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Research Report

Digital Transformation

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

February 1, 2021

What is digital transformation?

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 from the list below to dive into the specific section. 

What is digital transformation?

The beginning of wisdom is the definition 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

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


  • Technology for the sake of technology
  • Ad-hoc or point solution
  • Isolated from daily activities or strategic priorities


  • Oriented towards big, mission-critical problems
  • Vehicle for improving stakeholder value
  • Driver of cultural as much as technological change

Digital transformation snapshot from the private sector

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

  • 89% of video streaming subscribers use Netflix
  • 25% 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
  • Omni-present: Seamless experience available asynchronously across multiple devices
  • Hyper-personalised: 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.

Enrollment strategy

  • 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?

Leadership structure

  • 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?

Pedagogical delivery

  • 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?

Physical, digital estate

  • 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?

Why has digital transformation been elusive?

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

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

Where have other universities succeeded?

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: 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

How do we prepare the institution for change?

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

Learn how EAB can partner with you

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?

Prepare Your Institution for Change by Completing a Digital Transformation Capabilities Assessment

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.

Download the Brief

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