Navigating the waters of digital and social transformation

For Claudia von der Linden and Lina Michel, modern digitalisation initiatives call for a substantial cultural shift. In this article, they describe how three Austrian universities are proactively recalibrating their strategies via the work of a “digital university hub”.

As we witness the surging tides of digitalisation, driven by international competition, Austrian universities find themselves at the cusp of a transformative epoch.

To successfully coordinate this change, it is essential to establish two cardinal landmarks. First, there is a need for a cultural shift centring the people involved. Second, the significance of collaboration across disciplines and institutions needs to be recognised. One initiative that embodies this approach is the "digital university hub" (DUH), a brainchild of three Austrian universities, with financial support from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science, and Research.

Cultivating change in higher education

The DUH is a multifaceted, collaborative effort involving the Technical University of Graz, the University of Vienna, and the University of Graz, united by a cooperative pact aimed at navigating towards a digital future. From decision-makers and software architects to transformation managers and service owners, it brings together a diverse range of stakeholders with a common purpose: to offer inter-university support, facilitate knowledge transfer, and nurture joint innovation.

All of this takes shape through participatory working groups, where representatives from partner universities come together to tackle shared challenges and build solutions and services. What becomes apparent here, is that the universities involved in this project embrace the concept of “co-opetition” to maintain competitiveness while building cooperation at the same time.

The significance of these collaborations across universities lies in the potential to pool resources, expertise, and insights. Partnerships like these create a robust foundation to share best practices and speed up the integration of digital solutions. At the project’s core, we find common values such as trust, transparency, collaboration, and participation. Hence, one intrinsic goal is to extend these principles beyond the DUH, amplifying their impact across all Austrian universities.

As higher education continues to change, a pressing need for a substantial cultural shift arises. Here, the DUH is as a strategic catalyst, serving as both a bridge and beacon for the exchange of hard and soft skills. Therefore, the initiative actively promotes cultural transition within the sphere of higher education.  Through this collective effort, universities across Austria can move together towards a digital future, maintaining their competitiveness while remaining at the forefront of education.

Change management: a guiding compass

Today’s educational landscape is not just undergoing a cultural shift, necessitating the development of various future skills. It is also in need of adaptation to the evolving demands of an interconnected world.

The French writer and social critic, Marcel Proust, asserted that true discovery involves cultivating new perspectives. This strongly resonates with the DUH's fusion of change management methodologies from the business sector into the academic realm.

The platform’s approach serves several purposes, one of which is to function as a dynamic network for Austrian universities to exchange their experiences with digitalisation. This peer exchange is well illustrated by the publication of practice examples outlining the implementation of digitalisation projects. What factors led to success? How did the change process unfold? These examples offer various answers and provide insights into existing best practices.

In addition, four basic concept papers are available that explain the structural foundations of change management in higher education. These papers serve as a guiding compass for the successful execution of transformative digital projects while shedding light on adaptable methods and techniques. Complementing these papers is the Basic Toolkit, a collection of proven methods ready to be harnessed across the spectrum of change processes.

By equipping project and change managers with these tools, the DUH initiates a common understanding and standardised approach to change management in academia. The platform also illustrates the exchange of experiences and knowledge by presenting profiles of change experts who have successfully navigated the complex waters of transformative projects. These profiles create a vivid picture of change facilitators across Austrian universities.

A repository of innovation

Furthermore, the collaborative and cooperative spirit reveals itself through another important piece of the DUH’s treasure chest: Embedded within the initiative, the "Entwicklungsstraße" (“developments platform”) serves as a repository for digital solutions, i.e. a source from which universities can draw to streamline processes, enhance efficiency, and even set national benchmarks. This is fertile ground for innovation, enabling institutions to craft tailor-made solutions for comparable processes where no licensed alternatives exist. These synergies not only enhance individual universities but also uplift the entirety of the higher education system. In its essence, the DUH provides a communal reservoir of shared resources.

The development of Inner source (e.g. through putting in place communities of software developers’) plays an equally vital role in the transformation process; it is a collaborative approach to software development, encouraging universities to channel their internal talent, resources, and expertise. This method fosters a culture of knowledge sharing, driving innovation while cultivating a sense of ownership and accountability.

“Co-opetition” beyond borders for a digitally empowered future

The DUH is a guiding light for Austrian higher education, illuminating the path toward a digitally empowered future. However, it is essential to recognise that the concept of co-opetition and the invaluable lessons learned from the implementation efforts extend, and can be applied, beyond national borders. This approach is well placed to cross national boundaries and evolve into a European task – one where universities across the continent work together to shape a tomorrow which is enriched by digital advancements.

With resources dwindling and digital technologies unveiling boundless potential to reshape society, it is evident that higher education's digital transformation cannot be undertaken in solitude. Rather, it must be a harmonious symphony of collaborative innovation.

As expressed by the German writer and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “In nature, we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.” In the DUH, each university’s efforts are complemented by the collective efforts of others, forming an interconnected system where expertise and innovation can flourish.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Claudia von der Linden

Claudia von der Linden has been engaged in the field of transformation for over 40 years. From 2015 to 2023, she served as Vice-Rector at TU Graz, focusing on Change Management, Communication, and Digitalisation. From 2020 to 2023, she also chaired the Forum on Digitalisation at Universities Austria (uniko). Prior to her career in academia, she worked internationally in the industry and as a partner and managing director of strategic consulting firms.

Lina Michel

Lina Michel is a member of the digital university hub project within the transformation team at TU Graz. She manages the editorial office, content development and coordination of collaborative university events. Previously, she held positions at WU Executive Academy and at the Research Institute for Economics of Aging (Vienna University of Economics and Business).


Comfortable read mode Normal mode X