Global Study: The Organizational Agility Lessons from Higher Education

Higher education has a lot to teach other industries when it comes to organizational agility. Although our study was conducted prior to the global pandemic, many of the pain points and opportunities identified by higher education respondents look prophetic in hindsight.

Josh Krist July 29, 2020
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The higher education sector has a lot to teach other industries when it comes to organizational agility. That’s what we found in our global survey of 998 executives, “Organizational Agility at Scale: The Key to Driving Digital Growth.” It shows the majority recognize that organizational agility is key if they want to drive long-term digital growth. And, perhaps more tellingly, we found that there is a strong relationship between digital revenue growth and organizational agility. Although the study was conducted prior to the global pandemic, many of the pain points and opportunities identified by higher education respondents look prophetic in hindsight.

We identified five key behaviors that are crucial to organizational agility, and then grouped survey respondents based on their level of adoption of these behaviors. “Leaders” (15% of respondents) achieved high performance across all five of the behaviors, while “aspirers” (30% of respondents) achieved high performance in four of them, and “laggards” (55%) achieved three or fewer of the behaviors.

Here are the five behaviors that are necessary for organizational agility:

  • Continuous planning. They plan in a continuous, real-time manner, which gives them the speed, agility, and dynamism they need to innovate successfully. 

  • Fluid structures and processes. Leading organizations build fluid organizational structures and processes. Nearly half claim the ability to reallocate people quickly to where their skills are needed.

  • Building the future workforce. Leaders are much more likely than laggards to have plans to upskill the majority of their workforce and push specific initiatives to increase employee engagement. 

  • Informed and empowered decision making. At 80% of organizations that rank as leaders, all employees have access to timely and relevant data and are empowered to make appropriate decisions.

  • Measurement and guidance. Leaders have made significant progress in developing tools and metrics to measure the performance of digitally driven innovations. This is giving them a “fail fast” mentality: 94% say they are able to steer away quickly from unsuccessful projects.

Our survey broke down organizational agility by industry, and higher education was tied with media for having the highest number of leaders. In higher education, 23% were identified as leaders, 54% were identified as laggards, and 33% were aspirers.

Here are a few key insights from survey respondents from higher education institutions: 

  • Agility is key to digital innovation. Over two thirds (69%) in higher education say their strategy for growth through digital innovation constantly evolves based on continual learning from organizational outcomes and “customers'' (in this industry’s  case, students).

  • Democratizing data is fundamental to their mission. Higher education is also more likely to facilitate full access to data across the organization compared with many other sectors (47% vs. 43%), demonstrating significant progress in a shift to agility. 

  • They’re ready to make moves when necessary. 69% said they’re ready to reallocate people when their skills are needed elsewhere or new opportunities arise. 

  • Access to digital tools. 72% shared that they have the tools they need to measure performance of digital products and new programs and delivery models. 

The Barriers to Organizational Agility  

It’s not always easy to work toward organizational agility and real-time planning, though many higher education institutions are heading in the right direction. In fact, when it comes to engaging the wider organization and moving away from legacy processes, real-time planning will be central to ensuring agile is embedded across the organization. Higher education respondents say that their main obstacles moving to real-time, integrated planning are, in order, failure to engage the wider organization; a bureaucratic organizational culture; inflexible legacy technologies.

They also strive to update processes to respond to changing business needs, but they’re facing similar, but slightly different barriers, with a lack of motivation to move away from legacy processes topping the list, followed by bureaucracy and a lack of insightful data and market intelligence. 

Thinking About Engaged Employees

A sector with firmly traditional roots, higher education is the first to admit that success is tied to keeping employees engaged (38% compared to 27% overall). Despite this, fewer than one-third of institutions say they have initiatives in place to drive that engagement. An additional 30% agree that their institution would benefit from a more fluid approach to management in order to retain talent. 

In addition to hard skills such as analytics and machine learning, lateral thinking (using a creative approach to problem solving) and managing risk are soft skills perceived to be of most value to tomorrow’s higher education workers—a supposition that has been borne out by circumstances.

Of those institutions leading the way, many are looking to machine learning, AI, and data to enable a more agile approach to engagement and innovation. For example, Australia’s Deakin University (a Workday customer) has implemented AI technology from IBM to assist students in their orientation and enrollment process—reducing stress for new students and freeing up staff members to focus on more value-adding tasks. As a result of this growing shift, we found that 52% of institutions plan to upskill more than half their workforce to contend with the evolving world of work in the coming five years. Again, these insights show that higher education leaders, pre-COVID, had a surprisingly sharp eye for the shape of things to come.

In fact, one of our customers told us that being forward thinking paid off more than they'd imagined. "When implementing Workday, our eye was on redefining business processes to develop much needed new processes for what were everyday tasks. We were looking to be more impactful in our functional roles and as a department. We weren’t thinking that one day each one of us in the department would be working remotely at the same time. While we knew we were creating the future we needed and wanted, a major benefit in today’s COVID-19 environment is that we are able to keep our part of the business running without skipping a beat. Workday positioned us for today’s climate by helping build the tools and processes to work remotely and collaboratively at the same time. We have what we need to support our mission," said Donna Popovich, executive director, human resources, University of Tampa.

In the update to this research (being conducted as this is written), we’re looking forward to seeing how higher education leaders used the agility of their organizations to meet a monumental set of challenges. We have a feeling that higher education will again have quite a bit to teach other industries in a world that’s quickly changing

Get an overview of "Organizational Agility at Scale: The Key to Driving Digital Growth" findings or download the full report.

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