Digital Transformation


Digital Transformation

Foundational Capabilities and High-Impact Investments to Keep Your Campus Relevant in a Digital Era

What is

Digital transformation—it’s the buzziest of buzzwords, a Rorschach test for everything one might see as good or bad in higher education, either a panacea or a poison pill.

In the wake of 2020’s pandemic-induced shift to remote instruction and operations, even the most stalwart opponents of expanding the use of digital technologies in the modern university were seemingly won over.

Of course, the adoption and application of digital technologies looks different from this side of the pandemic, when not mandated by widespread lockdowns. Nonetheless, even if the urgency has tempered, there’s no denying the evolution of sector-wide attitudes on the role of digital technologies. The question on leaders’ minds is therefore less about whether to pursue a digital transformation agenda, but rather which of many opportunities should be prioritised, and how quickly progress can be made.

But what, exactly, is digital transformation? How do discerning leaders ensure they invest only in solutions that actually move the needle on financial, operational, or strategic objectives?

This executive brief will give you the answers you’ve been looking for, starting with a better understanding of digital transformation and the challenges of pursuing it in the higher education sector. In addition to providing examples of where digital transformation investments have been most successful in addressing strategic and operational challenges, this brief also outlines the core organisational capabilities necessary for change.

Navigate through the brief by selecting a tab below to dive into the specific section. 

The Beginning of Wisdom Is the Definiton of Terms

In response to consumer and environmental pressures amplified by a global pandemic, higher education institutions are rapidly embracing ‘digital transformation’. But like many buzzwords, the term is only useful in the context of a shared definition. Here’s ours:

Digital Transformation icon

Digital Transformation

Digital transformation is the process of using digital tools—specifically data and technology—to deliver value and drive change.

The emphasis is not on specific technologies but on the application of those technologies to core strategies or operational challenges.

The rapid scaling and widespread adoption of the solution in turn creates a culture of continuous improvement and sets the stage for further transformation.

What Digital Transformation Is and Is Not

Digital transformation is not

Technology for the sake of technology

Digital transformation is not

Ad-hoc or point solution

Digital transformation is not

Isolated from daily activities or strategic priorities

Digital transformation is not

Oriented towards big, mission-critical problems

Digital transformation is not

Vehicle for improving stakeholder value

Digital transformation is not

Driver of cultural as much as technological change

How Netflix Transformed Media Consumption

Using digitised content and web-based delivery models, the on-demand streaming service displaced brick-and-mortar movie rental by eliminating customer roadblocks and frustrations. Netflix gained a foothold in the market by significantly reducing customer effort involved in accessing media enabled. From the initial mail-order offerings of 1997, through the introduction and growth of streaming services since 2007, the company has expanded to provide a growing body of content to over 200 million subscribers across the globe (and growing every day).


Identification of Core Customer Problem

  • Why do I have to go to the cinema to watch new media and films?
  • Why must new episodes be tied to a weekly schedule?
  • Why do I have to search so hard for movies I’ll like?
  • Why do I have to watch commercials during my favourite shows?

Application of Data and Technology for Innovation of Customer Experience

  • Digital Media Files

  • Predictive Analytics

  • Web-Based Streaming

  • Personal Devices


Transformation of Customer Experience


of video streaming subscribers use Netflix


of single-service subscribers only use Netflix for streaming

Digital Expectations Rising in Every Corner of Campus While Also Prompting New Questions for Institutional Strategy

We have all grown accustomed to the technology and service capabilities of the digital age. The rise of seamless, personalised content and delivery across multiple devices has stoked high expectations and a preference for digital service among consumers.

The higher education sector has long pretended to be immune from these trends. The pandemic’s baptism by fire proved, however, that institutions could rapidly adopt and deploy digital solutions. Pandora’s box is now open, it seems, prompting institutions to determine how they will respond to new and expanding customer and consumer digital expectations.

Digital Expectations Rising Amongst Campus Constituents


  • “I’m caring for a sick parent—do I have to be physically present to engage in this lecture?”
  • “How will this course prepare me to use the latest technology in the workplace?”

Academic Staff

  • “Why can’t I access all of my students’ information in one place?”
  • “Why do I have to log in every time I want to upload or download a resource?”

