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Campus Technology Insider Podcast November 2021

Listen: Digital Transformation in Higher Ed: What It Means and Where to Start

Rhea Kelly: Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast! I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.
The digital transformation of higher ed has been going on for years, but the current pandemic has brought that process into laser focus — and accelerated digital efforts perhaps like nothing else could. Institutions are going through deep shifts in culture, workforce and technology, enabling new educational models, transforming operations, and even changing the whole value proposition of a higher education. Yet at the same time, digital transformation is so expansive it can be difficult to define, and even harder to manage. For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Betsy Reinitz, director of enterprise and IT programs at EDUCAUSE, about what digital transformation means, how to start a Dx journey, the biggest obstacles to Dx and more. And by the way, in the course of our conversation Betsy mentions several useful online resources to help institutions engage with Dx — I've included links to those in the episode description. Here's our chat.

Hi, Betsy, welcome to the podcast.

Betsy Reinitz: Hi Rhea, thanks for having me.

Kelly: So I'm really excited to talk all things digital transformation. You know, digital transformation is one of those things that I think everyone kind of understands what it means; they understand that it's important; it's a big part of the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT issues for the coming year. But then if you ask me to articulate a definition, I find it really hard to nail down. So how do you answer the question, What is Dx?

Reinitz: Yeah, that, it is kind of a hard one. But I'll start with the EDUCAUSE definition. So several years ago, we worked with a number of people in the higher ed community, think about what Dx means for higher ed specifically. And this is what we came up with as a formal definition. We define it as the process of optimizing and transforming the institution's operations, strategic directions and value proposition to deepen coordinated shifts in culture, workforce and technology. There are a lot of words there. But I think the really important bit is that, this emphasis on institutional change, which we think of as a, as a hallmark for Dx, and that's really a tall order, of course, to think about institutional change. So we like to describe it as a series of iterative journeys that build on each other. So each of those journeys would be focused on addressing a specific strategic goal or challenge or need that the institution has. And it's a series of journeys, because you might need to start with some foundational work before you can really start making major changes. So for example, you might need to align your IT governance better with institutional strategy, so you can be sure that you're making good decisions. You do that, and then you move on to the next journey. And each journey builds on the one before. So the definition that we use really involves around intentional institutional change, made possible through strategic shifts in culture, workforce and technology.

Kelly: Obviously, I think Dx is something every institution sort of has to define that journey for itself. So what's the best way to, to approach that figuring out what your journey is going to be?

Reinitz: Yeah, it's a, it's, it's, it's another really hard one. And it's not so much that they're going to define Dx for themselves. But you're absolutely right that they're going to need to decide, define their approach and their own journey. And every, every journey is going to be a little bit different. The, that idea of transforming the institution, moving closer and closer to strategic goals is something that really depends on what that goal is going to be. And so I think, coming, doing a lot of work to, to first, think about the strategy that you're, the, the strategic goals the institution is aiming for. And starting there as a way to think about it. One way to think about it is that Dx gives institutions a way to work on their value proposition. So for example, what is it about that institution that makes it different from others? Why would students go there, for example? They're trying to differentiate themselves from other institutions, so the, the purpose and context for Dx is going to be different across different institutions, as they work towards their own strategic aims and try to address their own different challenges.

Kelly: You hear a lot about how the pandemic accelerated some aspects of digital transformation, that, you know, that sudden shift to everything remote, but then at the same time, I wonder about how many of those changes that, you know, are sustainable in the long term. So do you think that the pandemic has pushed institutions forward or are there ways in which it's been detrimental to Dx?

Reinitz: I think it's, it's really accelerated Dx. I think the pandemic has really had a positive impact on institutions thinking about Dx; I think it made them realize that they need to be as prepared as they can be to shift normal ways of doing things so that they can survive despite what comes their way. A lot of the competencies that higher ed had to rely on during the pandemic are really the same things that are necessary for digital transformation, things like being open to new ways of doing things, being able to be flexible and make decisions quickly, being able to use data to understand the impact of those decisions. And we actually did some research about this. EDUCAUSE conducted two surveys in the last couple of years about Dx: one in 2019, so before the pandemic, and then one in 2021. And in both of those surveys, we asked the same question, which was, what, would you say that your institution is engaging in digital transformation today? And I'll note that the respondents had our definition in front of them when they answered. In 2019, in the first survey, 13% of institutions were engaged in Dx, but in the fall of 2021, 44%, are engaged. And that's a, that's a huge jump in a short period of time. I think those institutions that said they're engaged in Dx, I think they understand it as a way to prepare for future unknowns, they're sort of future proofing themselves. They're getting better at change management, better at dealing with unexpected obstacles. Remember how many times we heard the word "pivot" in 2020? So Dx helps institutions pivot, and not only just so they can make quick changes, but also so they can do it in a way that advances their strategic goals. But to your question about whether it's sustainable, I do think the pandemic was a wake-up call. It's not likely that, that it's the last challenge that higher ed will face. And I think those institutions who continue on their Dx journeys, will have an easier time facing the next challenge that comes along, whatever those challenges might be.

