Digital Transformation Signals: Is Your Institution on the Journey?

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Digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. The digital transformation signals listed in this article indicate progress along the way and provide guideposts for the journey.

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Credit: BenzSuthep / © 2019

In the context of sweeping social, economic, technological, and demographic changes, digital transformation (Dx) is a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution’s business model, strategic directions, and value proposition. Dx can make institutions more resilient, flexible, and relevant as they face an array of increasingly difficult challenges that include declining student enrollment, increased public skepticism, and skyrocketing student debt. For a detailed definition and description of the shifts involved, see "Getting Ready for Digital Transformation: Change Your Culture, Workforce, and Technology."1

How an institution approaches Dx is highly dependent on its culture, values, and strategic priorities. A college or university could elect to begin at the institutional level at the very outset, or it could begin its Dx journey by a series of “local” transformations of individual campus organizations. A campus IT organization, for example, could transform itself along the lines of workforce, culture, and technology as described below in order to better serve the institution but also to set an example and to enable other campus units to undertake their own transformations. In this way, transformations at the campus organizational level can act as stepping stones and build momentum toward transformation at the institutional level.

But what does Dx look like in practice? How do you know where your institution stands? Use the list of signals below to better understand your institution’s Dx engagement and progress and to learn how to help your institution move forward. Note that the items on this list are indicators of work toward digital transformation. However, this is not an exclusive list, nor is everything on the list necessary for digital transformation to be under way. Dx is a journey and a process, not a destination. The list is intended as a way for you to get a sense of your institution’s progress on that journey.

Are you working toward transformation related to any of the following?

  • One of your institution’s major challenges, such as student success, financial health, reputation and relevance, or external competition
  • Institutional value proposition
  • Business model
  • Institutional or departmental strategic direction

How would you describe the proposed outcome?

  • Substantial
  • Having a profound impact
  • Resulting in tangible and fundamental change

Are you working toward deep and coordinated change?

These elements might not be necessary for initial Dx efforts but should be present as Dx initiatives expand. Is there evidence of the following?

  • Visible commitment from senior leadership such as presidents, provosts, and boards
  • Broad C-suite involvement and collaboration in defining Dx objectives and coordinating Dx efforts
  • Explicit Dx plans or roadmaps 
  • Dedicated leadership for Dx 
  • Funding for Dx viewed as an investment toward a strategic outcome

Culture Shifts

Dx requires a new approach to how campus leaders interact with each other—an approach that entails a laser focus on progress toward institutional goals, a broad emphasis on change management, and an increase in institutional agility and flexibility to meet rapidly changing needs. 

Is there evidence of these shifts in culture?

  • Focus toward institution-wide goals and away from siloed goals
  • Focus on institutional differentiation
  • Innovation is strategic, sustainable, and driven by institutional ambitions
  • Leaders are willing to adopt new strategic directions
  • Reliance on data and analytics and other forms of evidence to inform and adjust institutional course
  • Shift from risk aversion to risk management
  • Leadership rapidly makes decisions and adjusts strategy in response to changing circumstances and new opportunities
  • IT investments and initiatives fully align with institutional priorities through governance
  • Adept at change management 
  • Institutional flexibility and agility regarding business processes
  • Emergence of new levels of cross-organizational alignment and collaboration
  • Culture of trust, supported by accountability and data
  • Procurement coordinated at the institutional level and responsive to marketplace changes
  • Active institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)
  • An IT organization charged with identifying new digital strategies in direct support of the institution’s transformational goals
  • Academic curriculum redefined to better serve student needs
  • New incubators for exploring and piloting innovative approaches and new sources of revenue
  • Investments and technology implementations specific to Dx projects are informed by user experience
  • Increased use of data and analytics to inform and guide the Dx process

Workforce Shifts

Changes related to Dx not only are having an inexorable impact on the day-to-day work of higher education professionals but also are creating a need for new skills and competencies across the institutional community. These changes are creating new opportunities and threats and demanding a reinvention of human resource management. 

Is there evidence of these shifts in workforce?

  • New jobs and roles (e.g., chief data officer, chief innovation officer, student success officer, enterprise architect, and roles related to vendor management, user experience, and business relationship management) 
  • IT staff have deep familiarity with the “business” of higher education
  • Increased pace of change and scope in IT liaison roles to align with expanding role of data and digital technologies in research, administration, and teaching and learning
  • Increased blurring and reforming of academic disciplines
  • Ongoing focus on new and shifting professional competencies that require continuous role agility
  • Increasing importance of skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and communication 
  • Greater institutional accountability for career growth and talent management to supplement and support departmental and individual efforts
  • Increased emphasis on work/life balance, flexible schedules and work locations, and new benefits to increase hiring and retention success
  • Focus on literacy around DEI across the institution
  • Data fluency is a core competency across the workforce
  • Expectation of continuous improvement and service management competencies for the workforce
  • Institutional agility and flexibility in restructuring the workforce to adapt to rapid, ongoing changes

Technology Shifts

IT leaders must adopt innovative practices and create digital environments that provide unprecedented agility and flexibility. At the same time, they must also manage a complex and ever-changing technology ecosystem in a way that enables the institution and its academic and business units to rapidly and efficiently achieve its strategic aims. New technologies do not by themselves bring about Dx. Institutional Dx initiatives can succeed only through the strategic application of a changing set of technologies in support of new institutional directions.

Is there evidence of these shifts in technology?

  • Shift toward sourcing and managing technology infrastructure centrally or outside the institution
  • Technology, business, and enterprise architecture with agility and flexibility as key priorities
  • IT initiatives and services tied directly to institutional outcomes
  • Growing sophistication of cybersecurity strategy to respond to new risks and solutions stemming from digital transformation
  • Applications of emerging technologies to education, research, and other priorities viewed as potential institutional differentiators
  • Defined data and analytics strategy that guides institutional decision making
  • Increased focus on data privacy and ethics
  • Support for DEI in the development, selection, and deployment of new technologies
  • Business and funding models that acknowledge the continually evolving nature of technology

Is Your Institution Ready?

This list of signals can give you a good idea of whether your institution is ready for the Dx journey. You might find that you’re already well on your way, even if your institution doesn’t call the effort digital transformation. Or you might realize that you need to learn more before you can take the first steps on the journey. EDUCAUSE is creating new resources to help IT leaders find out more about the importance of digital transformation to higher education.

This blog post was originally published in October 2019 and was updated in February 2020 and May 2020.

If you're looking for a shortened version of this checklist to use at your institution, you can download a PDF here.

EDUCAUSE Dx resources can be found on the "Dx: Digital Transformation of Higher Education" web page. For more on enterprise IT issues and leadership perspectives in higher education, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Enterprise Connections blog as well as the Enterprise IT Program page.


  1. Susan Grajek and Betsy Reinitz "Getting Ready for Digital Transformation: Change Your Culture, Workforce, and Technology," EDUCAUSE Review, July 8, 2019.

Malcolm Brown is Director of Learning Initiatives for EDUCAUSE.

Betsy Reinitz is Director of Enterprise IT Programs for EDUCAUSE.

Karen Wetzel is Director of Community and Working Groups for EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Malcolm Brown, Betsy Reinitz, and Karen Wetzel. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.