When higher ed leaders change their thinking about digital transformation, here’s what can happen


When higher ed leaders change their thinking about digital transformation, here's what can happen


It will be no surprise that in a recent EDUCAUSE survey, 64% of US higher ed IT leaders reported budget decreases this academic year. Institutions are using many and varied tactics—from travel bans to hiring freezes—to control costs. But among the 17 management tactics surfaced in the survey, only one was an investment: investing in technologies that support digital transformation.

Digital transformation can certainly help manage costs by updating processes that have grown unsustainable. But in thinking about digital transformation as a short-term cost management strategy rather than an investment in long-term growth, institutions could lose sight of the exciting implications digital transformation has for the future. In this post, I’ll define digital transformation (to make sense of the jargon around it) and outline three changes that happen on campus when you start viewing digital transformation as an investment in growth.

Defining “digital transformation”

Here at EAB, our IT Forum defines digital transformation as follows:

Digital transformation:

Is the process of using data and technology to drive disruptive change. The emphasis is not on specific technologies, but on the application of new technologies to existing problems. When superior solutions are discovered, technology components enable rapid scaling and adoption, which in turn drives widespread change.

Digital transformation is Driving Continuous Business Model and Service Innovation

What does digital transformation look like?

In practice, digital transformation always begins with a real-world problem, and the absence or inferiority of available solutions. Using available digital technologies and data to provide context for their process, solution-focused groups identify the ways that high-value, low-friction experiences could replace existing practices. When new solutions provide better, more accessible, or higher-value experiences, their adoption at scale drives digital change and transformation. High adoption levels for digital products and services—along with the creation of new technology solutions—in turn provide new data and tools for further innovation.

Digital transformation as a growth investment

Across this year, we’ve worked with our partner institutions as they navigate an unprecedented crisis. The institutions that were able to respond most quickly and effectively to countless disruptions were the ones who had already made strategic digital investments to enable fast and focused transformation. Even before the pandemic, these institutions recognized that changing student needs and expectations were creating a demand for services like hyflex and asynchronous learning, and invested in technologies for videoconferencing and other capabilities. These institutions were focused on growth, working not just to update outdated processes and technologies but to meet the needs of the future.

When institutions think this way, digital transformation can bring about powerful changes. Here are three we’ve observed:

  • 1

    Leaders start with the services students need and work backward to find solutions

    A holistic understanding of students and their needs enables agility and responsiveness. At the start of the pandemic, institutions used student data to quickly transform student services. One large public master’s university set up an ad hoc grant program to support students who were at risk of dropping out due to financial struggles. Students requested grants via an online survey, and staff used data from the SIS and other sources to validate students’ self-reported data and determine the applicants with greatest need when there were more applicants than funds available. 


  • 2

    Data access expands across campus

    Another change involves who has access to holistic data enabled by smart digital transformation. We recently profiled the University of Montana’s (UM) campaign to “Free the Data” as an example of this: for years, UM saw enrollment decline, but siloed data hampered the ability for institutional leaders to design effective solutions.

    With an investment in a unified data platform that aggregates all campus data into one environment, UM’s data team is not only saving time but is also allowing key decision makers across the institution to access consistent, validated data that provides a full picture. With this investment, UM is already developing KPIs for its strategic plan and analyzing historical student accounts data to maximize the impact of tuition waivers on enrollment.


  • 3

    Institutions invest in creating cross-silo data capabilities

    Done right, digital transformation cannot be considered a back-office job. As we can see from the previous two examples, institutions who responded well to crisis were intentional about their infrastructural decisions. Key leaders got involved, and they articulated business goals that drove technology investments—not the other way around.

    While issues like data integration and enterprise architecture may seem like jobs for the IT department, they in fact have implications across the entire institution. No successful digital transformation initiative can be complete without purposeful data frameworks and architectures. In other words, the “plumbing” matters.

In closing

When done purposefully, digital transformation can pay dividends well beyond cost savings and efficiency. Digital transformation deserves cabinet-level attention: it holds the power to help us move toward financial sustainability, rethink business models, improve student equity outcomes, and much more. And when institutions think of digital transformation as a strategic investment, putting student needs first, they reap the benefits.

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Use this diagnostic to understand your integration maturity and explore a best practice for reorganizing integration work to meet institution-wide data needs.

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