Kelly: It seems like maybe the thing it accelerated the most was the culture change. Do you think that's true?

Reinitz: I do. And I think culture is a really, a really tough one. It's one of the barriers to, to doing a really good job with, with digital transformation. But I think that, that institutions were, you know, their culture changed very quickly during the, during the pandemic, as they started to see the need to be able to move quickly and act quickly. And so I think that it pushed some of that culture stuff forward. But again, to look at the survey that we did recently, one of the things we asked about was barriers to digital transformation. And a cultural one was one of the ones that that came up is still really a problem, and that is cross-institution collaboration. The, sort of that as a barrier to digital transformation hadn't really decreased between our 2019 and or 2021 survey. There were 52% of respondents, I believe, who were still saying that, that that's a really major barrier. So that culture is still an issue. And I think it's, it's always gonna be the hardest piece about, about Dx, because it really is a culture change.

Kelly: So when an institution is sort of taking those first steps on a Dx journey, are there specific areas that they should look at to assess their readiness for digital transformation?

Reinitz: Yeah, we've thought about this a lot. Because I think when we first started thinking about what kind of resources people needed for Dx, we realized that it's sort of where to start and, and really understand what your institution is ready for, was, was a big thing to try to help people do. So we put together a couple of different resources that I want to mention. And one is a self-assessment tool that helps people figure out where to start and what needs to be improved. So in this tool, you rate your institution's capabilities for Dx and areas that we feel are important institutional competencies for digital transformation. There are things like strategic innovation, institutional alignment, flexibility and agility, diversity, equity and inclusion, transformation of work and skills, you know, things, things, those are some of the big things that institutions need to develop their competencies in. And after you work through this self-assessment tool, it sends you back a report that includes recommendations for how you can advance those capabilities. And those recommendations are specifically based on your responses. And then another tool we've developed is a guide to designing a Dx strategy. And this is a six-step process: It starts with the end that you're aiming for, the purpose, what's the main challenge, or the main institutional goal you're working towards. And then walks you through a series of six steps to help you put, define and, define and plan a Dx journey. So I think those things taken together to really help people get a handle on where to start.

Kelly: It also seems like Dx is just so expansive, almost too overwhelming to tackle. Are there sort of key goals or do you have advice for breaking the concept up into manageable chunks?

Reinitz: Yeah, it really is. It can feel really big and unwieldy, I know. And that's one reason we talk about it as a series of iterative journeys. So you can fit, you know, you can break it into pieces. But still understanding where to start can be really hard and breaking it down to some components is helpful. I personally think the best way to start is by thinking about the shifts in culture, workforce and technology that, that go along with, with Dx and kind of foster Dx, and then working to improve your, your work in one or more of those areas as a starting point. We did some work a couple of years ago to identify what we call Dx signals. And these are indicators that that say you've already got some competencies related to Dx at your institution, or the sort of pieces of culture, workforce and technology that are, that are needed for being able to advance your Dx work. And there's a Dx signal checklist in a roadmap that we recently published, that lists all of these signals that we came up with, broken down by the categories of culture, workforce and technology. So you can work through that checklist to get some ideas of where you might be able to start small with a Dx project, and then increase your capabilities in that particular area. So I think that starting small gives you some sort of Dx-related competencies to think about what you might be able to do to build on that and work this into a bigger institutional project. Using that self assessment that I described earlier is another way to break it down into component pieces, because of the way it's organized, that might make it easier to think about where you need to start and give you some ideas about where to begin your journey.

Kelly: That kind of reminds me of the thing you hear about in IT projects, like do the low hanging fruit first to get some easy wins, it helps like, you know, get, gain support among, you know, others in the institution, things like that.

Reinitz: Yeah, I think that's really true. I mean, I think one of the, one of the things you really need to do is get your executive leadership on board. And if you can show some, some reason, some real reason to do this easily and quickly, then it can go a long way towards getting that that trust from your leaders.

