university commencement
PHOTO: Faustin Tuyambaze

Higher Education, like every industry segment, has both unique and familiar challenges and needs when it comes to digital collaboration and communication.

Historically, higher education institutions have been centers of great thinking and research, where advancements in computer and information science, as well as in workplace behavior theories, have originated. Yet the actual application of those breakthroughs at any real scale within the institutions can often lag by years or decades.  Instead, the private sector test drives and refines the new technologies, ways of thinking, or attitudes around the definition of an effective workplace, many times by a college dropout turned entrepreneur. Those ideas can eventually find their way back into Higher Education internal workforces, but usually much later.

That lag can really put the industry in a bind as we simultaneously work to educate the new digital workforce and implement internal digital workplace revisions.

Challenges Getting in the Way of Higher Education Progress

The industry as a whole is under pressure for familiar reasons: year-after-year of declining funding and budget cuts, increased competition from more agile institutions following a for-profit business model, and an increased demand for digital delivery of its primary product in the form of online or virtual classrooms.

Additionally, the typical state-funded higher education institution operates on predictable, yet lengthy, business cycles, aligning with both the biennium budget cycles of state governments, as well as with internal semester or multi-semester academic program time lines. Disruptions and changes to the operational cycle are often highly measured, gradual, and implemented in short bursts during semester breaks or fiscal year chunks. That cycle is, honestly, not unique to our industries, but it does make it difficult to respond to external forces and drivers. 

Why the Pressure Is High to Change

One of our industry’s main drivers is (or should be) the workforce demands of other industries. Both private sector business and non-profit/government organizations have required and even craved a well-trained workforce. In the digital age, that need is changing as rapidly as the available technologies change. The more ubiquitous the technology advances and associated digital processes become, the more businesses feel the pressures to stock their internal workforces with the best trained people to take advantage of those advancements. The rate of change in those advancements often outpace the rate at which traditional higher education institutions can train and educate those workers.

One result of this dynamic: students increasingly avoid school provided collaboration and communications platforms,  instead seeking to learn from other sources and institutions and collaborating more freely among their peers on consumer-grade platforms. Through these experiences — and not our traditional learning spaces — they acquire many of the skills companies need.  

This dynamic puts a significant dent in enrollment numbers for traditional program approaches, which in turn affects funding, which in turn affects an institution’s ability to turn around and adapt. While this scenario is not necessarily happening everywhere in Higher Education, it is happening far too frequently. As funding declines and programs are cut, the internal workforce can suffer. Lower morale leads to lower engagement levels and communication and collaboration efforts suffer, ironically right at the time when they are needed most.

Change-Resistant Pockets Hold Back Progress

Beyond these challenges, we also have a unique workforce culture that is heavily influenced by the issues of academic freedom and tenure. These larger issues are too much to address here, but the extent to which they exist or are practiced can affect the propensity and outcomes of any collaboration and communication activities in general – digitally or otherwise.

Taken to extremes, the culture can develop pockets with attitudes of “hoarding knowledge.” Collaboration efforts and open communications can give way to information silos and an emphasis on individual credit for the professor or administrator. Resistance to change can be high, particularly to the rapid change necessary to respond to the industries begging for workers and especially if that change is seen as a threat to a silo that has been painstakingly built over the years and has given an individual academic recognition. Again, this is not necessarily the norm, but it does happen and when it occurs, it has a marked impact on collaboration, on communication, and most importantly, on the culture of learning.

Desire to Innovate, But Reliance on Old Practices

I work in a subset of the broader industry, in a system of community and technical colleges. These institutions offer shorter-term education pathways (from a few weeks to no more than two years) and are theoretically better positioned to respond more rapidly to the digital workplace demands of other businesses. Regrettably, we face the same general issues of huge year-after-year budget cuts and other external pressures, as well as internal change management challenges.

To compound our issues, each of our colleges is individually accredited and has its own identity. One of our communications challenges is finding the balance between "system-wide" or "enterprise perspectives" and local identities and needs. For us to succeed as an organization, we need our initiatives and implementations to achieve economies of scale. We cannot waste time and effort with many slightly different versions of the same system or solution. Yet too often we find out after the fact that each college has worked to implement its own version of a given system or solution. Better and more effective communications efforts could help break down the silos and prevent this unnecessary expense.

This phenomenon can also be seen in our collaboration efforts. We have largely embraced virtual conferencing to meet with our colleges across the state, but tangible deliverables from meetings and collaborations too often default to email, with multiple copies of the same document distributed unnecessarily, and manual assembly of changes and input added back into a master document. While there are pockets of innovation and engagement throughout Higher Education, adherence to older practices is unfortunately far too common.

A Road Forward

The irony is palpable and unfortunate, but it is something we can move past. We exist to provide training and skills to a 21st century workforce, so we must ourselves model that workforce internally. We can take advantage of the great technology platforms we possess and use them to incrementally improve our internal processes. That in turn can enable the transformations necessary to speed the development and delivery of education programs to our citizens. 

If we ourselves can demonstrate that level of modern agility, then our institutions can become great examples of the effectiveness of strong communication and collaboration. That sounds like a place where many potential students would want to learn.