Professional Services

  • “Why do I not receive an immediate confirmation when I submit a service request?”
  • “Why don’t we have user-friendly interfaces or data systems that talk to one another?”

Expectations Drive a Growing Demand for Digital Service

Digital First

Online self-service available on-demand and as the default means of interaction


Seamless experience available asynchronously across multiple devices


Individualised content and services tailored to location, situation, etc.

Beyond simply responding to stakeholder expectations, savvy university leaders are also considering how digital transformation can play an outsized role in realising organisational strategy.

On the heels of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul revenue, pedagogical, and operational models, institutions are exploring new, strategic questions. The answers to these questions—which will undoubtedly differ from university to university—are central to defining digital transformation priorities.

  • Can virtual delivery enable us to compete in and enrol students in new geographic or demographic sectors?
  • Is the digital experience part of our core value proposition, or do we want to promote other differentiating factors?
  • Should we recognise and reward both monetarily and with career progression the effective use of digital tools in a classroom setting?
  • In leveraging digital solutions to design new programmes, should we prioritise improving affordability, flexibility, or time to completion?
  • Do we have sufficient digital expertise on our senior management team and/or governing body to make informed decisions—and if not, how do we build that expertise?
  • Are new roles, reporting relationships, or budgetary lines necessary to oversee and transform end-to-end processes that cut across existing silos?
  • Is now the time to rightsize the investment we make in our digital estate vis-à-vis our physical estate—and if so, by how much?
  • Which teaching, research, and extracurricular student activities and experiences should happen face-to-face, and which can be offered in a multimodal format?

For Universities, Moving from Slogan to Impact Frustratingly Difficult

It’s not hard to become enthusiastic—or even optimistic—about the potential for digital transformation in higher education. After all, the sector’s incredible accomplishments during the pandemic prove that change is possible. You likely have a running list of opportunities that you would prioritise on your campus. On top of that, you probably hear pitches almost every day from vendors suggesting solutions to problems you didn’t know you had.

Still, on many campuses, true digital transformation remains elusive. Both before and after the pandemic, institutions have reported that moving from a public declaration of a commitment to digital transformation to actual impact has been no easy task.

The culprit is twofold: barriers to innovation and barriers to scale. Many institutions find themselves stuck in one of two scenarios, depicted below. In the upper left quadrant, digital substitution, in which a new technology replaces an analogue way of working without significantly improving the customer value or experience. In this scenario, scale is easier to achieve because the barriers related to changing existing infrastructure, business process, and roles and responsibilities are lower. In the lower right quadrant, there’s innovation theatre. Genuinely new approaches and technologies may pop up around campus, but they remain isolated, sub-scale, and consequently of little impact.

True digital transformation overcomes both barriers. It introduces new ways of carrying out core activities – and does so at scale, allowing for the greatest opportunities for financial, operational, or mission impact.

Campus Technology Projects Often Stumble on Two Barriers on Path to Genuine Transformation


Adaptive Learning

Internet of Things


Artificial Intelligence

Robotic Process Automation

Barriers to Innovation

  • Staff lack expertise
    and incentive to ‘design-in’
    new technologies
  • No ownership for systematically evaluating opportunities for transformation
  • Siloed, manual business processes reinforce a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ attitude

Barriers to Scale

  • Individual units lack funding and support to pursue initiatives by themselves
  • Legacy IT infrastructure and lack
    of data standards prevent interoperability
  • Central administrators struggle to get units to agree on requirements

The Best Path Forward? Align Technology Investments with Institutional Mission

The Most Impactful Projects Will Enhance Value and Differentiate Your Institution

As individual campuses look to leverage the new capabilities afforded by digital technologies, they should do so in ways that enhance the value drivers of the institution.

The typical higher education institution carries out thousands of processes and services in delivering its learning and teaching product. Amongst those workflows, some are central to the delivery of institutional missions, while others function as enablers of those core values.

EAB research has identified six domains in which investments in digital transformation consistently yield positive results. While technologies and vendors will come and go, focusing on these domains will keep you on the path towards transformation. Read on for detail on each of the domains and snapshots of a few high-impact investments in each.

