Integrative Leadership: A Necessary Ingredient for Dx

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Without integrative leadership, digital transformation is unlikely to occur in higher education.

light bulb composed of jigsaw color block on the blackboard
Credit: Sensay / © 2020

Higher education in the United States is all in a heap, navigating a severe crisis, perhaps the most severe in its history. Two obvious reasons for this are the pandemic and the racial tensions, but even these are not the full story. Prior to the emergence of these developments, higher education was already beset with other major challenges, such as declining enrollments, declining funding, and declining affordability. The pandemic has accelerated these crises, meaning that higher education leaders must move with extraordinary rapidity. To call the situation challenging is to powerfully understate it. If there was ever a time to address digital transformation at the institutional level, this is it. And if there was ever a time to consider the necessary leadership for digital transformation, this is it.

For some, the phrase digital transformation, like the term disruptive innovation before it, is on the verge of becoming "tired" due to overwork and misuse. Nevertheless, given the scope of the challenges, as well as the responses they require, this is very likely the best term we have to characterize what is needed in the present situation.

So, what is digital transformation (Dx)? EDUCAUSE has been engaging with the community on the concept of Dx for the past two years. On the basis of that exchange, we've arrived at a working definition: 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."1 This definition is important as it helps to distinguish Dx from other kinds of change.

There are, then, two sides of the Dx "coin": (1) the deep and coordinated changes that are undertaken to enable (2) significant institutional transformation. To have such a coin, both are necessary. Changes that are local—that is, limited to an individual campus organization—are important but, by themselves, fall short of being Dx in its truest sense. Such local shifts may provide stepping stones to Dx, or they may be a kind of triggering event that initiates Dx. But to have a coin, you need both sides.

Dx is challenging, and because of this, taking shortcuts may be a tempting option. Examples are digitization and digitalization. Digitization is the process of shifting analog or physical content to digital form, and digitalization is the use of digital technologies and information to move the institution's processes from analog to digital channels.2 These two "Ds" most often produce new efficiencies pertaining to what an institution is already doing. They are important and may lay the groundwork for and help to enable Dx, but neither constitutes Dx.

Another area of concern is marketing hype. The term digital transformation can pose a danger of sorts, especially since the term is increasingly co-opted in marketing discourse to indicate outcomes that are really digitization and digitalization. In the end, the better term might be institutional digital transformation, since transformation at the institutional level is the true target of Dx. One needs to be on guard against snake-oil statements such as "Just do/buy this, and Dx will result." The most perfect procurement process cannot produce Dx, and an institution cannot buy a product that will make the need for Dx go away.

There is no question that a digital infrastructure that is fast, reliable, secure, data-rich, and "in the cloud" is important and valuable. But even such an infrastructure is, by itself, not a sufficient condition for Dx. The question is, What is to be done with the resources that are at hand? What is the connection between the marshaling of such resources and the institutional change required by the institution?

Perhaps the key characteristic of Dx is integration. No single unit, not even the president's office, can accomplish Dx by itself. That is why the Dx definition calls for "deep and coordinated shifts." Coordination implies integration. Integration begins with and is propelled by leadership, especially leadership that sets aside turf battles and instead forms collaborative, cross-institutional partnerships to achieve Dx goals. In short, Dx requires integrative leadership.3

Over the past twenty-five years, a good amount of literature has developed around the idea of integrative leadership. Barbara Crosby and John Bryson define such leadership as "bringing diverse groups and organizations together in semi-permanent ways—and typically across sector boundaries—to remedy complex public problems and achieve the common good."4 This concept moves the focus away from the individual and especially away from the notion of the "savior leader," the strong individual who courageously saves the day when everything is against her/him or who singlehandedly turns her/his unit into a high-performing operation. Awaiting such a savior is probably much like waiting for Godot.

Integrative leadership emphasizes cross-organizational reach, a collaborative approach, and even the distribution of leadership across units and teams. In the place of local optimization, integrative leadership builds connections and bridges to achieve institutional impacts. Crosby and Bryson offer two dozen propositions describing this kind of leadership, whose key characteristic is enabling cross-sector collaborations. For example, in proposition 1 they write that "cross-sector collaborations are more likely to form in turbulent environments," and in proposition 8 they note that such collaborations "are more likely to succeed if leaders use resources and tactics to help equalize power, to avoid imposed solutions, and to manage conflict effectively."5

Without such leadership, Dx is unlikely to occur, at least not in any substantial way. Integrative leadership is of such high importance that it should be considered a necessary ingredient in the Dx "recipe." Overcoming the inertia of institutional culture is perhaps the hardest of the three "deep and coordinated shifts" needed for digital transformation. Explicit emphasis on Dx by senior leadership is crucial, but so too is the promotion of new models of leadership, ones that seek integration on many levels.6 Digital transformation can help higher education face increasingly severe challenges, but not without integrative leadership.

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. Malcolm Brown, Betsy Reinitz, and Karen Wetzel, "Digital Transformation Signals: Is Your Institution on the Journey?" Enterprise Connections (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, May 12, 2020.
  2. Betsy Reinitz, "Consider the Three Ds When Talking About Digital Transformation," Enterprise Connections (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, June 1, 2020.
  3. Issue #4, Digital Integrations, and Issue #10, The Integrative CIO, in the EDUCAUSE 2020 Top 10 IT Issues list explicitly underscore the importance of integration. See Susan Grajek and the 2019–2020 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2020: The Drive to Digital Transformation Begins," EDUCAUSE Review Special Report, January 27, 2020.
  4. Barbara C. Crosby and John M. Bryson, "Integrative Leadership and the Creation and Maintenance of Cross-Sector Collaborations," Leadership Quarterly 21, no. 2 (April 2010).
  5. Ibid.
  6. See Jim Fisher, The Thoughtful Leader: A Model of Integrative Leadership (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

Malcolm Brown is an EDUCAUSE Alumni.

© 2020 Malcolm Brown. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.