UZH’s Digital Strategy aims to make research, studies, teaching and services at UZH more flexible, efficient and user-oriented. It also wants to promote the digital skills and creativity of its members when it comes to using digital technologies.
“The Digital Strategy helps us to agree on what kind of a university we want to be in the future,” says UZH President Michael Schaepman. And Harald Gall adds: “One of the goals of the strategy is to establish a culture of openness toward digital technologies and digital transformation at UZH.”
Harald Gall is Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics and chairs the newly established Digital Strategy Board, which has been advising the Executive Board of the University in matters of digital development since June 2023. He was part of the core team of the Tomlinson project that developed UZH’s Digital Strategy.
Michael Schaepman: Ray Tomlinson was the computer programmer who invented emails. He made his invention available to the whole of society and thus revolutionized the way we exchange information.
Schaepman: Tomlinson’s invention brought the world closer together, and our Digital Strategy also aims to do the same and strengthen what connects us.
Integrating existing processes in this way would allow us to plan overall university operations more dynamically than before.
Harald Gall: The ball symbolizes how we went about the Tomlinson project. We took a participatory approach. In addition to the core team, we had a circle of key stakeholders from UZH, and around that another circle of people from our international networks such as U21, LERU and Una Europa. In addition, we conducted a community review – a new format for UZH – which gave all students and staff an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. We passed the ball to each other, so to speak – in the form of ideas and objections, suggestions and feedback.
Gall: We have a wide variety of digital systems at UZH. Most of these systems do what they’re supposed to do, but they’re barely linked up with each other and aren’t really geared toward to the people who use them. Take the students, for example. Organizing their studies requires many individual steps: they have to book modules, create timetables, enter topics for their theses, complete assessments, and so on. At the moment, each of these steps is a separate process.
We have a wide variety of digital systems at UZH. Most of these systems do what they’re supposed to do, but they’re barely linked up with each other and aren’t really geared toward to the people who use them.
Gall: Our goal is to guide students through all these processes from one digital point of access. Staff hiring and leaving processes and many other processes in the areas of research, teaching and university administration could also be designed in this way.
Schaepman: This principle of integrated processes can be illustrated with an analogy from the transport industry. 30 years ago, anyone planning a trip through Switzerland by train, bus and ship had to flick through the different timetables of each transport provider. Later, the timetables were digitalized, but this didn’t really improve the situation all that much: travelers still had to browse different timetables to find the best connection to get from A to B. Today, you can simply use the SBB app to search connections and it will gather information from a variety of sources.
Schaepman: No, that was just the first step. The SBB app integrates the timetable information from various providers and links them in the background so that I can plan a trip quickly and easily using the functionalities on the interface. That is the step we are now facing at UZH: we need to adapt the processes to the needs of our users. This requires seamless process and data transitions according to the end-to-end principle.
Integrating existing processes in this way would allow us to plan overall university operations more dynamically than before. Courses, for example, would not always have to be held in the same room at a specific time; instead, rooms could be booked flexibly according to the expected number of students. This would allow us to use our room resources more sensibly and economically.
Schaepman: There are limits to what we can achieve and limits to what we want to achieve. The more we can do, the more often the question will come up as to what we want to achieve by doing so. In a few years, we will be able to discuss more effectively than today how flexible and how dynamic we want our systems to be. Today, flexible interaction of integrated processes isn’t even possible, because the quality of our data isn’t good enough and our data management is too fragmented.
Gall: This is why the Digital Strategy is so important right now. We need a to take a holistic view of developments to be able to work more intensively toward high-quality data storage and coordinated data management.
Communicating more isn’t the same as communicating better.
Schaepman: No. Communicating more isn’t the same as communicating better. The introduction of new channels such as MS Teams or Slack has sped up and increased how we communicate with each other at UZH. At the same time, we often complain about being inundated with data and information. But we’re not powerless to this. We ourselves can reflect on and manage our communicative behavior. And this goes for us as individuals as well as the university as a whole – where the topic has a strategic dimension: we want to actively and responsibly shape our use of digital media and technologies.
Gall: We also asked this question in the community review. A clear majority of respondents felt that the Digital Strategy was more realistic than visionary, and I share this view. We set targets that we believe can be achieved in five to 10 years.
Expectations differ greatly, as the community review revealed, ranging from simple admin forms to avatars.
Gall: Expectations differ greatly, as the community review revealed, ranging from simple admin forms to avatars. On the pragmatic side, for example, some people suggested improvements for business processes, while on the more futuristic side, some ideas mentioned teaching support provided by robots, among other things.
Schaepman: It’s important that we discuss them. The new strategy gives us a good point of reference for doing so. It helps us agree on what kind of a university we want to be in the future.
Schaepman: Unlike a consultation, a community review isn’t a formal procedure. We wanted to use it to kick off the process of self-understanding about the digital development at UZH, and we hoped we would get ideas and suggestions for developing the strategy. The quality of the feedback was more important than the quantity. And the quality of the feedback was very high. We received comments that led to substantial improvements in the strategy, for example in the areas of sustainability and social relevance. The participatory process was more time-consuming than following a top-down process, but it was definitely worth it. It wasn’t the last time we conducted such a community review.
Schaepman: Ensuring data protection and data security is a particularly complex challenge given the speed at which technology is advancing. UZH isn’t alone in this, however. It’s something that concerns the whole society.
I hope there’s courage to change, as well as a willingness to think constructively and critically.
Gall: One specific advantage is that we can tap into our existing in-house research expertise. Over the past 10 years, we’ve created more than 30 professorships focused on the digital sphere in connection with the Digital Society Initiative and the Digitalization Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions. Some of the specialist areas include education technology, legal technology or blockchain.
Schaepman: Practically all digital technologies are based on inventions that were made at universities, from the internet to WiFi. Nevertheless, it still makes sense for universities to buy established tech on the market or to use open-source software. In some cases buying in an external solution is the best choice, and in others it’s better to develop and manage our own solution.
Gall: We want to channel UZH’s creative potential into areas where the market has nothing to offer yet. For example, a blockchain wallet for study certificates is currently being developed at the Department of Informatics. And why not try out how avatars could be used by researchers and students? We can experiment with and test such ideas at the university. But the final step toward application maturity should then be taken outside of the university, for example as part of a spin-off or with industry partners.
Gall: I’m going to pass it to the students and staff at UZH – and hope it comes back! I want to keep the dialogue that we struck up with the UZH community during the development phase of the Digital Strategy going, so that our ideas can take flight.
Schaepman: : I hope there’s courage to change, as well as a willingness to think constructively and critically. I hope that those who are hesitant about digitalization will still be open to new ideas, and that those who find things are going too slowly will be patient. By now we have all experienced and learned that while many digital innovations can make our everyday lives easier, this is not the case for all digital developments. With two-factor authentication, for example, security takes precedence over user-friendliness. Another important point for me is that UZH remains an on-site university. Digital technology is here to support university operations. It should add to face-to-face interactions on site, not replace them.