Proven Domains of Digital Transformation Success

  • Personalised, Multichannel Prospect Communications

  • Multimodal Instruction for Career Exploration and Lifelong Learning

  • Frictionless Student Services and Success-Oriented Interventions

  • Business Processes Aligned with Customer Needs

  • Predictive Estates Operations and Space Management

  • Curated, Value-Driven Donor Engagement

Personalised, Multichannel Prospect Communications

In a more competitive market driven by both different-in-kind providers and more sophisticated applicant search behaviours, institutions must leverage digital tools and strategies to compete for students based on relevance and speed, not just prestige and cost.

Customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and social media tools enable wholesale repositioning of recruiting themes, from ‘what’s great about us’ to ‘what we can do for you’, all at unprecedented levels of convenience.

Select high-impact investments:

  • Personalised recruitment campaigns tailor outreach to prospective students across a variety of media based on curated data of individual interests and aspirations.
  • Virtual reality campus tours offer prospects customised and interactive pathways to explore not only the physical space of campus but also the one-of-a-kind experiences unique to an institution, all at a distance.
  • New media gurus put the institution’s best foot forward with compelling content on the platforms where prospective students congregate, driving traffic into the admissions funnel.
  • Admitted student social communities increase conversation rates of accepted applicants by creating opportunities for unscripted interactions with peers (e.g., based on geography, area of study, social interests) as well as with academic and support staff.
  • AI application bots are on call 24/7 to steer prospects through the application process, answering common questions and keeping (human) staff focused on high-impact interactions.

Leeds Beckett University Deploys AI Chatbot to Exponentially Improve Admissions Office Responsiveness and Effectiveness

The Problem

A deluge of transactional enquiries overwhelmed staff, leading to frustrating delays for prospects interested in a course of study.

The Solution

AI chatbot ‘Becky’ responds around the clock to frequently asked questions on course availability, grade requirements, and accommodation.

The Results

Instantaneous responses to student enquiries leads to higher application and conversion rates as well as greater staff capacity for interactions requiring personal attention.


‘Becky’ Boasts 24/7 Availability and Instant Acceptance Criteria Feedback

  • Facebook Messenger bot built on Chatfuel’s platform
  • Modest start-up costs: £30 and 100 staff hours
  • AI scripts: Course availability, required grades, and accommodation options
  • Monitoring and algorithm flag threads for human intervention
  • Becky has now expanded to all-year round support for student life FAQs

46% v. 26%

Applicant conversion rate during Clearing with Becky, compared to the call center

£10 Million

Tuition revenue from students offered places by Becky in first three years of operation

Multimodal Instruction for Career Exploration and Lifelong Learning

The digital teaching revolution has progressed in fits and starts, with adaptive learning and augmented reality tools still subscale (though flashy) pilots for most institutions. Real transformation is underway with multimodal delivery: blended or hybrid, self-paced, and increasingly competency-based formats. For many institutions, the pandemic served as a forcing function in accelerating these plans.

Notably, real transformation enables flexible formats that more easily enable student-centred interdisciplinary and experiential education. This serves as an onramp to lifelong-learner business models that follow graduates across career and personal milestones.

Select high-impact investments:

  • Mobile-optimised course materials ensure that students can access books and reference materials whenever and from wherever they engage in study, enabling truly multimodal learning in a bring-your-own-device world.
  • Multimodal undergraduate interdisciplinary tracks allow students to take ownership over their learning pathways while prompting greater engagement and completion rates with courses of study designed around competencies, not disciplines.
  • Lifelong learner platforms recognise that careers and skills evolve over a lifetime and provide just-in-time professional education to adult learners while also securing long-term financial ties with the institution.
  • ‘Freemium’ adult learner content leverages ‘try-before-you-buy’ experiences that engage professionals and convince them of value as they decide whether to pursue (and pay for) additional qualifications.
  • Personalised curriculum recommendation engines deploy a deep knowledge of learners’ past behaviours and future goals to provide advice and navigation across a wide inventory of course options.

University of Central Florida Blurs Boundaries Between Online and In-Person Study to Keep Students Engaged and On Track for Graduation

The Problem

Students struggle to juggle a standard timetable of modules, personal responsibilities, and opportunities to develop workplace skills.

The Solution

Multimodal modules engineered to eliminate distinctions between in-person and online engagement and even allow ‘catch up’ opportunities following unforeseen challenges.

