Supporting digital transformation in higher education

IWMW 2019

On a blisteringly hot Wednesday in June, me, Project Consultant Adam Fowles and Manifesto’s Innovation Lead Kjell Eldor-Evans joined the wonderfully welcoming community of people managing institutional web services in higher education at the IWMW conference in Greenwich. It was a chance for us to immerse ourselves in the challenges that higher ed is facing around governance, stakeholder alignment, content strategy and budgets, look for consistent themes, meet some potential new partners for governance and accessibility, and present some best-practice findings from our successful digital partnership with the University of Dundee.


Here follows a summary of the themes from the session we delivered.



The methodology behind a successful digital transformation project

By now it should be obvious that digital transformation doesn’t just mean upgrading your technology stack and adding new capabilities. It is as much about teams as it is about tech. We know from experience that it requires significant investment and willingness to change across people, process and technology. Given the near certainty that you’ll need to call in external help, how can you enact such drastic change while getting the right level of buy-in and support from an assemblage of partners with different specialisms and knowledge domains?

We’ve been investigating digital transformation in the higher education sector for many years now (we sponsored this Digital Clarity Group report on it in 2016). Most recently, through practical experience of working as a collaborative team with our partner Acquia and a large internal team at the University of Dundee, we feel like we can offer up some universally-applicable nuggets of advice for other institutions that have aspirations to digitally transform how they communicate with students, faculty, citizens, and corporate sponsors.


Choose the right technologies

Our work with the University of Dundee is centred around rebuilding their website to improve digital experiences and audience engagement, while providing a platform to support continuous incremental improvement. The second component is key – as we understand that it is difficult to get the level of investment necessary for this project approved, you must find a platform that meets your needs for years to come. One of the hallmarks of the digital era is that the changes keep coming. If your internal teams are to keep up with the changing expectations of your various audiences, you need to provide them with a platform that is sufficiently flexible and extensible.

By choosing to build their new website with Drupal, the University of Dundee did just that. Drupal has one of the largest open source communities in the world, with over 1,000,000 passionate developers, designers, trainers and strategists using it and working together on common problems. It gives Dundee a robust, easy to use, scalable platform on which to innovate, and deliver incredible experiences today while future proofing their strategy for years to come.


Choose the right partners

When it came to choosing infrastructure and implementation partners to work with them on their digital transformation project, Dundee did exactly the right thing: they engaged early and regularly with stakeholders throughout the organisation, taking the time to understand their individual goals and success metrics while also learning about the capabilities and capacities they had in-house and where they needed to bring in help.

In Acquia they have a Digital Experience Platform provider that allows them to deliver fast, high-quality, personalised experiences to users across the globe through a fast, secure and resilient cloud architecture. Manifesto helped them develop an implementation plan for the project, pulling together huge amounts of research to drill down to the core requirements of the project and put them in priority order. We also helped bring the internal development team up to speed on new technologies like Twig and BackstopJS, collaborating as a distributed team. 


Choose the right approach

It’s amazing to me that we’re still seeing ‘big bang’ approaches to rolling out large IT projects. As recently as last year, the TSB online banking migration, which locked millions of customers out of their accounts, demonstrated the folly of trying to replace widely-used legacy software across your entire user base in one go.

Dundee wisely adopted a phased implementation of their new website. This not only allows them more time to migrate content over from the old site, but also allows two beta phases during which internal audiences can get used to the new content and structure, and a community of testers can be engaged to weed out bugs. The first release saw the course pages switch to the new site this week.


It was really gratifying to see so much interest in, and receive great feedback about the Dundee case study; “Great to hear about such a massive project and how they had overcome challenges.” You can read more about the partnership on the University of Dundee’s excellent Web Team Blog, including a post on atomic design principles. These were used to develop standard content components for the website that can change and react to individual contexts, allowing them to develop once and deploy everywhere.


Hot in the city…

It really was a sweltering day, as Project Consultant Adam Fowles recounts in his thoughts from the day:

“For me, the conference was a time to enjoy some time in London with the team from the University of Dundee, and to celebrate nearly a year of our partnership,” said Adam. “Before any of that though, alongside Andrew Millar (Product Owner from Dundee) and Daniel Coletta (Acquia), Hugh and I had to run a workshop with three things going against us; 1) it was at the end of the day, 2) it was in the world’s hottest room, 3) there were 100’s of sirens blazing past the room for 50% of the talk. Nevertheless, we had 20+ super-engaged digital leaders listen to our case study of distance collaborative working and the formation of the combined team. Thank you to everyone for the questions both in the room and on the boat sailing down the Thames! Very proud to be part of the ‘One Dundee’ team.



The University of Dundee have been selected to host the IWMW conference next year, so we’re very much looking forward to joining Acquia as sponsors on home turf, as it were.

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