Education & Government
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Diana Baker Freeman
Sr. Manager, Modern Governance Advocacy & Iniatives

Digital transformation in higher education: The role of leaders in a digital initiative

May 31, 2022
0 min read
Individual shares tips on digital transformation and the role of leaders in digital initiative to higher education professionals

In a recent meeting with higher education leaders from across the US, it quickly became clear that the term “digital transformation” is not universally understood nor agreed upon. In order to understand digital transformation it’s helpful to contrast what it is not, yet is often confused with.

The simple task of turning an analog or physical form into a digital form really describes digitization. This is done primarily for the sake of retrieval or archiving paper records. The next term to understand is digitalization. This is using digital information to transform processes — typically seen in payroll, course delivery or procurement. The primary difference between digitalization and true digital transformation is that digitalization is more siloed and done without an intentional and coordinated effort aimed at institutional transformation. This is the key piece that is missing. The key to successful digital transformation is the decision to move forward with an institution-wide mindset to change core processes in a deliberate way.

What Is Digital Transformation in Higher Education?

Digital transformation is using digital tools to deliver value and drive change in higher education. It is not technology for technology’s sake, but rather leveraging technology to propel improvements and change the way things are done. Digital transformation encapsulates the cultural, workforce and technological shift currently under way as the diverse digital landscape is influencing — and changing — almost everything we do. It is not focused on specific strategies or software, but rather leveraging technology to forward improvements in core strategies and operational challenges.

For digital transformation to occur, there must be an underpinning of support from leadership. This transition will take a paradigm shift to a fail-forward or continuous improvement mindset. There is frequent frustration with the “we tried that once before and it didn’t work” mentality. As one administrator put it: We must view past failures as steps in the process.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to digital transformation. A CIO versed in digital transformation and dedicated to the goals of the institution needs a seat at every table. This is not the troubleshooting IT director of old that was rarely seen or heard from, but a professional steeped in the processes of higher education. Digital transformation is not for the risk-averse, it requires a lens of risk management. Successful digital transformation relies on the realization that technology is the way to solve big problems and create widespread change.

Why Is Digital Transformation Important in Higher Education?

To look at digital transformation in the higher education context, it is important to recognize the impact of the pandemic. The rapid move to virtual instruction, resources and meetings changed the expectations and accelerated the use of digital tools. In many ways, the pandemic created opportunity on which higher ed leaders can capitalize.

While the pandemic created opportunity for digital transformation, it is also a survival mandate. For higher ed institutions to survive, a digital-first strategy is a basic requirement. There’s no such thing as a traditional student anymore. It’s more common for a student to balance work, family and school on a day-to-day basis than be on campus full time with a sole focus on going to class. In a nutshell, digital transformation should create processes that allow students to focus their energy inside the classroom by simplifying what happens outside of the classroom. Administrators are recognizing this — they repeatedly assert that their institutions are looking to leverage technology to build relationships. They want to make students better consumers of their own education by making them better at education. If community colleges are going to survive, they must be more nimble and change their philosophical outlook. Higher ed conversations today are about not just preservation of institutions, but preservation and improvement for the advancement of students. However, there didn’t seem to be clear answers as to how to get there.

Current Digital Transformation Trends

There are two main business areas that digital transformation is affecting: services and operations. This transformation involves creating new products and changing existing ones. On the services side, examples include offering an online MBA program or migrating from using tangible textbooks to digital eBooks. Artificial intelligence (AI) tools distributed throughout the campus can answer questions like where the lab is or when the clinic closes and can be impactful for first-year students still getting acquainted with campus life. Chatbots are also in the realm of services and can enhance the experiences of students, prospects, as well as staff.

Processes are going completely digital. Examples here include applying for admission or graduation, registering for courses every semester and monitoring resource allocation using modern technology. With the help of an automated and secure analytics program, making data-driven decisions can become the foundation of your digital transformation. These trends are indicative of ways colleges and universities are putting their digital transformation strategies into action.

Digital Transformation Best Practices

There are many views about critical components that must be in place for a successful move to a digitally transformed campus. The one that is noted across the board is that leadership matters. Leaders don’t need to know every detail about what making change entails, but they need the awareness of how important the transformation is, and what it will take to get an organization behind it. Having leaders that champion the transformation is the key to successful culture shifts required to become a true digital first organization. Inevitably, there will be some snags and some missteps. Without leadership firmly supporting the endeavor, it would be easy for projects to get scrapped in favor of an “old reliable” way of doing things.

After a leadership commitment to making the change to digital-first, another component is a strong CIO that favors this workforce shift. The CIO can no longer function simply as the IT advisor and trouble-shooter, but this role will need to be filled by a trusted advisor that has deep familiarity with the “business” of higher education. IT initiatives and services must be tied directly to institutional outcomes and integrated in the organization’s strategic plan. Involving the CIO at the most strategic levels infuses the digital strategy across disciplines.

