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Digital Transformation for the New 'Now' in Higher Ed

As colleges and universities pursue their digital transformation journeys, budget restrictions, lack of buy-in and other roadblocks often stand in the way of strategic goals. Here, we take the pulse of institutions' Dx efforts, where resources are being spent, top challenges and more.

Digital transformation is critical to the future of higher education, yet every institution must find its own way in defining goals, developing a roadmap, implementing strategic plans and measuring results. To better understand the Dx challenges institutions are grappling with, Campus Technology polled stakeholders in our 2022 Digital Transformation Survey. The survey data, based on 218 responses from a range of higher education roles and institution types and sizes across the United States, served as a jumping off point for a panel discussion at our recent Campus Technology Leadership Summit. Dr. Thomas Hoover, chief information officer at Louisiana Tech University, Michael Mathews, VP of technology and innovation at Oral Roberts University, and Joseph Moreau, independent higher ed consultant and former vice chancellor of technology for Foothill-De Anza Community College District, all contributed their insights on the survey as well as their own experiences leading IT in higher ed.

Here, we present the survey results in the context of their conversation. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)

Campus Technology: Educause defines digital transformation (Dx) as "a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce and technology shifts to enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution' business model, strategic directions, and value proposition." For our first survey question, we wanted to gauge our respondents' familiarity with the term, so we asked, "How well do you understand the concept of digital transformation?"

How well do you understand the concept of digital transformation?

Not surprisingly, the Campus Technology audience tends to be confident in their understanding of Dx. But if you combine the segments of people who said digital transformation is not on their radar with those who have heard of the term but don't know what it means, that makes up about 25% of respondents — a significant chunk. What do you think IT leaders need to do in order to increase the level of awareness or understanding of Dx at their institutions?

Thomas Hoover: One of the biggest things is communication — really communicating the value of IT. It's communicating what the digital transformation is, and how we're being more productive, how we're being more efficient through the use of technology. Sometimes it's "I used to print this out and sign it, and now I do it electronically." What does that mean? That means a tremendous amount of cost savings, of time freed up to work on something else, which then allows you to be able to truly transform a campus as opposed to wasting time filling out paper sheets.

Joseph Moreau: Years prior to the pandemic, we had implemented Adobe Sign for digital signatures and workflow. And getting widespread adoption was really difficult. People would say, "I understand why I should do it, but oh, God, I'm really busy. I don't have time to learn that thing. And I'm just gonna keep signing the paper thing." Of course, when the pandemic hit, that signing-the-paper option evaporated instantaneously, and people were forced to move into a digital signature, digital workflow environment. We had a town hall meeting on one of our campuses in December to talk about all the things that we needed to consider in coming back to campus-based operations, and one of the questions was, "What was one of the biggest gains that we made during the pandemic?" I was flabbergasted that people unilaterally said, "Adobe Sign. I never want to go back to signing paper again, as long as I live." That was a great move forward. It was truly unfortunate that it took a catastrophe to facilitate that cultural shift.

Your point about communication being an essential part of a transformation strategy, it's right on the mark. We've got to be able to explain to our friends and colleagues and students why these things are important and what the value is, what people get out of it. Because ultimately, it really is about bringing value to humans — not just doing cool stuff with technology. The better we get at communicating that value, the more successful our strategies are going to be, because people will find meaning in them: personal meaning or departmental meaning or workgroup meaning.

Michael Mathews: Adding to that, as our university president would say, the only two things that make a difference are food and technology. It has really behooved us to start thinking of technology projects as food: How do people taste test good technology? They don't vote or decide to like good food, they taste it. So we had to really quickly modify how we turn over samples, pilots, betas, and let people taste test and tell us what they like. A CIO today is more like a sculptor. You can't get it all done in one semester, but you chisel away over here, come back over here, and before long, you're making the campus a smart campus.

CT: Our next survey question was, "Where is your institution in its digital transformation journey?

Where is your institution in its digital transformation journey?