The Results

Students in multimodal tracks balance study, work, and life priorities without worrying about falling behind—and have higher completion rates than peers in face-to-face-only tracks.

Multimodality at the University of Central Florida
Head count by location, Autumn 2016


“Classifying a student as ‘main campus’ or ‘extended campus’ or ‘distance’ becomes meaningless in an environment where students take whatever courses they need in whatever location or modality best suits their requirements at the time.”

Thomas Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning

Frictionless Student Services and Success-Oriented Interventions

A more competitive and marketised higher education sector elevates the need for careful management of and investment in the student experience – namely, perceptions of convenience, engagement, and value outside the classroom.

Digital investments not only serve to provide students with seamless access to routine services but also proactive nudges that promote academic engagement, mental and physical wellbeing, and interpersonal connections. Return on investment can be seen in improvements in rankings and recruiting brand as well as student learning outcomes and success metrics.

Select high-impact investments:

  • 360-degree digital assistants serve as a single front door for all university services by leveraging the full spectrum of student and campus data systems.
  • Smart scheduling tools ease registration challenges by allowing students to consider extracurricular commitments alongside academic commitments each term.
  • On-demand amenity delivery provides on-campus students with one-click service delivery via bots, while expanding university auxiliary revenue.
  • Student voice platforms elevate student concerns and crowdsource solutions, boosting satisfaction and engagement before complaints go viral.
  • Mental health micro-assessments enable targeted and rotating pulse checks of student wellbeing, nudging students to personalised content and even counseling referrals based on responses.

Staffordshire University’s ‘Digital Coach’ Nudges Students Towards Success-Oriented Behaviours

The Problem

Disengaged students at risk of dropping out or failing may not be aware of or take advantage of full scope of support resources.

The Solution

Digital coach ‘Beacon’ deploys a series of nudges that prompt at-risk students to connect with academic support services.

The Results

In a single campaign, Beacon facilitated 300 new relationships formed between students and personal tutors.

Elevating the Student Voice: Beacon Product Roadmap Designed by Staffordshire University Students

Beacon’s most requested tasks:

  • View academic schedule and instructor contact details
  • Check space availability and get directions to rooms and places on campus
  • Request important documents
  • Browse news and events
  • Explore profiles of student societies and clubs
  • Ask questions from campus services: Careers, Counselling, Digital, International Student, Library, Student Enabling, Student Services and Students' Union

0 queries

Fielded by Beacon in the first month of operation, January 2019

Business Processes Aligned with Customer Needs

Professional services is embracing digital transformation along two concurrent and mutually-reinforcing tracks: first, the standardisation, automation, and simplification of administrative tasks to enable professional services staff to focus on value-added rather than transactional work; second, re-investing savings in business intelligence analytics to democratise data access and enable more data-driven decision-making amongst frontline academic and administrative teams.

In both cases, investments are poised to reorient how professional staff spend their days, and the skills needed for success.

Select high-impact investments:

  • Robotic process automation task migration trains artificial intelligence or software bots to mimic human behaviour in performing high-volume, repeatable tasks across multiple steps and even multiple digital interfaces.
  • Natural language processing-powered help desks reduce inconsistent (and expensive) help desk support by automatically triaging support requests to the right level.
  • Budget and planning workflow automation expedites report production for commonly management and academic workload queries, enabling new analytical and decision-making support.
  • Customer service chatbots reduce the time that specialised staff spend fielding routine enquiries while also collecting information on issues that frequently require more detailed support.
  • Self-service business intelligence analytics centralise all data in one location with premade reports and data visualisations to support common tasks and answer one-off enquiries.

The University of Melbourne Reduces Repetitive Administrative Tasks in Favour of Value-Add Services

The Problem

Repetitive, rule-based administrative tasks—especially those involving manual data entry and approvals—crowd out mission-centric activities.

The Solution

Robotic process automation piloted with invoicing and supplier records in the finance division and later expanded into enrolment and other service areas after early successes.

The Results

Data entry and analysis that previously took weeks now requires only a few hours—not only freeing staff time to focus on other tasks, but also increasing process efficiency, boosting staff engagement, and improving the customer experience.

