From Transformation to Simplification

min read

With a goal of simplification, digital transformation may be the best investment an institution can make to free up time and talent for what matters most.

2 pencils. One is zig-zagged and the other is straight
Credit: Kaleo / © 2019

IT professionals are endowed with incredible technological prowess, but we may lack a bit in our communication skills. We sometimes provide more detail than presidents or provosts might want (e.g., talking about data lakes, OLAP cubes, or dimensionality reductions when they want to hear "reduce cost"). Complexity can obscure the objective. One afternoon a colleague and I were commiserating about the communications challenge of digital transformation (Dx). He observed that we should be talking about simplification rather than transformation, placing the emphasis on the outcome rather than the process.1 This shift itself might be transformative.

Today, as IT professionals are trying to persuade our institutions to invest in Dx, we often talk about the technologies, including the cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and the Internet of Things. Yet as Susan Grajek and Betsy Reinitz detail in their article "Getting Ready for Digital Transformation," the transformation involves much more than the technologies.2 Implementing Dx will require culture change, a new style of leadership and collaboration, changes to business processes, investments in infrastructure and people, new skills and competencies, evolved business models, and more.

Addressing any one of these requirements (e.g., culture change) involves a massive undertaking. What if we emphasize the outcome of digital transformation—the idea that Dx can make things simpler, eventually involving less work? If people believe in an outcome, such as freeing up time, they will be willing to do a lot of work to get there. Time is a precious commodity for faculty, staff, students—and for IT professionals. What if we could free up our time for the things that matter most? Think about moving to the cloud. If IT operations are on the campus, the majority of staff time is devoted to tasks such as systems management and support. Whatever time and money might be left is then focused on innovation. If operations move to the cloud, staff time is freed from replacing servers, updating software, and handling a host of other concerns and can shift to higher-order activities, including strategic initiatives.

Simplification may not be just a way to talk about digital transformation—simplification may be an imperative. Dan Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, recently observed that higher education faces the challenge of managing a "shrinking enterprise" rather than a growing one.3 Most IT professionals developed their management skills when institutions were growing—new programs, more students, additional facilities. Today, budgets are more constrained, limits have been placed on tuition growth, and the size of the core demographic—18- to 22-year-olds—is in decline. Once considered a buffer for decreasing enrollment and revenue, international student numbers are shrinking as well. And in a strong economy, adult learners are not returning at sufficient levels to offset the other declines. Perhaps the question isn't how to "cut fat out of the budget" but how to simplify operations.

What if a college or university simplified its administrative platforms? Rather than hosting a separate enterprise resource planning (ERP) system for each campus, the institution could implement a single ERP to be shared by all. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) simplified its administrative systems, creating a shared ERP platform for its four universities and twelve community colleges. The cost to maintain the system was reduced by over 50 percent while simultaneously adding disaster recovery capabilities and improving security. This change wasn't just simpler—it saved time and money.4

Facilities represent a major expense for campuses (e.g., energy costs, personnel). Can Dx, in the form of artificial intelligence, help? The University of Texas at Austin implemented an AI sprinkler system to control and monitor water use. Sensors can detect leaks, for example, and automatically shut down the system until the leak is repaired. Connected instruments also measure evaporation and rainfall and adjust for sun or shade. The system is networked, automated, and controlled by a phone app. It not only simplifies work but also saves money. In 2012, the campus spent eight staff hours each day monitoring and adjusting sprinkler systems; in 2018, the work took only thirty minutes per day. Water use dropped from 176 million gallons of water each year to 35 million gallons, saving $1 million per year. Water management was simplified.5

The routine administrative work of higher education could do with simplification as well. If employees want to change their mailing address, request an automatic deposit of funds, be reimbursed for travel, or submit a vacation request, they need to complete a form. Many campuses direct users to download a pdf form, print it, complete the form, and return it to a specific office. Dx can change the process by putting forms online and allowing them to be completed through a quick electronic workflow, reducing time for all involved. A case in point is provided by the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom. Originally, staff would input paper-based forms from students to register for courses and to manage schedules and timetabling. The process was cumbersome and prone to mistakes. Dx reduced the time required to process student tutorial appointments from three weeks to a matter of seconds through automation software.6 Simple.