A large chunk of institutions are still in the planning stages: exploring the idea of digital transformation, defining what it means, or setting goals and developing a roadmap (representing a combined 60% of responses). Twenty-seven percent are in the implementation stage, but not many institutions are at the point where they're measuring results and considering their goals achieved. Is there a danger of getting stuck, treading water in those planning stages? What are some ways to ensure that progress is being made in a digital transformation journey? And how do you measure success?

Mathews: You measure success in the attitude of your users. IT cannot hide behind a door or a help desk or messages going out. You really have to be walking around continually, asking: How is WiFi working? How is the infrastructure? How much spam do you get? It's all out in the open. Not much can be hidden anymore. That's why the old cliché for years now has been, "There's never been a worse day to be a CIO on a campus. But there's never been a better day to be a great CIO on a campus." You've got to be that one who hears everything and measures success, but can modify quickly.

Moreau: We all have to do large-scale, enterprise-wide, heavy-lift projects. They're part of life in the world. But if you sit people down and say, "Okay, this is going to take three years, this many hours per week," people just absolutely don't have an appetite for that. Instead, to Michael's point about breaking it down into smaller components, you say, "Here's what we're going to do in the first three months, and here's how we're going to know we were successful. And then assuming we've got that wired, we're going to go on to the next phase, and that's going to take four to six months." People can wrap their head around that and they can digest that. They can come to the table and participate in that without automatically feeling discouraged or overwhelmed.

Hoover: You really have to show the milestones. If it's a one-year project, champion the three-month mile mark on it, and show what you've done. It's all about that communication and driving that back to digital transformation. We need to be communicating regularly on where we are.

Moreau: The idea of digital transformation, as much as people don't believe they understand it fully, is still an exciting concept for people. And one of the ways that we can bring that home for folks is to say, "Okay, so we're going to do this three-month piece. And here's the transformation output from that. Even though we have tasks and assignments and meetings and testing and all the other kinds of things that go along with a project, that is, in fact, transformation. You are helping us transform ourselves." I think people want to be part of that. And they want to be part of this exciting idea that they're helping evolve their institution or their department or their college. Most people want to be part of something exciting and new and different.

Mathews: If you don't understand what digital transformation is, you may get snookered into swapping out your SIS or LMS system when you don't even need it. If you're not getting digital transformation by switching an LMS or SIS, why are you doing it? That is a whole lot of extra work and risk that may not even be needed — all because somebody likes a screen on one system better than the other.

Moreau: I think that institutions can consider using existing technology better as just as an important part of their digital transformation strategy as bringing new things into the portfolio or into the environment. Many of us have a huge portfolio that is, for the most part, underutilized. And that's where the culture and workforce pieces come into it: How can you get greater buy-in for what you already have decided is going to be part of your environment or part of the service you provide to students, faculty and staff?

CT: Our next survey question asked, "What areas are currently getting the most attention or resources in your digital transformation journey?"

What areas are currently getting the most attention/resources in your digital transformation journey?

Very clearly, teaching and learning gets top priority, followed by security and privacy, data analytics and data governance, and student services.

Hoover: If we're not investing in infrastructure, then you can't do those top four things. Sometimes the shiny object is great, and gets everyone's attention, but without the backend infrastructure, none of that other stuff is possible. You can't build without having a solid infrastructure. And on the institutional culture side, buy-in and understanding on the strategic mission of the university — those are key to having all those other things work.

Moreau: I wonder if teaching and learning would have been the top priority had the survey been issued pre-pandemic?

CT: That's a good point — perhaps it's a sign of where resources had to go in response to what was happening during the pandemic.

Next, the survey asked about biggest obstacles to digital transformation.

What are your biggest obstacles to digital transformation?

Budget restrictions were definitely the No. 1 challenge, with culture and lack of buy-in in second place. Could you all share some of the obstacles that you've dealt with on your digital transformation journey, and how they stack up against the survey results?

