The technology aspect of digital transformation is obvious, but the other two elements—shifting culture and workforce—are just as important.
For some people, the term "digital transformation" conjures visions of a large, complex project driven by the IT organization that relies on a massive technology solution to change the way we do business. Others hear the term and think it involves purchasing a shiny new device or some slick new software that will solve a thorny problem. And yet others simply tune it out as just another fad or techno buzzword—something that only a few people really understand and that, in the end, probably won't make a difference for how their college or university functions.
Digital transformation actually describes the new value proposition that results from coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that, when taken together, provide the catalyst for a lasting transformation that fundamentally changes how an institution provides a service or addresses a need of its students, faculty, or staff.Footnote1 It is called digital transformation because technology plays a key role, whether as the implementation of a new technology solution or the possibilities that advances in technology enable (e.g., big data, 5G cellular). However, just implementing technology without intentionally focusing significant attention on culture and workforce won't achieve the transformation that institutions desire or need.
Sometimes the most effective way to achieve digital transformation is not to mention digital transformation at all and instead quietly focus on achieving the underlying shifts that are necessary to obtain the institutional transformations you seek.
Frequently Overlooked: Culture and Workforce Shifts
Shifts in technology are easy—someone identifies a technology solution, and it gets implemented. Well, maybe "easy" isn't the right word. Technology implementations never actually end up being easy, despite what a vendor may say. But such projects typically entail a known pathway and process that we follow on a regular basis. Shifting culture and workforce is more amorphous, something that we do but that many of us don't often think about or approach with the level of intentionality required for digital transformation to occur.
Achieving and sustaining shifts in culture—the behaviors and approaches that people take to solving problems or providing services, and the shared values and ideals that guide those decisions and interactions—takes time, intentional focus, and effort. Many tools can help guide shifts in culture. IT leaders must think purposefully about using those tools in concert to gradually create the foundations for change. Some examples include establishing formal or informal guiding coalitions—such as governance or steering committees, task forces, focus groups, and/or advisory councils—to provide forums for discussions and stakeholder involvement from across the institution.
Conducting pilot programs and enlisting early adopters or pioneers from outside IT creates a cadre of supporters who can help evangelize the change and become peer influencers to ease concerns about the changes, demonstrate the benefits, and provide feedback to shape the effort. Polls, town-hall meetings, and partnering with stakeholders on a roadshow (attending established meetings in key departments or with key stakeholder and governance groups) put a face on the effort and provide an opportunity to explain the changes, the rationale behind them, and the benefits of the new approach.
Throughout this process, using consistent language is important to establish a concise way to explain the value that these changes provide (the new value proposition) and tie the work to key goals or mission. Repeating the messages at every opportunity also helps shift culture. Finally, find small groups within the institution to adopt the new methods—doing things the new way and leveraging the new tools and ways of approaching things. Others will follow if they see it is effective and provides value.
Achieving shifts in the workforce requires another kind of intentional effort, focusing on the skills and duties of those tasked with carrying out and supporting the new ways of working. Focusing on shifts required of people both inside and outside IT is vital. Consider a move to a new learning management system (LMS). To achieve the new value proposition for students, faculty might need to learn different technical skills and understand new learning methodologies and techniques to be able to leverage the changed tools and instructional models. Institutions will need to provide resources to help faculty obtain these competencies, possibly requiring shifts in staffing and/or core skill sets among staff.
Another important part of facilitating workforce shifts is to consider both in-house and supplemental resources. Revising job descriptions, providing training, reorganizing teams and departments, and in some cases bringing in staff who support the new vision might be needed. This process also includes ensuring that the staff involved are committed to the new ways of doing business and are supportive of the new culture being created. To be successful, institutions need to have the right people, with the right skills, in the right roles, doing the right things—and this won't happen without being intentional.
A Tale of Two Projects
At Ithaca College, we learned the hard way that ignoring shifts in culture and workforce result in an incomplete transformation and a project that falls short of its goals. Several years ago we failed to focus enough attention on the changes in culture and workforce needed to nurture and realize the full potential of a homegrown campus web portal and online community we had developed.
In partnership with a couple of other offices on campus, IT built an innovative, customizable web portal and elaborate online community and launched it with great fanfare. We seeded it with content and pushed our incoming students to it. But we failed to fully engage the campus community to leverage it as a primary location for content and discussions. We didn't build the support systems (staff, governance, workflow processes) that were needed to sustain and grow it over the long term. In the end, it failed to transform the ways we interacted with our students or provide the single point of communication, which had been the drivers for the project. The technology was sound, but a lack of intentional focus on campus culture and on needed changes with skills and positions in our workforce kept the portal from achieving the desired transformation and ultimately led to the slow abandonment of the solution.
Contrast that with the approach we are currently taking to transform the experiences that students and faculty have with our LMS. From the start, our project to reimagine the campus LMS has involved the campus community. Strong partnerships were formed among key offices and stakeholders. Governance structures were put in place before the project moved forward. Numerous opportunities for engagement from all aspects of the campus were established. Core IT provided the technical and project management expertise. Learning technologists partnered with colleagues from academic affairs, the center for faculty excellence, student accessibility services, the library, the office of extended studies, faculty, and students to examine existing practices and desired changes. Workshops have been developed to reimagine how the LMS can be leveraged to support improved teaching and learning. Staff positions are being redefined to address the new roles and skill sets needed for a different support paradigm. All this is happening in concert with the technology implementation. The result should be a new value proposition, providing a reimagined learning environment that will allow us to explore new course delivery options and better experiences for faculty and students. Faculty will have improved tools and will spend less time on routine tasks. Students will have better access to their course materials regardless of time or place.
By focusing on shifts in culture, workforce, and technology, we will achieve the benefits of digital transformation while never actually mentioning that term and therefore avoiding any preconceived notions or concerns that may be associated with it. For the faculty and students, it's not the label that matters; it's the transformed experiences and opportunities that come from the shifts that we will have achieved.
Making Digital Transformation Work
A successful digital transformation project enables new ways of doing things, unlocks new capabilities and insights, and advances the overall goals and services of an institution. It changes the way an institution sees a problem and provides a comprehensive solution that often involves new pathways and approaches for dealing with a critical issue. At its heart, digital transformation requires intentional shifts in culture, workforce, and technology, and it is the marriage of these shifts in culture, workforce, and technology that provides the mechanism for achieving and sustaining the transformation.
Colleges and universities often focus their resources on identifying a new technology or application as the solution to a problem they are trying to solve. We lead with the technology as the solution—for example, we think we can improve retention by purchasing an academic early-warning system or can communicate more effectively with students if we deploy a smartphone app. The technology becomes the focus and the savior. The implementation focuses almost exclusively on technical pieces, and it becomes an IT project. But the technology is just one piece, and without focusing on impacts and changes to culture and workforce, institutions will not achieve true transformation.
- D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack, Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education, research report (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Research, June 2020). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
David Weil is Associate Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Ithaca College.
© 2021 David Weil. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.