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Innovation matters now more than ever for our higher ed sector: opinion

Australia’s higher education sector is experiencing ‘interesting times’ as the country’s education export industry – valued at $37.6 billion, according to the federal government’s most recent figures – comes under unprecedented and ongoing threat.

Across the country, higher education providers are being forced to revise revenue forecasts and adapt operating models on the hop, as the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 pandemic continues, keeping tens of thousands of international students from their classes.

In doing so, they’re providing an apposite illustration of the key insights to emerge from the Ricoh 2020 Workplace Innovation Index. The annual survey of Australian business leaders, conducted by market research firm StollzNow Research, highlighted the fact that business agility, technology skills and communications are key to innovation and growth.

In challenging times, they can also prove key to survival, as many higher education providers are learning first hand. In the past month, we’ve seen a collective striving to keep key stakeholders (students and staff members) in the loop and explore ways technology might be used to augment or replace classroom learning, at least in the short term.

Technologies that underpin enterprise-wide innovation, in good times and bad

Digital tools and platforms can play a vital role in facilitating and supporting innovation. The research suggests organisations of all stripes that invest in these tools and platforms are likely to find it easier to effect change, at speed.

A digitised environment can serve as the foundation for a more innovative corporate or organisational culture but, in many Australian organisations, there’s a significant gap between ambition and action. Currently, only 60 per cent of local organisations have a program to migrate to a digital environment, while just 45 per cent say they’re reorganising their processes and procedures to incorporate best of breed digital technology.

Analytics, workflow tools, collaboration and security are considered the ‘money technologies’ but how well Australian organisations, education providers included, are exploiting their potential is open to question. 

While two-thirds of executive leaders say they recognise the value of collaboration, many organisations have failed to optimise their investment in collaboration tools by introducing collaborative practices in an integrated and systematic way, according to the research.

Those self-same leaders are also less than enthused about the short-term results delivered by new processes and systems which purport to be more efficient. Almost two-thirds stated they are likely to lead to a loss in productivity, at least in the short term.

Keeping staff in the dark about digital transformation is an unfortunately common business practice; a factor which can contribute to employees’ reluctance to embrace new workplace technologies, even when there’s a clear benefit in their doing so.

How do Australian organisations stack up against those elsewhere in the world? Local leaders are aware there’s work to be done. Just one in five believe the country is ahead of other developed nations in the digital work space, while more than one in four say we’re lagging behind. 

Enterprise-wide, ongoing investment in digital infrastructure and culture is needed to arrest the slide, introduce people to what’s possible with digital and enable innovation to flourish.

Such investment entails a long-term commitment, not isolated or exclusive activities or exercises. Ideally, it should be made at a time when the enterprise is on stable footing, not while it’s in damage control mode.

Facing the challenges of today and tomorrow

Faced with unforeseen events whose end points and long-term repercussions are impossible to predict, identifying ways to respond and adapt – in short, innovating – is a necessity for leaders across all sectors.

This year’s COVID-19 event is not the first crisis to strike Australia’s higher education sector, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Educational institutions and providers that are prepared to pivot and adapt – and have the technologies and digital culture in place to support their doing so – will be better placed to survive this and the other vicissitudes interesting times throw up.

Ragavan Satkunam is a senior portfolio manager at Ricoh Australia.

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