Repeated Successes Along the University of Melbourne’s RPA Journey

  • Enrolment: Student exam results collated and entered into enrolment system, replacing need for additional data entry staff
  • Procurement: New supplier registered in the procurement system within 30 minutes, replacing the previous 5-day queue
  • IT: System access established for new employees in 10 minutes, replacing the previous three-week wait time
  • HR: Automated verification of all timesheet adjustments removes need for manual checking of adjustments
  • Contract Management: New contracts automatically recorded without manual checking and approvals


Processes overhauled in first round of RPA implementation


Hours of labour saved annually from first round of RPA

Predictive Estates Operations and Space Management

There are many worth digital innovations available to the future-focused facilities function, including energy-efficient and sustainable buildings, flexible spaces that can adapt to a hybrid workforce and evolving research interests, and classrooms that accommodate multimodal learning.

As a more immediate opportunity, networked sensor technology has undergone dramatic price decreases. These tools, embedded across the physical estate, are unlocking efficiency and service improvements by enabling proactive deployment of resources through real-time monitoring and data analysis.

Select high-impact investments:

  • Proactive maintenance triggers create a notification network that prompt service only when needed on everything from trash bins to high-traffic and public spaces.
  • Predictive fault detection relies on a sophisticated network of sensors to remotely monitor and signal need for preemptive repair or replacement of building systems, enabling the shift from reactive to preventive maintenance.
  • Space utilisation analytics enables more informed, data-driven decision-making about when and how often spaces should be cleaned, upgraded, decommissioned, or reallocated.
  • Mobile maintenance platforms improves the efficiency and speed of maintenance teams by enabling real-time communication, data entry and monitoring, and task prioritisation.
  • Integrated asset tracking moves institutions towards a total cost of ownership view of their physical estate by providing a single source of truth for monitoring and managing asset usage, maintenance, and replacement.

Thermal ‘People Counters’ at the University of Alberta Enable Smarter Space Utilisation and Maintenance Decisions

The Problem

Resources are wasted in deploying staff to clean underutilised spaces.

The Solution

Thermal occupancy sensors determine which rooms across campus janitorial staff should be deployed to clean based on daily usage.

The Results

With better data about room usage, cleaning staff are deployed based on need, creating more capacity for other semiannual or annual activities (e.g., stripping and waxing hallways) and enabling the university to stretch limited staff resources further.

Beyond Saving on Janitorial Staff Costs, Thermal Counters at the University of Alberta Provide Previously Untapped Data for Decision-Making

Real-Time HVAC Adjustment: More or less heat, cooling, or air exchanges based on occupancy 300 people counters across campus
Classroom Upgrade and Decommissioning Decisions: Which rooms merit makeovers, IT investments, or repurposing C$2,000 custodial and HVAC savings per room, per term
Academic Space Planning and Budget Incentives: Fact-based review of classroom and office utilisation for use as carrot/stick in annual department budgets 2.56 payback period in years

Curated, Value-Driven Donor Engagement

The old playbook of alumni engagement and donor acquisition has steadily eroded over the last decade, with new trends like digital media disrupting conventional methods of accessing a potential donor pool. To recover lost ground, institutions must more wholeheartedly embrace digital tools to improve both fundraiser efficiency and prospect intelligence.

Movement on both fronts enables institutions to pitch alumni at the right time and via the right medium, with a meaningful and personal appeal that delivers value both to donor and university alike.

Select high-impact investments:

  • Digital channel micro-engagements offer alumni short, virtual opportunities to engage with their university with minimal barriers to participation.
  • Mix-and-match communications optimisation takes A/B testing to the extreme, deploying multivariable emails and analysing open and click rates to identify the most impactful combination for each recipient.
  • Targeted affinity campaigns leverage data stored in donor databases to create smaller, but more impactful, tailored campaigns that donor preference for giving to a specific need.
  • AI-powered donor identification and scoring enables institutions to better identify which prospects are the most likely to respond to requests for visits.
  • Plug-and-play donor outreach automates the creation and dispatch of both enquiry and stewardship emails, letters, and texts, allowing everyone from gift officers to deans to deliver personal attention to donors, at scale.

University of Chicago’s Multi-Variable Email Campaign Tests Dozens of Communications and Iterates Towards Optimal Number of Views

The Problem

Advancement leaders struggle to break through the digital noise in order to engage with millennial alumni audiences.