Hoover: The challenge we've had is really staffing. That's been an inhibitor of us being able to truly be more transformational than we are right now. It's been very difficult to recruit staff into higher ed right now. That's been a struggle, and that's been something that we've had to try to address and at the same time lower expectations. Does it make sense, for instance, to look at a new phone system if our phone system works now? Do we have the bandwidth, the resources to go ahead and focus on something that works, yet by doing that I'm taking away from something that truly could be transformational or needs correction in another area?

CT: Is staffing a budget problem, or is it a difficulty finding talent problem?

Hoover: More difficulty finding talent. A lot of corporations are offering remote work. And yes, we can offer remote work for some things. But we have to have a help desk. Certain people, programmers and developers, that can be done remotely. But some people have to actually be here to work and touch these things. And that does make it difficult to be transformational when you're struggling to keep staff or to find staff.

Moreau: Having a well-defined, equitable remote work policy is a challenge that many, many colleges and universities across the country are struggling with. Some have figured it out; probably most have not. We have talked a lot over the last several months about the Great Resignation. And I think that one of the things that we need to be prepared for in the coming months is the Great Empty Applicant Pool. The leverage has shifted away from us, as public employers or institutional employers, to the applicant. And so we're finding situations where people will say, "Well, I'm interested in your job, the pay is good, it's a great place to work. But show me your remote work policy. Unless you can give me, with some certainty, an idea of what I'm going to be dealing with, I'm not even going to apply, because there are umpteen other places that have explicit policies that I'm more interested in."

CT: How could the pandemic not have helped institutions formulate remote work policies?

Moreau: There was this notion that, "We're going to deal with it in an emergency mode, but then when things get back to normal, we're all going to come back on campus. And it's going to be the way it was." That's kind of nostalgic — the way it was is gone. We have to figure out what — and this term gets way over-used — the "new normal" is, but the term "normal" implies a kind of stasis. We need to be thinking about what's the new "now." What do our students need now? What do our employees need now? What is the workforce willing to tolerate now? And how do we adjust? How do we respect our values and the things that make us the institution that we are? How do we balance all of that, in terms of providing an exceptional academic experience for students?

CT: The survey asked about institutions' top goals for digital transformation. The top responses were all student-centered: enhancing teaching and learning, improving the student experience, and retention and student success.

What are your top goals for digital transformation?

We also asked who is responsible for driving digital transformation at the institution. Institutional leadership was the top answer there, but clearly, IT also plays a key role.

Who is responsible for driving digital transformation at your institution?

Finally, we asked if institutions have created any leadership positions as part of their digital transformation efforts.

Has your institution created any leadership positions?

The largest portion of respondents said no, no positions have been created. But among institutions that did create new positions, chief information officer was the top answer, followed by chief technology officer — perhaps an opportunity to elevate IT within the institution.


The full conversation from the Campus Technology Leadership Summit session, "What Digital Transformation Means in Higher Ed," can be viewed here (registration required).

Mathews: Early on at Oral Roberts University, I said, "I think the chief information officer should become the chief inspiration officer." Because that role is about fatigue, it's about leveraging, it's about helping people be optimistic about digital transformation. And so the president said, "Mike is right. However, I think everyone needs to be a chief inspiration officer." It was sort of a game changer: It's a good day when everything's not on the CIO to try and inspire people, try to motivate people to do digital transformation.

Moreau: It was very encouraging to see most respondents in the survey attributing responsibility for digital transformation to institutional leadership. To Michael's point, it's too easy for people to just push it off on to the CIO or the CTO and say, "Well, it's technology, you gotta do it."

Hoover: That's the importance of having the CIO or the head of IT been involved in the executive team, where there's dialogue back and forth between the president and the vice presidents, for them to have an understanding of IT, and also for the CIO to be able to convey and bring solutions to the table. That's where we as CIOs are really, truly university leaders — breaking apart from just being the "head nerd" or the head technology person, to more of a university leader who happens to be an expert in IT. And that's why the discussion we're having now is great — the opportunity to have IT be elevated this high up in the university's dialogue is amazing.

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