re already doing onto a computer and stop there.

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