Harnessing Opportunities for Universities in the Digital Economy

Harnessing Opportunities for Universities in the Digital Economy

We are in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It heralds enormous societal, economic, cultural and political change now and into the future. This revolution is a result of digital transformation and disruption.

New technologies associated with this revolution are making a huge impact on our businesses, our education systems and our societies.

Interactions with more than 200 executives comprising of CEOs, CXOs, Chief Digital Officers and CIOs strongly suggest that future-proofing is an important priority for these leaders in all sectors including higher education. In several well-known universities, the digital transformation discussion has just begun. Universities are taking steps to modernise culture, organisational structures, measurement systems and operating architectures. University leaders recognise the growing threat of becoming uncompetitive, especially if their digital transformation leveraging disruptive technologies is slow. The broad remit of Universities includes teaching and learning services to students and research services to private and public sector organisations.

However, over the next decade, they will be constantly challenged by their customers to provide differentiated and high value experiences.

University leaders taking advantage of the technologies and opportunities afforded by this new revolution will not only survive but thrive. The top five barriers for transformation within the University sector are:

  • Federated and siloed environment where faculties operate autonomously,
  • Legacy academic and business skills of staff,
  • Outdated technology systems as resulted of long term underinvestment,
  • Lack of agility, internal politics and organisational culture,
  • Lack of urgency and perception of “being protected” from competition.

Following are five ways for Universities to harness the disruptive forces and potential of digital technologies, leading up to 2040:

Transformation has to start at the top

The Manpower Group released a report From C-suite to Digital Suite where leaders agreed that “digital transformation has to start at the top and leaders need to lead differently”.

Leaders acknowledged the skills of current leaders, resistance to change, complexity and mindset issues are seriously slowing down organisations, making them vulnerable to disruptive forces. Vice-Chancellors have an important role to play in ensuring a digital strategy that is focused on harnessing and taking advantage of disruptive forces is developed and implemented. The Universities leadership team operationalise the strategy with a focus on new business models, student value enhancement and competitive differentiation.

Cultural change is a must

Cultural change is one of the most important drivers of success for University transformation. The ground rules, beliefs, and assumptions that drive culture will require rethinking the roles and responsibilities of academic and professional staff, administration, researchers and students. Universities will be required to transform themselves rapidly (changing in the next 5-10 years, way before 2040) and continuously to meet changing expectations of students as customers.

Technology enabled student experiences, attraction and retention will become the most important drive of change and success.

Rapid reskilling the workforce

Both business and political leaders fear that millions of jobs in legacy organisations will be impacted, with early signs of job eliminations visible in many industries. Skills obsolescence at all levels and across all sectors will become a challenge.

World leaders are calling for a major shake-up in the education system to help the workforce quickly reskill and upskill. Companies are revamping their learning and development strategies with firms like KPMG announcing a $450 million learning and development centre to reskill its people and to deal with challenges of automation and robotics. Corporate Universities will be directly competing with conventional Universities in the next 10 years, with education and employment opportunities integrated to attract high quality people.

Invest in artificial intelligence, big data and robotics

Global CEOs leading companies such as Alibaba, Google, Microsoft, IBM and Siemens predict that artificial intelligence, big data and robotics will have a major impact on human beings. They all agree that this impact can be unfavourable to humankind, if not managed properly.

On-demand platforms supported by artificial intelligence and other technologies will replace conventional teaching platforms.

The main objective should be augmenting human skills, talents and outputs, not replacing people. Despite Universities developing research labs and teams focused on these areas they must also invest in these technologies to transform their own value-chain, and enable their people to move up the value-chain, before disruptive forces negatively impact them.

Globalisation, strategic alliances and partnerships

In the lead up to 2040, Universities need to create new breakthrough value for their students, researchers and stakeholders continuously, not just once. Unless Universities embrace global thinking, and establish strategic alliances and partnerships with industry in a global ecosystem, not just local, value creation will become very challenging in a rapidly changing higher education environment.

Here, partnerships to create digital ecosystems will be crucial to reskill and upskill University’s workforce, as well as find new ways to reskill and upskill their customers.

As disruptive forces become more dominant in this era of the fourth industrial revolution Universities will be redefining their business models many times to create new value for their customers, employees and partners. In the lead up 2040, the University sector needs to deliberately disrupt itself or risk being disrupted by those willing to take this opportunity.


An entrepreneur, business leader and a trusted advisor, Kumar Parakala has more than two decades experience building new and existing professional services businesses in global markets. As the Global Digital Leader, Kumar led the creation of GHD Digital to help clients with their digital disruption and transformation priorities, leveraging a global network of 500+ digital professionals. GHD is a 90-year-old, world’s leading professional services firm with 10,000+ professionals in 200+ offices. He served as a Senior Consulting Partner with KPMG for more than a decade.

Kumar engages at the Board and C‐level, with more than 500 Board Director and CEO briefings on topics relating to technology and digital disruption. He is the recipient of multiple awards including SEARCCACS Digital  Disruptors’ International Professional of the Year 2016 Award. He was inducted into the ACS Hall of Fame and ranked in the Australia’s Top 50 in Technology.

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