The transformational shift to digital first needs to begin with process and customer journey mapping – a digital strategy focused on problem-solving innovations in service of the university mission. It should be rooted in business needs rather than the latest-and-greatest vendor pitches. Digital projects are built on a foundation of process redesign and “customer” engagement to ensure efficiency and service expectations are met from the start. In higher education, the customers are the students, and they have an immense amount of learning options to choose from — private vs. public schools, online vs. on-campus learning and full-time vs. part-time enrollment. With the number of higher education institutions rising and the number of college-ready high school graduates falling, the need to compete for students takes on a new degree of significance. This generation expects hyper-personalized content tailored to location and situation, as well as seamless integration across multiple devices.

What Are the 4 Types of Digital Transformation?

As institutions begin looking at digital transformation, recognize that it can be focused in one of four areas:

  • Business process
  • Business model
  • Domain transformation
  • Cultural/organizational transformation

Each of the four are needed and they must function well together.

Most higher education institutions have patterned their digital transformation after a business model. This equates to business processes or data (or analytics around capturing that data) done with the goal of lowering costs, reducing cycle times or increasing quality.

Examination of the business model demonstrates real functions like multimodal delivery: blended or hybrid, self-paced, and increasingly competency-based formats. For many institutions, the pandemic served as a catalyst in accelerating movement in this area. Whereas business process transformation focuses on finite areas of the business, business model transformations are aimed at the fundamental building blocks of how value is delivered.

Domain transformations occur when one business can pivot into another area successfully. Modern students are doing most of their banking and monetary transactions online. They will soon expect the same convenience and security when it comes to paying for higher education. While higher education organizations won’t lose their focus on education, incorporating tertiary services that support student expectations are already part of some universities’ digital roadmaps.

Cultural or organizational transformation is in many ways the foundation of a digital transformation. This transformation entails leadership, teamwork, courage, emotional intelligence and other elements of change management. It changes the way campus leaders interact with each other — and requires a laser focus on progress toward institutional goals, a broad emphasis on change management, and an increase in institutional agility and flexibility to meet rapidly changing needs. Indeed, successful projects will add to a culture that embraces change.

3 Examples of Digital Transformation in Higher Education

1. Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, recently launched a campaign to begin virtual tours via virtual reality. The challenge was to develop an innovative recruitment strategy targeted to students outside of Michigan. Two problems had been hindering out-of-state growth: Wayne State lacked a strong brand beyond the state, and out-of-state students are less likely to visit campuses. Using Wayne State branded Google Cardboard goggles and an app featuring key spots around campus and Detroit, recruiters provided potential students with a fully immersive experience so they could see themselves on campus. 

2. The University of Memphis, CIO Robert Jackson set out to look at approaches to transforming the university’s digital landscape. His goal was not primarily to complete a technological adoption, but rather to experiment with ways to cultivate a creative culture. To kick-start this innovative activity, Jackson looked for an unobtrusive project that was not tied to a specific problem but that could generate new perspectives on problems and possible solutions. For this experiment, he chose the implementation of a new AI chatbot. Because his project was not bound to a specific outcome and was not tied to “number of clicks,” it gave him a way to test hypotheses and pivot to the next assumption. By investigating the process and improving it, the organization suspended the pursuit of short-term goals, which helped them become more adept at digital transformation. With the freedom to explore, fail early and often, and adjust, the university developed greater aptitude for digital transformation.

3. The University of Alberta employed process transformation in the area of facilities and maintenance. To maximize their strained janitorial staff, the university installed thermal occupancy sensors. This facilitated maintenance decisions about where to deploy janitorial staff to clean based on daily usage. The efficiency of data-based decision making created more capacity for periodic activities like waxing hallways. While the data justified the staffing decisions, an unexpected derivation of the data was that it began to impact real-time HVAC adjustment. The data also led to better decisions about classroom upgrades and decommissioning. The savings from the HVAC usage and staffing patterns contributed to more capacity for upgrades. These fact-based reviews pushed more budget incentives during departmental budget planning, changing processes even further. 

While each of the three examples are diverse in the ways they exemplify steps in digital transformation, they all tied to the goal of advancing a digital-first strategy. Movement toward digital transformation initiatives should look to replace and streamline transactional services while enhancing and supporting the learning experience. Large or small, the projects serve to heighten digital dexterity.

Key Takeaways

There is no doubt that higher education institutions need a digital strategy. Key is getting senior leaders to play the important role of working across campus to establish a shared understanding and identify problems and opportunities, while being intentional about requiring digital solutions. Standing still is not an option anymore. To drive an institution forward, everyone needs to be on board and ready to welcome the much-needed change.

IT units must be able to respond thoughtfully and partner effectively with different areas of the institution to design, implement and monitor innovation initiatives. A strong digital backbone managed by a CIO that is dedicated to institutional goals will be necessary in digital transformation. The CIO will be the architect of the interconnected systems that will have to be compatible with anything new brought in.

In the culture of big data, every student, department, program and class comes with valuable information attached. Analyzing this data is key to unlocking operation inefficiencies. Staying siloed will deter digital transformation. Much like the cascading findings in the University of Alberta example above, looking at data can determine how it impacts the university as a whole. In order to make data-driven decisions, the data must be organized and unified.

Lastly, digital transformation can come in small bites. A university is served by automating any place it can. The increased digital dexterity, culture change needed to welcome digital initiatives, and general advantages of automation will impact the overall move to a completely transformed campus.


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