Moving Beyond Culture: A Socio-Technical Approach to Understanding Student Success Technology Adoption

min read

Understanding the social and technical aspects of integrating a new student success technology is the difference between implementation and adoption of student success tools in higher education, and yet projects often neglect these critical activities that can bring about true adoption.

human profile being formed by bits of a circuit board
Credit: Vladimir Sazonov / © 2019

Does one of these scenarios sound familiar? Faculty and staff at your college or university are excited about the introduction of the latest set of student success tools, confident that the tools will be the key to revolutionizing processes and addressing problems and concerns about things like outreach and support, communication, and student risk. But after the launch of your student success technology and after the fanfare dies down, you find that the promised outcomes haven't been realized. Conversely, you may have experienced a dearth of excitement around a new tool, and you are left with the work of extracting value from the implementation.

If either of these scenarios has happened to you, you're not alone. In fact, too many student success leaders face these frustrations. New student success technology is not only expensive (in terms of both time and money spent) the implementation process may also be disruptive to students and faculty alike.

Instead of wondering what you missed, what you forgot, or why the implementation was unsuccessful, let's talk about the underpinnings of why your college's or university's culture just spit out your plan. If you are back at the drawing board, let's cut to the chase before you leave empty-handed. It's not enough to say culture is the reason why implementation of the tools didn't work. Understanding the social and technical aspects of integrating a new student success technology is the difference between implementation and adoption of student success tools in higher education. While it sounds like a no-brainer, it is surprising how often projects neglect the activities required to bring about full adoption.

The adoption problem is multifaceted. A socio-technical approach to change considers an organization in the context of multiple factors that interact when planning change. A socio-technical approach recognizes two core areas: social (structure and people) and technical (technology and task). This broad approach helps in understanding the relationships between people, tasks, structures, and technology. When change takes place in one area, all areas must be evaluated to understand the impact on each of the components.

Bingo! All areas and components are related, which means that there should be a plan in place to achieve the goals of your student success technology implementation. Let's discuss how each of the core themes work together to maximize your investment and time.

Social (Structure and People)

The social aspect is the heart of your technology implementation. The socio-technical framework gives a methodology for analyzing relationships between people and technologies in workplaces. Without people, there is no implementation. The following social issues related to people and organizations (relationships, rules, etc.) should be considered:

  • How are people introduced to the technology that you are about to implement?
  • Were they included in the decision?
  • Do they see themselves in the solution, or are they a checkbox on your implementation road map?
  • What type of training is required?

Don't forget that training people to use the new technology sends a message regarding expectations. With technology, we can become better, faster, and smarter, but these benefits can come with a cost if we don't recognize the people who are needed to support the technology and the skills required to execute new tasks. Understanding the impact that the student success technology implementation will have on IT professionals, institutional researchers, administrators, instructors, academic advisors, and student services staff is primary.

Of course, the human resources (HR) department should be involved as well. You might ask yourself why in the world you would bring HR into the picture. Here's why: You will be asking key stakeholders to adopt new processes that come with myriad tasks and new expectations to support new student success efforts. HR can help you to communicate and align job functions and skills and can provide training and support. Knowing what skills are required (e.g., programming, providing data support, and advising students) will help you understand who needs to be involved and how the changes to support student success practices will impact people as you navigate your institutional structure to produce positive change.

Technical (Technology and Task)

Here's the golden rule of technology adoption: "Process first. Technology second." The two go hand in hand, but it's best to lead with the process and the "why." The why of your implementation is not to introduce a technology for the sake of doing so. The why is your focus on student success and the adoption of new practices to support your institution's goals.

Now, let's talk tasks. What outcomes are you trying to achieve, and how do you plan to get there? How you plan to get there directly impacts the tasks that people execute each day. For example, let's say you just purchased a new early-alert system. What tasks come along with it? Instructors will need to raise flags, and most likely, student services professionals will be asked to adopt new outreach strategies and new ways of recording outcomes using technology. Do any members of your campus already perform these tasks? If they do, great, but if they don't, it's going to take some time to break down a new plan, identify core tasks, and describe the roles people will play when integrating technology into existing day-to-day work.


Technology changes the social and technical aspects of your organization. Introducing technology asks new stakeholders to come to the table, programmers to learn a different set-up, academic advisors to learn unfamiliar practices and technology, instructors to raise or clear an early-alert flag, and student services staff to monitor a student's academic progress in unique and uncharted ways. While technology introduces opportunities to support student success like never before, higher education student success leaders must first move beyond their organizations' cultures to understand how to achieve the ideal outcome to meet their institutions' student success goals.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative page.

Tina Balser is the Director of Student Success Initiatives at the University of Missouri.

© 2019 Tina Balser. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.