Jan 07 2020

What You Need for Digital Transformation in Higher Education

Change and transformation are different, and they require different approaches.

We hear a great deal about the need for higher education to adapt to cultural shifts, technological changes, revenue pressures and student demands for engagement. Given this, it is not at all surprising that leaders are thinking about ways they can adapt their institutions to address these concerns, including pivoting to different approaches to teaching and learning, exploring the predictive value of data, and acquiring technological solutions.

These steps may make sense in terms of responding to immediate needs, such as reaching yearly enrollment goals or improving annual retention rates. They do not, however, address the more foundational question of how an institution will transform itself to address future needs. Likewise, these steps overlook deeper concerns, such as how an institution will realize its organizational vision. In essence, adopting a tactical, reactive and immediate approach to institutional pressures obfuscates how an institution might truly transform — that is, remake its operational and education models to meet current and future needs. In our view, transformation requires four essential components.

1. Identify the Areas of the Institution to Go Digital

Often, we speak of higher education transforming in a manner similar to the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly: the entire institution will, after some effort, magically become something completely different.

In reality, organizational transformation works in a more piecemeal manner, beginning with one area and then extending to others. Institutions, therefore, should consider which area — for example, branding, efficiency, student experience or external partnerships — has the highest priority for transformation and begin exploring how it might change its models to transform.

2. Agree On a Plan for Transformation

Most institutions struggle with extracting themselves from the daily operational activities required to maintain their existence (managing enrollment and providing technological services, for example). Likewise, it is often the case that there is a bifurcation of institutional responsibilities, with some leaders focused on operations and others focused on technology.

For transformation to occur, institutions must look beyond questions of operational efficiency to what transformation looks like (for example, improving stakeholder value) and how all teams need to work together to achieve it.

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3. Transformation Is More Than People, Processes or Technology

Within institutions, discussions around transformation seem only to consider the organizational or technological changes necessary to effect change. Although these are essential factors, institutions should also consider whether there are other aspects. These might include whether institutions can manage digital content across the enterprise or whether they should adopt the principle of ensuring that stakeholders see data as an enterprise asset. Ignoring these aspects could prevent institutions from seeing the full picture of the requirements for transformation.

4. Change and Transformation Are Not the Same

While transformation is undoubtedly a type of change, it differs from more routine types of change in its depth and breadth. Change is more about reacting to immediate needs and focusing on the incremental and local shifts that are required to meet those needs. Transformation is about the proactive, enterprisewide steps that institutions can take to meet future needs. Institutions that want to implement real transformation, therefore, must consider first how they might communicate these differences to their stakeholders to prepare them for the efforts to transform.

Our work with institutional leaders indicates a nervous appetite for transformation: They see the need to move beyond their current operational and educational models, yet they have some degree of trepidation about how best to do it. We believe that adopting these components will provide any institution seeking to transform itself with a higher chance of success in doing so.

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