Leadership for Digital Transformation

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Digital transformation is an organizational change process that demands a unique vision, perspective, and set of leadership skills.

Leadership for Digital Transformation 
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Digital transformation (Dx) in higher education is the process of using digital technologies to refine and enhance students' experiences by improving their interactions with instructional services, support teams, and other critical areas of campus operations. Dx is not limited to digitizing business processes and making additions to the technology portfolio; it calls for implementing new ways of learning and leading, fostering a culture shift, and aligning strategy, talent, and resources across the organization. Dx is a change process that demands a unique vision, perspective, and set of leadership skills to be successful. That is why some change practitioners see Dx as more of a leadership challenge than a technical one.Footnote1

The following steps may provide a roadmap to a successful digital transformation.

Creating a Transformative Vision

A successful digital transformation begins with a compelling leadership vision that presents a picture of the future and explains why members of an organization should strive to create that future.Footnote2 A transformative vision is the building block of a change strategy. The transformative vision clarifies the general direction of change and helps employees understand how they fit into the transition process and the desired future state. In successful transformation efforts, vision and strategies are not locked in the president's executive room and communicated only to executive cabinet members; they are frequently and widely disseminated across the organization to increase understanding and secure buy-in.

Breaking Silos

Taking a system perspective is critical for leaders, as Dx is not limited to a single organizational function. For example, introducing a new student registration system to improve user experience may impact financial aid, academic planning, advising, and other key operational areas. A successful digital transformation mandates a functional alignment of various organizational functions to avoid silos between new and legacy technology.Footnote3 Often, thoughtfully transitioning from legacy technology to new technology may be more sustainable than abruptly replacing one with the other. Like any other change initiative, Dx initially creates a sense of uncertainty and breeds skepticism within the organization. There will always be supporters and contenders to change. The task of the leader is to engage employees in discussion and demonstrate the value that they contribute to Dx efforts. Highly engaged leaders rely on team members who have intimate knowledge about the work that will be impacted by Dx.

Creating Short-Term Wins

A large-scale Dx effort may require the completion of hundreds of interdependent projects, both large and small. Often, the life cycle of a large project spans several months or years. Creating opportunities for short-term wins during the transformation journey allows leaders to get crucial feedback about the validity of their visions and strategies. It also helps build employees' trust and faith in ongoing change efforts and may potentially win over team members who are not actively supporting the transformation process, thereby taking power away from cynics.

Converting Projects into Competencies

A typical digital transformation, regardless of its scope and type, relies on projects with a definite beginning and end. Leaders need to maintain as much momentum and enthusiasm as possible throughout the journey. To achieve sustainable gains and position the organization to meet future demands for change, leaders need to support a learning environment where projects can be converted into organizational competencies.Footnote4 In the project management field, this is referred to as the "lesson learned."

A successful digital transformation has the potential to transform the culture of an organization.


  1. George Westerman, "The First Law of Digital Innovation," MIT Sloan Management Review 52, no. 3 (April 2019): 326–349. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Westerman, "The First Law of Digital Innovation," 326–349. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

Muddassir Siddiqi is CEO and President of Central College, Houston Community College System.

© 2022 Muddassir Siddiqi.