However, its students are also more likely to come from families within lower socio-economic groups - where they typically skip at least one meal a week. Not only that, the students also tend to be the first in their family to attend university, looking for new opportunities.
Knowing this, Tahir Yousaf, Associate Director of IT at the University, explained that those students are always looking to get the most of what they can out of the education provider. However, the University hasn’t always responded in the appropriate way. He said:
With all those keen intentions, and students that wanted to get more from what they could get from the institution, we’d taken that over the last two years to mean that they wanted really great facilities. So we built as many buildings as you could possibly imagine.
And then someone came to a powerful realisation - if those students we are trying to teach about everything that’s new and wonderful in the world were to join us as an institution, they would probably find that we were running about 15 years behind the times in terms of how we did things.
A more powerful realisation was that while we had a digital strategy that we had been running for a number of years, it wasn’t a patch on the type of digital strategy that even the average student could tell us that they wanted, as they’ve grown up in a world of YouTube, Alexa and Netflix.
That was really when we had to start looking quite heavily at what we did and how we did it. And cloud became an obvious choice.
Yousaf explained that higher education institutions, such as Birmingham City University, have in the past invested significant sums in developing mobile apps and other student facing technologies, without much success. As a result, Yousaf and his team conducted some research around student expectations - what digital experience did they want their University to provide?
For example, Yousaf asked students if they had to have one app on their phone, what would it be? And the most common answer was a messaging app, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. He said:
We kind of realised that we got things radically wrong. Why? Actually they said that these messaging apps are a great way to find information. And that kind of blew our mind. That actually the way in which students expect information to be presented to them, they way in which they want access to core digital services, is no longer by having a keyboard and typing into a thing, reading a page, trying to discern what the information means.
What they want is a modern experience that allows them to use the interfaces that they already have to be able to access the digital services that we want to provide. Once that aligned with our whole concept as an institution, about being more experience led, because the students were more like customers, that’s when we really started to look at how we could change the way that we delivered our services.
Yousaf soon realised that to take advantage of modern digital technologies, such as AI, chatbots, natural language processing, appless interfaces, the University was going to need a modern back-office platform. Like a lot of organisations out there, Birmingham City University had a whole range of systems that had been integrated together, but weren’t built for internet usage.
As a result, the education provider carried out a process to find an out of the box cloud suite that could essentially replace the 15 siloed back-end systems that it had been using for 10 years. After an extensive shortlisting exercise, Yousaf and his team landed on Oracle and made the decision to go with the full range - including HCM, ERP, Business Intelligence, Payroll, Planning and Budgeting, PaaS, platform based storage, amongst other things.
That was in November. However, Yousaf said that the students weren’t willing to wait for modern experiences, and so the University decided to do an aggressive rollout and go live with the platform within 260 days. Whilst that slipped slightly by a few days, it was completed in under 300 days.
All of that stuff being sewn together, never really gave us an answer that anybody could agree on. We spent more time arguing about the source of the information, rather than what the information was trying to tell us. It was absolutely bonkers.
We took everything that was in the sweetie shop. Because we needed to be able to develop a business stack that was able to enable the future services like chatbot capabilities, like natural language processing, smart buildings etc. Trying to sew it on to an existing stack was really not worth doing for us.
I asked Yousaf how the University approached the project in such a rapid timeframe - i.e. did it just replicate its existing processes across to the cloud, was there much custom dev, or did it really go straight out of the box? He said that the University is now running on 95% vanilla processes, straight out the box.
Typically when you approach something like this, you have a whole army of lovely folks that will say ‘what we need to do is map everything we do at the moment’. And then think about and imagine everything that’s going to be in the future. And then create a complex set of processes. By the time you’ve done that you’re two years down the line, you’ve probably burnt about £2 million, everyone’s lost the will to live and no one can remember why you started to go on that journey.
So, actually, we made a powerful decision not to do any ‘mapping’. Instead we went to each of our business units and we said ‘can you tell us about what you want your outcomes to be’. What was the business outcome you wanted to see? If you take a traditional set of requirements to a cloud vendor, they can do nothing with your requirements, because actually, their processes are already fully formed.
So we asked the cloud vendors, how does your cloud system do this? Then we let our users decide which one to choose based on their experience and the journey. Vanilla is better than you think in terms of its flexibility.
However, the University has invested in Oracle PaaS too - mostly for the remaining 5%, which Oracle vanilla won’t work for, and custom dev needs to be carried out for compliance reasons.
The go live
One thing that Yousaf and his team made a priority was providing stakeholders with weekly, or bi-weekly, updates on what was happening on the ground with the project. He said that the updates were “real” and this really engaged people.
Suddenly we found that doors started to open. And where you might be stuck in a typical environment with a change control, or a particular support issue, solutions started to appear. People started to go the extra mile. And we were able to conquer pretty much everything that we came across.
However, whilst the technology implementation was rapid, Yousaf did acknowledge that additional time was needed for the change management and getting the staff on-board with the new systems. He said:
From an implementation perspective, I can say that if you want to run it at a really fast pace, you can. You can create a multi-pillar, multi-platform delivery, fully integrated within that time of timescale. The problem is, of course, is getting people to adopt it and getting people to change what they do.
In many ways you can do that by giving people tonnes of access to the system throughout that process, but in some cases you still have to give them time. We built everything as a block, and then we released it over the course of three and a half months. We weren’t completely authoritarian with our change teams.
Because the thing is, they’re going to have to live with this for a long time. And if that initial experience is one of the process being foisted on them to meet an objective measure, like a date or a time, that can be really problematic. Because you can lose that goodwill.
I was keen to find out from Yousaf, given the initial objective was to improve the student experience, how the back-office project would enable that and what use cases he sees developing over the coming years. However, Yousaf said that his aim is to start on working with the staff at the University - as he believes that if he can get them up to speed on the technology, they’ll do better coming up with the use cases for the students. He said:
One of our key objectives was to improve the nature of our student experience. We need more contact time, we need more availability of information. In January we are looking at releasing our first chatbot, based on business information, directly into appless interfaces into things like WhatsApp. In the first instance we are trying to infect the nature of staff expectations around the use of AI and natural language processing.
Our staff, if they have a level of experience and understanding about the use cases for technology, they will naturally develop that understanding and deliver it to students. But if the staff are behind the students in terms of their understanding of the technology and their adoption of it, you kind of leave yourself a little bit short. So the first use case is actually about presenting information to staff. So, things like being able to ask your WhatsApp feed, how many days holiday do I have left? Have I missed the date for expenses?
The truth is, we can give them a potential solution, but they need to be able to imagine what the future looks like. Those potential use cases have to come from the staff.