UCISA24 Thought leadership - Chapter Five

11 June 2024 - UCISA24 Thought leadership - Chapter Five

Harnessing External Help: Should You Do It, and How Do You Get Value?

As IT Professionals in education, we navigate a world of constant change. New technologies emerge, student expectations evolve, and budgetary flux are ever-present. Conceiving a meaningful strategy in this dynamic environment is tough, and the question of whether to leverage external help and if so who, is potentially a critical one.

Our organisations are crammed with valuable expertise and experience across all our academic and professional service teams, so when we talk about "external help," we should consider our wider institutional resources, as well as a surprisingly varied list of external opportunities.

A group of University representatives discussed this topic at the recent UCISA Leadership Conference in Edinburgh, and this short article touches on some of the invaluable insights and examples colleagues shared in that conversation.

University-wide Expertise:

Education institutions are powerhouses of knowledge and talent. By looking beyond our own IT department, we can harness valuable resources and expertise from across the organisation. Here are just a few examples.

Academic colleagues possess deep subject-matter expertise, and in many cases our organisations are home to world-leading experts in a particular field. Trusted partnership here can be invaluable for strategies related to educational technology, learning analytics, or specialised software development. As we consider institutional buy-in to digital strategies this was also felt to be a valuable source of collaboration.

Like many others, Bournemouth University’s IT team maintain ongoing dialogue with their computing academics around areas such as cyber security and software development, benefiting both the IT team with a broader and deeper knowledge pool, and the academic team with real-life experience of current issues and threats. University of Strathclyde sponsored their internal cyber team to undertake the University’s Cyber Security Masters programme, not only helping to advance their own knowledge in the subject, but also providing valuable first-hand insights into the student experience and ultimately student employment.

When to Look Outside:

There are of course many situations, and no lack of emails offering services, where partnering with external organisations and experts can be the key to success. Here are some examples of good collaborative approaches that may  help in making an informed decision:

Venturing into unfamiliar technological territory? External consultants with proven experience can be a game-changer,  helping to ensure a smoother implementation and avoiding costly mistakes. It’s important to find the right consultancy partner though, University executive teams can easily disengage and lose faith if they’re faced with too many consultancy buzzwords and overly glossy PowerPoint slides; keeping things simple is key.

Bringing in external specialists for specific tasks can complement your team's strengths and fill knowledge gaps.

One University needed the skills and expertise to develop institutional capabilities around web analytics but didn’t have the people. They leveraged external support, in this case from a digital marketing agency, initially to make the case to the wider organisation, then as a sounding board for ideas, to sense check decisions, and to provide valuable market intelligence around potential products and solutions.

Another University found value in a multi-partner approach, one as a delivery partner, the other as a critical friend, to support a cloud readiness review ahead of a datacentre migration.

Remember, external support can free up your team's bandwidth for core functionalities, however it is vital to make sure sufficient handover has taken place before all that knowledge walks out of the door at the end of the contract!

Exeter University have created an exciting and productive volunteer digital advisory network, leveraging the experience and knowledge of leaders and managers from businesses and other organisations based in their region. They’ve found this extremely valuable knowledge and advice base in several areas, including sanity checking and staff reassurance about change, for example adopting Agile, or hybrid working adoption post pandemic. They use this network for consultation on new products and services too – which has additional reputational and relationship benefits. Following a session focused on a new student app, the external digital advisor now meets with the digital product manager, providing free mentorship.

The University Advantage:

When partnering with external providers, Universities have a unique advantage, we can leverage our research capabilities and deep understanding of the educational landscape to collaborate on developing solutions that truly address the needs of our institutions. But that's not all. Universities are also home to a large, diverse, and motivated cohort of students. This student body represents a vast pool of talent with fresh perspectives and cutting-edge technological skills. By involving students in IT projects through internships, hackathons, or research collaborations, we – and our external partners - can benefit from this valuable resource. Students also benefit from experience and skills that can differentiate them in the workplace.

Students are often early adopters of new technologies – generative AI (Artificial Intelligence) being the most recent example - and have a keen understanding of user needs. They can provide valuable feedback on usability, design, and functionality, helping external partners develop solutions that resonate with their target audiences.

Today's students are digital natives with a strong grasp of coding, data analysis, and emerging technologies. They can challenge traditional working methods and innovatively contribute directly to development projects, cx ethos, testing new features, identifying bugs, and even writing code. This not only benefits the project but also provides students with valuable real-world experience that enhances their employability and fosters a sense of ownership within the university community.

Goldsmiths University of London have benefitted from the expertise of students who have come from industry to undertake the MSc in User Experience Engineering, particularly in digital storytelling.

Maximising the Value of External Help:

Whether seeking help from external vendors, consultants, internal departments, or students, here are some helpful pointers to maximize the value:

  • Define and share project goals and desired outcomes before seeking any external support, including student involvement. Make the effort to test your partner has a solid understanding of your requirements, but don’t be afraid to tweak and evolve these as the relationship grows and you seek feedback.
  • Carefully assess the specific needs of the project. Match partner, IT, and student skillsets with the required tasks. Leverage networks such as the UCISA groups, to help identify suitable partners with the right expertise and experience, and any potential gotchas.
  • Maintain open and transparent communication throughout the project to address challenges and ensure everyone is working towards a shared vision.
  • Ensure the engagement approach is right for your organisation. Some organisations really value in-person human contact, with a partner that feels like “part of the team.” Consider an approach goes beyond email and Teams/Zoom calls, with humans spending time talking to other humans in person.
  • Be open and transparent with your team and other internal stakeholders about who you're bringing in, why, and what their role and purpose is.
  • Agree a set of quantitative and qualitative measures to assess the value of the external engagement. This can be helpful in informing future relationships, demonstrating the ROI to stakeholders, and ultimately ensuring a successful partnership.


By looking beyond our own IT departments, fostering collaboration across the university, and strategically involving students in partnerships with external organisations, IT departments can harness a wealth of expertise, resources, and fresh perspectives. This collaborative approach allows us to achieve our IT goals, optimize resource allocation, developing wider reputational and relationship benefits for our institutions, empower change, and ultimately, prepare students for success in the ever-changing technological landscape.

As respected author and consultant Ken Blanchard puts it very succinctly, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”


James Crooks, CIO, Durham University and Brian Henderson, CIO, University of Aberdeen