When an organisation needs to upgrade its digital technology systems it must work out how to bridge the gap between old and new. At Middlesex University this involved the move from a multi-platform system to a new integrated interface called UniHub, a single source for all the information needs students may have. Appropriately for a research-active institution, Middlesex chose academic research as the route to discovering the solution, with benefits that went well beyond the walls of the university itself.
During this transition, Dr George Dafoulas, course leader in BSc Business Information Systems and no slouch when it comes to IT, found it difficult to change to the new system. An expert in information systems and human computer interaction, this made him wonder 'if I'm having problems, how are other people experiencing this change?'.
The result of asking this question was the 'Transformation Programme Participation' project, funded by Jisc (Joint Information Systems Committee) which proposed identifying the needs of both the students and staff so that they could use integrated systems more effectively. Dafoulas conducted research with students, collecting information about how they used the system and what sort of support they needed from staff.
His project looked at how best to make it all work. "We focused on identifying problems students had using different parts of the previous system, using online discussions and an online repository to download information, looking at how they use systems to communicate with staff members and academics. Previously they had to have several user names and passwords and had to use different interfaces," he explains. "The university invested resources into how to integrate these systems which were introduced to students first and staff a year later, so there was a year when they were using different systems. It had to flow."
Dafoulas decided to identify the needs of both the students and staff so that they could use the new integrated system more effectively. He looked at previous tool kits and projects and collated them in a way that could be used by staff and students and help to manage change and transformation in the educational context. "That allowed us to provide systems to assess whether colleagues were ready for change and we then turned this into a handbook to help them manage the change and transformation," he says.
Organisational transformation through IT needn't be problematic, as the Middlesex project and associated toolkits demonstrate. Research here opened up opportunities to really understand IT systems change, understanding of real benefit not only to universities but to others too. For Dafoulas, a local problem prompted his research, proving that sometimes the most interesting research questions may be right under your nose.