Attitude, organizational culture and good practices: the keys to digitizing the university


In the last two years we have changed. Changes have been accelerated and entrenched in the way we buy, pay, meet, and also in the way we learn. We are discovering digital tools, and we use them in an increasingly better, more effective and practical way, in our day to day. We have changed, in some things, for the better and, in others, not so much.

The university, leading in many aspects, is still in the process of reflecting this change. Updated knowledge, reflections, criticism and intellectual debates are present, but other ways of doing things with students still need to be introduced.

A recent study across Irish universities shows that 44% of students consider online resources and tutorials to be their ideal format of instruction, and 56% opt for on-campus discussions, with face-to-face classes. We do not have data in other countries in Europe or America, but it seems to me that the sentiment of the student body is aligned with those data. This represents an interesting change of preferences. It reflects what the students consider that attendance brings, and the possibility of acquiring knowledge and information by other means.

The university wants to lead progress and train those who lead it. Many university mottos, from all over the world, refer to the search for truth, to illuminate with science, etc. It is studied, reflections are made, but changing the internal functioning is not so easy. As in the university, other administrations and large corporations are also slow to incorporate organizational and operational changes, although they see them as necessary and expose them to third parties.

The importance of collective attitude

To adapt to new ways of learning and teaching, students and teachers need to develop a positive attitude towards change. Identify and understand the potential and value of using certain digital resources.

In organizational behavior, we speak of “organizational preparation” as a prior element to be able to assume a change. This being ready, prepared, occurs when the context, the structure and the attitudes of the members of the institution are receptive to the changes that are coming.

Add, don’t replace

Adopting technology does not necessarily mean a change in the strategies or values ​​of an institution, and we tend to confuse it. It is necessary to develop processes that are compatible with the tasks that we already do well, but that generate more value in the task of teaching and learning.

The change to take advantage of the opportunities of digitization is not to incorporate new applications. It is not looking for new labor-saving procedures, even if they do. It is about seeking a change of culture, which helps to learn in a new teaching environment.

Provoking changes for the better means seeking and finding consensus, accompanying people, helping each other to grow from the skills and abilities that each one of us has. And that must be promoted with the collaboration of many people throughout the organization.

Motivation and understanding

It is the practical strategy that we try to apply at the University of Barcelona to achieve a change towards a simpler, more efficient and safer electronic administration. A change to motivate more in classrooms, laboratories and research.

The digital change does not depend so much on age, skills, or the way of being, although they are important. It is rather a problem of preparing the organization and creating attitudes of the people. That becomes easier when you understand why new things are worth doing.

Build skills

Once this change in attitude has been achieved, providing digital skills is the second challenge. These skills are generated step by step.

Training and coaching help build good habits. But examples and actions that are easy to incorporate into our day to day help more.

As the American economist Richard Thaler explains , it is costly to generate important resolutions that we know are necessary (play sports, follow a healthy diet…) and, on the other hand, it is easy to fall into small temptations that do not go in the same direction (a good chocolate ice cream , for instance). In the same way that in behavioral economics the usefulness of “nudges” towards the right decisions has been demonstrated, in the university we can introduce and share good examples, good practices that reinforce other ways of educating current and future generations.

The challenge of incorporating these good practices must have three characteristics:

  1. A minimally reasonable exchange cost.
  2. The possibility that they will be copied and implanted in new environments.
  3. That allow identifying the success of incorporating these digital skills in teaching activities.

Institutionalize the changes

There is no doubt that the best asset of universities are people. And people shape organizations, and give them their own culture. It is the people who can institutionalize new ways of doing things and convert them into the culture of the organization.

A challenge for university teachers is to develop students’ critical thinking and help them base their decisions. Add value at different moments of teaching-learning (not only in the classroom), and establish more comfortable systems for the acquisition of the new potential offered by digital transformation.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin ‘s classic theory of “unfreeze, change, and freeze again” can be applied to the university.

If we know how to transform the university, taking advantage of new technologies as much as possible, we will also transform society. If we know how to improve society, we will undoubtedly transform the university.

This is the challenge that we have to take on as university teachers. How to make it happen is already another matter. The three suggested areas can help, and we hope they will help us, to accelerate the transformation that we need.

Author Bio: Xavier M Triadó Ivern is Vice-Rector for digital transformation and Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Barcelona