Kelly: So EDUCAUSE has created this digital transformation website — — and I think it's just a really wonderful collection of resources. I'm sure it has links to those assessment checklists, and everything seems to be in there. But I notice that it breaks the journey down into three phases: learn, plan and do. Could you talk more about that?

Reinitz: Yeah, as we were sort of starting to put together our resources for Dx a few years ago, we really latched on to this idea of it being a journey, which I've mentioned a few times. And so we wanted our resources that we put together to kind of represent that concept of a journey as well. And so we came on this idea of putting together a roadmap that has these three phases that you mentioned, learn and plan and do, as a sort of three phases that institutions need to go through to be successful with Dx. So it sort of mirrors that, that idea that we have a bit of Dx being a journey, and then this roadmap is going to guide you along in that journey. So it has these three sections, learn and plan and do, and with learning, people need to start with a good understanding of Dx, as we did in this conversation, you know, to really understand what it means for higher ed, and also what it means for their institution. So that's what the learning phase is designed to do in the roadmap. And it has four sections within it that are defining Dx, Dx and culture, Dx and workforce, and Dx and technology. So it's a really good place to start to get that understanding of those, those pieces of the Dx work. And then within each of those sections, there are case studies and articles, and research and quotes and that kind of thing. And then planning, planning for the next phase — and this, this is a part of the roadmap that has a lot of tools and resources, like the ones that I already mentioned, that guide higher ed leaders through the process of planning Dx. And this phase of the roadmap is divided into three sections: assessing your institution's readiness, leading a campus conversation, and developing a Dx strategy, and there are tools within each one. And then doing is the final stage, and doing we'll be, we'll be putting all the planning, this is when you're putting all your planning into place and continuing to transform your institution, and continuing, and to really do the work that you've, that you've planned for. This part of the roadmap will also include assessing and evaluating the Dx journey so you can know where to start your next iteration of it.

Kelly: I think it's kind of telling that the do phase is not complete yet. It kind of reflects the iterative nature of the process. But also, do you think it reflects where higher education is in digital transformation in general, like are institutions still in the planning stages?

Reinitz: Yeah, we're, we're basically publishing these resources as we go. So it is, it's an iterative process for us as well. And we're starting to work on the do section now. And the fact that it isn't built out might be a little bit of a reflection of where higher ed is on that journey, but not completely. There are plenty of institutions out there who are doing some really interesting things already. And we're gonna be turning to them to help us build out the, the do section, because one of the big parts of that section will include case studies and examples from institutions who are already doing this work. We found that as we talk to people in the community, hearing those examples from other people is very, very helpful in helping them understand what they need to do. And so I think that's, that's gonna be a big part of the of the do section. Another important step in the do phase, though, is to evaluate how your Dx initiative is going and get ready to move on to the next phase of the journey, the next iteration. When you look at the roadmap, you'll see it's a graphic of a circle. But the journey is actually more of a spiral. When you when you're done with a do part of your journey, you kind of spiral up to the next iteration of the journey. So you need to assess your progress, and get ready to build on that for the next phase of the journey. So the do section of the roadmap will include those examples and case studies to show how others are doing it. It'll also have these tools and guides for assessing your own project and being able to move on and determine what the next step is in your journey.

Kelly: I mean, is there a definable finish line for Dx? Or is it just ongoing?

Reinitz: Well, you know, that is a good question. I don't think there's really a finish line. It's not, it's not something that you finish. I think that technology is going to continue to evolve, higher ed's going to continue to evolve, new challenges are going to continue to appear. And the institution is always going to need a way to continue to adapt and transform. So I think the actual work related to Dx will change for each institution as they move through their journeys. And as they do that spiraling up, they'll think about what the next phase of this may be, and they might move on to a different challenge that they're working on. But I think that Dx is, is really a good use case for something that's about the journey and not about the destination.

Kelly: Let's talk about the obstacles to Dx: Some, the things that immediately come to mind are sort of the siloed nature of, of a lot of institutions, data governance, the leadership structure, culture change, what else am I missing?