The Solution

Marketing automation software enables the use of for-profit marketing tactics and techniques to optimise the content and structure of emails to make them more effective.

The Results

Constituent communication decisions are rooted in behavioural data, with each successive campaign yielding a more detailed picture of engagement levers and constituent profiles.

University of Chicago Email Template Includes 54 Possible Combinations to Determine Greatest Engagement Levers

of the email sent
average recipients for each version
total recipients of the emails

Organisational Culture Dictates Direction and Magnitude of Change

Technology Provides Opportunity, but People Ultimately Enable Campus Success

Emerging technologies and digital solutions, like those outlined across the previous pages, offer exciting possibilities for transforming core strategic and operational activities. But more than any tool, app, or interface, the leadership of a university will be most influential in determining the success of digital transformation initiatives.

Innovation thrives only in the right environment, and a culture of collaboration, risk-taking, and business partnership across the organisation provides the most fertile ground for digital endeavours.

Driving successful change and improving value for students and staff means finding support amongst the people and processes that govern the institution. Without a culture of fostering, incubating, and adopting innovative solutions, institutions will see technology spend rise, with little to show for their investments.

In Pursuing Digital Transformation, Cultural Challenges Always Lurk Beneath Technological Change

Core Tasks of Senior Leaders on the Digital Transformation Journey
  • Bridge siloed mindsets and cultures
  • Overcome aversion to risk and failure
  • Encourage iterative, collaborative work
  • Focus on ‘customer’ journeys and experience
  • Develop shared digital ambitions and goals
  • Seek out partnerships for solution building
  • Increase speed of campus decision-making

Elevate Digital Awareness and Promote a Shared Language for Problem Solving

Embedding Digital Thinking at the Senior Level Yields a Unified Vision and Cross-Functional Collaboration

To foster digital success, institutions must elevate leadership awareness of technology-enabled capabilities and incorporate value-focused models of thinking. When senior leaders share a common framework of problem-driven analysis for understanding and evaluating digital opportunities, their campuses will see better outcomes.


Leadership Checklist for Pursuing Enterprise-Level Digital Transformation Ambitions

Provide Clarity Around Institutional Goals

Create a shared definition and vocabulary for digital transformation; rally campus around common objectives

Formalise a Problem Identification Process

Solicit input to identify cross-campus problems that could be solved through digital transformation

Promote Digital Ownership Beyond IT

Create clarity around investment decisions, resource allocation, and project responsibility

Build a Portfolio View of Initiatives

Uncover digital projects, reconcile overlaps and conflicts, and advocate for a coherent enterprise architecture

Normalise an Ethic of Assessment

Measure digital project returns and focus on accountability through sunsetting and scaling innovations appropriately

Invest in a Data Hub for a Single Source of Truth

Establish a system- and vendor-agnostic view of campus data to support information integrity and reusability as campus priorities and digital investments evolve over time

Foundational Questions for Embedding Digital Perspectives in Campus Strategy Conversations
  • How do emerging technologies impact our strategic goals and objectives?
  • What are the core values and differentiators of our institution?
  • Where do organisational silos hinder the creation of new solutions?
  • How can we improve IT’s capacity to support ongoing digital projects?
  • Where are we already innovating successfully, and can it work at scale?

What’s Next in a Digital Transformation Journey?

Digital transformation does not happen by itself; rather, it requires the development of concrete practices, infrastructure, and skills—collectively, capabilities—that create an environment in which transformation can flourish.

Specifically, digital transformation requires both organisational capabilities, which help drive cultural change, as well as IT capabilities, which ensure the technological infrastructure is equipped for transformation at scale.

Senior leaders play an important role in working across campus to establish a shared understanding and identify problems (and opportunities) requiring digital solutions. IT units must be able to respond thoughtfully and partner effectively with different areas of the institution to design, implement, and monitor innovation initiatives.

Learn more about these capabilities – what they are and how to build them – in EAB’s digital transformation resource center.

Want more resources on digital transformation?

Our digital transformation hub offers resources for eight core capabilities that are essential for digital transformation success, and walks you through the buzzwords that can make digital transformation seem confusing.

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