Student records, transcripts, and diplomas are other processes that might benefit from simplification. Today, eight to ten weeks can go by between the time a graduate orders a transcript and when a potential employer receives it. A digital diploma can be shared instantly for free—and without an intermediary. It is instantly verifiable and tamper-proof. Students can gain autonomy over their own records and speed up the process. A digital diploma simplifies the lives of students, staff, and employers.

Ensuring that students are successful can be complex and intense. Financial aid is just one target of student success initiatives that might benefit from Dx. Many students cannot continue their education without financial aid, yet they are confused and frustrated by the aid process. Using a campus texting platform, an institution can send nudges to students, encouraging them to refile their FAFSA, an important gateway for persistence. In one study, the interventions cost about $5 per student, resulting in community college students being 12–14 percent more likely to persist through their sophomore year.7 Austin Community College used texting interventions such as, "[First Name], is filling out your 2017/2018 FAFSA on your to-do list, or your completed list? Text C for completed and N for not completed." As a result, first-time students who received texting interventions were 13 percentage points more likely to enroll in the fall of their sophomore year than those without the interventions.8 The integration of data from the SIS (student information system) and CRM (customer relationship management) systems and the automated delivery of text messages is an example of Dx. Something complex was made simpler for students, reducing attrition; the intervention was made simpler for staff, saving time.

Chatbots—which integrate technologies such as mobile, AI, voice recognition and predictive analytics—are a classic example of digital transformation. First used in industries such as retail, they have found their way to higher education. They have been used successfully as teaching assistants or as responses to student queries during enrollment and registration. Georgia State University estimates its chatbot, "Pounce," responded to 200,000 inquiries in the summer of 2016, reducing "summer melt" by 22 percent.9 Wayne State University finds chatbots valuable, particularly for first-generation students, who may be reluctant to ask an "obvious" question to a human but have no hesitation with a bot.10 Chatbots, as a form of Dx, simplify the work of staff and the lives of students.

Digital transformation is a lot of work. When we IT professionals describe Dx efforts to our colleagues, perhaps we should thus focus on the goal: simplicity. If the outcome of digital transformation is simplification, think of what else we could do with our time and attention. Institutions might improve their financial health by designing new programs or developing additional revenue streams. They might create innovative approaches to student success. Institutions might extend their reputation and impact through new research or outreach.

Digital transformation may be the best investment an institution can make to free up time and talent for what matters most. The true value of digital transformation may be the simplification that results. After all, both time and talent are too precious to waste.


  1. Richard Forrest, vice president for global product strategy, Ellucian, discussion with the author, May 14, 2019.
  2. Susan Grajek and Betsy Reinitz, "Getting Ready for Digital Transformation: Change Your Culture, Workforce, and Technology," EDUCAUSE Review, July 8, 2019.
  3. Dan Greenstein, chancellor, PASSHE, personal communication (discussion) with the author, December 12, 2018.
  4. Joseph Tolisano, chief information officer, CSCU, personal communication (email) with the author, August 21, 2019.
  5. Lee Gardner, "How A.I. Is Infiltrating Every Corner of the Campus," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2018.
  6. "University Reduces Three-Week Process to Seconds,", April 30, 2012.
  7. Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, "Freshman Year Financial Aid Nudges: An Experiment to Increase FAFSA Renewal and College Persistence," Journal of Human Resources 51, no. 2 (Spring 2016).
  8. Ashweeta Patnaik and Greg Cumpton, "Evaluation of Austin Community College's Strengthening Institutions Program Grant," Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources, University of Texas at Austin, August 2018. Note, however, that messaging that is too general or is not from a trusted source may not have the same result, as suggested by a 2019 study that used nudges to reach 800,000 students: Greta Anderson, "Nudging Doesn't Scale Nationally," Inside Higher Ed, August 20, 1019.
  9. "Reduction of Summer Melt," Georgia State University (website), accessed September 13, 2019.
  10. Dawn Medley, "Using AI to Help Students Learn 'How to College,'" EDUCAUSE Review 54, no. 2 (Spring 2019).

Diana G. Oblinger, President Emeritus of EDUCAUSE, currently serves on the Board of Directors of Ellucian.

© 2019 Diana G. Oblinger. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.