Reinitz: Well, I think you're really right on target. And, you know, as I said earlier, I think the biggest barriers really tend to be cultural: resistance to change, tendency for risk aversion, lack of trust in data to inform decisions. And as, you know, as we were talking about earlier, that, that cross institutional coordination. So I think that, that the cultural bits are, are definitely the hardest part of the, of the digital, of the digital transformation barriers to work on. But there are other ones too, so there are workforce barriers, you know, when you look at culture, workforce, and technology, the workforce barriers are, are things like, you need HR policies that are gonna make it easier for positions to evolve and change, as technology changes. You know, you can't have people who are, who have a particular skill set, and then there, there's, those skills are never going to change and evolve, because that's not the way technology works anymore. And I think that getting out of this sort of mindset of, you know, having a career that is just static, you know, is already kind of on the way out, but it but it involves some, you know, some changes in HR policies that IT needs to work with HR on to make happen. And some institutions will have some technology barriers as well, they may need to work on streamlining or simplifying as early parts of their journeys, or their data infrastructure might not be in very good shape. But in a way, those aren't really barriers, so much as just things that you need to get done. Each might need to be part of a Dx journey that creates the found, a foundation for other journeys. But I think you're really right that the kinds of things you mentioned having to do with, with culture are the hardest ones. And as we talk to people as they begin to work on their Dx work, that's the, that's the bit that is still the hardest. But we're seeing it change. And one of the, one of the things that's heartening, I think, to me, and going back to that survey that I talked about, is that the, the potential, understanding the potential benefits for digital transformation. In our 2019 survey, 52% of respondents said that this was a major barrier, but in 2021 39% said that, that sort of understanding the potential of Dx was a barrier. So it's still a barrier, but it's, but it's better than it was. And so I think that we're sort of chipping away at that, that culture piece over time, and it's making some progress on that.

Kelly: So what is IT's role in leading Dx initiatives? You know, obviously, there's the technology piece, but also translating that to institutional leadership and getting buy in, and so how do you see that?

Reinitz: I really think that IT leaders are in a really strong position here to play a strategic role the institution. I think it gives them a lot of potential for evolving that, that role of the IT leader. A lot of the transformation or change that we're talking about has a digital or technology component, of course. And so institutions need to rely on IT in several ways, and that you're sort of alluding to and, you know, one is the sort of visioning piece. I think IT leaders, for example with the pandemic, are the ones who are in the best position to sort of help, help connect the dots for people between the kind of changes they went through during the pandemic and what they needed to do to kind of survive and move forward during that time. And then what that might mean for the future, how you could continue with that kind of work, as you go forward and take advantage of it to advance your position or whatever. I think they're also, IT leaders are in a position to, to help people understand what kind of foundational work needs to be done as well to prepare for continuing, continuing change. And so they know what, what kind of state their technology infrastructure is in, and being able to really talk about that in terms of what it might mean for, for transformation in the future, to be able to build on those foundational pieces and get them moving along is an important thing. And then also, I think that they, IT can play a really important role in just being sure that the entire digital ecosystem is managed in a way that it supports emerging needs. And what I mean by that is that ecosystem is the whole digital infrastructure, the whole system of, of systems and services at an institution having to do with digital and having to do with technology. And it's complicated for IT leaders, because they need to be sure that, that, that whole ecosystem can both support innovation and transformation, as well as be secure and reliable and able to support the ongoing operational work of the institution. So they've got this sort of balancing act between this need to enable transformation, while also being sure that the operational work that's critical to the institution is still going on and being taken care of.

Kelly: You mentioned that jump in understanding about the benefits of digital transformation. I wonder if you could paint a picture of you know, what are those benefits? Like what does a digitally transformed institution look like?

Reinitz: Oh, that's a good idea, a good question. You know, I think the, the main thing is that you've got the work of the institution all sort of aligned with institutional mission and goals., I think that's the, that's the ultimate goal that you're aiming for with, with digital transformation, that you've, you've set up your, and since, you know, since we're talking about digital, you've set up your, your digital world and your technology world in a way that it is, it is able to support and enable whatever kind of institutional change and evolution and transformation is necessary. So it's, things are flexible and agile and able to respond quickly. You have a data infrastructure that is well connected and integrated and able to provide the kind of information that leaders need in order to make decisions. And you also have a kind of culture where that kind of data-informed decision-making is important and meaningful and trusted. So, I don't, I don't think we've talked about that a whole lot, but there's a big data and, data and analytics component to digital transformation that I don't think you can, I don't think you can be a very mature institution in a digital transformation perspective, unless you're relying on data to inform your decision-making. So I think that sort of ability to, to pivot and to, to take advantage of what's out there, but in a way that really furthers your institutional mission, that's why you need to go back to that value proposition thing. The whole thing is about making sure that the institution is, is able to survive and thrive into the future. And you do that, in my opinion, by working in a way that you're aligning all this stuff with those strategic institutional goals.

Kelly: Well, thank you so much for coming on.

Reinitz: Thanks for having me. It's been a lot of fun.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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