This blog post is not about providing a clear definition or understanding what digital transformation is and how it applies to the higher education sector.
So, what is this blog post about then?
Well, I have been thinking about what we understand mean by digital transformation and in some discussions, I have been using different kinds of explanations to explore what I see and understand digital transformation is.
So, this is going to be the start of a few blog posts on my thinking and reflections on digital transformation.
In recent conversations and presentations, I have been talking about Human Resources (HR) systems, specifically that aspect of requesting leave.
The 3 D’s model of digital transformation from Educause is quite useful in explaining my thinking.
So if you are of a certain age, your original leave form may have been, as it was for me, a piece of paper. On that paper was my leave entitlement for the year and I would write down the date or dates I wanted to take leave. I would then go to my line manager who would then check I still had leave left to take and then could authorise the leave or not. It did depend heavily on us both having the time slots available to do this. My line manager would also need to check sometimes if I could take leave, what would happen if other people had leave booked at the same time. So they sometimes would have a larger piece of paper, more of a year planner, that they could use to check those dates, find out who else was on leave and then they could authorise it. You can tell straight away that there were challenges in this, who owned the single point of truth?
Digitisation often meant replacing those pieces of paper with spreadsheet files. So, you would fill in the details in the cells in a spreadsheet and send them to the line manager for approval usually by email. They would have a bigger spreadsheet, which they would need to check, before sending back approval by email. Of course there was no notification process, so your leave request could get lost in a bulging inbox. You never knew if you should send the email request again, in case the duplicate leave request got processed as well. You did though often have multiple versions of spreadsheet files across different computers. Institutional constraints on email mailboxes often meant you needed to delete email requests, which sometimes didn’t help with checking. Shared network drives did start to make the process a little easier, and did mean less bulging email inbox folders.
Nothing though had been really transformed, as the process was the same, it was just that pieces of paper had been replaced with spreadsheet files (sometimes masquerading as forms, but were still spreadsheet files).
Your organisation then probably had a sales pitch from a company, to your HR or Personnel department, about the transformative opportunities that could be gained by purchasing a digital HR system.
You could take that leave authorisation process and digitalise it.
Staff would now log into a system, they could see how much leave they were entitled to, how much leave they had taken, how much they had left. They could then make a leave request on the system.
This would usually result in the sending of an email notification to their line manager. The line manager would then need to log into the system and go through the notifications and authorise the leave.
The system would be set up so no one could take more leave than they were entitled to. This did mean that one check on leave entitlement could be ignored. However, managers would still often need to review the leave request in the context of other leave requests by other staff.
What did help was when these systems went web based so you could log into them from outside the institution.
When you start to think about this digitalised process, using a bespoke system, over spreadsheets or pieces of paper, you may think of this as transformative. However, when you did deeper, there is still that same old authorisation process there.
Make a leave request, the system notifies the line manager, you then wait for authorisation, and so on…
So, here’s a question for you, why does the leave need to be authorised?
A better question why does the leave need to be authorised by the line manager?
The paper based system required authorisation to ensure that staff weren’t taking more leave than they were entitled to. The digital HR system ensures that happens automatically. Make a leave request for ten days when you only have five days entitlement left, then the system will automatically reject your request.
Could the system be configured to automatically authorise leave then.
You request leave and if you have enough leave then it is authorised automatically.
When I first started asking this question a few years back, I was quite surprised by the resistance to the idea of a system or an individual self-authorising leave, and it got to the point where often the discussion would just fall down. Culturally people (okay managers) were struggling with the concept that they no longer had the power to authorise leave or not.
So why the need to authorise then?
There may be specific dates that people are not allowed to take leave on, development days for example, or when others are on leave. Well, these are the exception rather than the rule. Could the HR system in the same way it rejects requests where the days requested exceeds the days available, ensure that where requests fall on specific dates, or where other members of the team already have leave, that these then do go for authorisation. Couldn’t authorisation be by exception?
I wouldn’t have a system where such requests are automatically rejected, as the reason why some people are for last minute leave, are probably the requests that should be considered and dealt with by a person.
As you look into the potential of what a HR system could do, you start to realise that a well rounded and smart HE system could be used to reduce the administrative burden of booking leave.
However, what is transformative, is that though the introduction of an HR system may reduce the administrative burden of HR staff, the real benefits are on reducing the administrative tasks of staff and managers. Allowing them to take advantage to focus on the more challenging aspects of their roles and job.
This is just one aspect of one system. As you start to reflect on the possibilities and challenges you find that you can’t just change or transform one thing, you need to think about the wider aspects of transformation.
Building on this you start to realise that digital HR systems don’t live in isolation. HR systems also need to be fully integrated into other systems across the organisation, in the systems I use, you would have to manually copy your leave over to the Exchange server (Outlook), it was easy to have transcription errors, and if you ever cancelled leave, or added leave last minute, you might not remember to update your Outlook calendar. Likewise, it would be useful to have other kinds of calendars in both, such as bank holidays, annual closure or even school holidays (noting the regional differences that sometimes happen). I do recall lots of people booking meetings on bank holidays (when the organisation was closed) or booking annual leave when they didn’t need to.
Now looking further forward, could you use artificial intelligence (AI) to learn from leave request, rejections and authorisations to have a better idea of when there are potential pinch points, so maybe bringing in additional resources during those times, or ensuring that staff are aware of the high risk times. You would probably want to avoid having a leave system based on the first past the post wins the leave arrangement. AI could also be used to recommend leave to staff based on their historical leave requests (and why).
In the 1990s I would often take a week off to visit the Venice Carnival which was on a different date each year. Would have been nice for the HR system to book this leave for me automatically or at the very least make a suggestion I should book that week.
The digitalisation of the HR system only becomes transformative when you actually look at and transform the processes and the thinking behind those processes. You need to transform the process; the digital HR system enables that transformation. Simply digitalising your HR system results in less benefits than if you transform the organisation and use digital technologies to support that process of transformation.