Five Questions to Consider When Creating Your Digital Transformation Strategy

By Amy Hilbelink February 19, 2024 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Chris Moloney and I, as members of AGB’s Consulting team, traveled to Chicago in early October to attend this past year’s EDUCAUSE Annual Conference held from October 9 to October 12. EDUCAUSE is the association for higher education IT leaders, including chief technology officers (CTOs) and chief information officers (CIOs), as well as other important subcabinet IT leaders like chief information security officers (CISOs). The annual conference’s stated mission is to “connect the best thinkers in higher education technology.”

We had two goals for the conference. We wanted first to determine how IT and senior academic leaders perceived the level of engagement of governing boards in a digital transformation (Dx) strategy at their colleges and universities, and second, we wanted to see how AGB could assist in bringing more digital transformation knowledge and strategy to higher education institutions.

The scale of the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference can be a bit overwhelming—it seemed that everyone from the education technology world was there. The conference itself had nine overarching education and program tracks including cybersecurity, emerging technologies, and teaching and learning, among others. Each track offered presentations, posters, breakout sessions, on-demand experiences, and small group discussions, called “braindates.”

More than 7,000 attendees registered, along with approximately 300 vendors. The vendors ranged from a variety of small, boutique offerings to expansive Ed Tech solution providers, such as Intel, Amazon Web Services, Accenture, AT&T, Salesforce, and CDW. As anticipated, many vendors offered data management systems and AI solutions for both big and small institutions.

The exhibit hall was vast and comprehensive. One of the coolest features was the Emerging Tech Zone, where vendors took the stage “to present their technology solutions and how they benefit higher education, and what differentiates them from the existing market.”

Why AGB Was There

We were excited to present a poster session on Dx and the role of the governing board, “Helping Leadership Prepare for the Next Wave of Digital Transformation.” Our goal was to speak with leaders from various institutions to identify how AGB could better serve them in strategizing for the digital transformation (Dx) of their college or university.

The EDUCAUSE braindates turned out to be especially fun and informative. These are small group sessions that anyone can book throughout the conference. Someone posts a topic, and up to five individuals can sign up to attend the conversation. We created two braindates using the meeting app, and we had great attendance at both.

Rather than a one-sided presentation, the small groups facilitated outstanding discussions around our topic and questions. Individuals from a variety of types of institutions, as well as from various countries, attended—yet despite those differences, all seemed to share similar goals and concerns about their institution’s strategy (or lack thereof) for how to move Dx forward. Each person with whom we spoke wanted to create excellent student experiences, with solid support for both students and faculty members, and to incorporate effective educational technology to accomplish that.

We wondered if institutions felt prepared for Dx, and whether or not institutional governing boards acknowledged Dx in any way. Were institutions proactively pursuing a Dx strategy, or were most simply waiting to determine how to react to other institutions’ Dx advances? Were CTOs and CIOs intentionally engaging with governing board members, and did board members realize they needed to better understand Dx? Indeed, did boards even know what Dx means?

Specifically, our five questions were:

  1. Does your institution have a Dx strategy that is based on a vision and data?
  2. What is your institutional leadership’s level of digital literacy?
  3. Does your leadership understand the needs and expectations of modern students?
  4. What are your institution’s distinct challenges in visioning and implementing a Dx strategy?
  5. How can you, as a board member, CIO, or faculty member, be involved in strengthening the digital knowledge and capacity at your institution?

What We Learned

Chris and I had good conversations with a number of attendees. The majority of those we spoke with served as IT representatives at their institution; others were cabinet-level CIOs or CTOs. Some had oversight over small campuses of a few hundred students, and others were responsible for multiple campuses with thousands of students.

Both groups offered beneficial insight into some of the issues they are up against. What they all had in common was an interest in learning how they can better help their governing boards understand the technology requirements of their specific institutions and the changing IT and educational technology needs and expectations of their students.

Many said, however, that their institutions often don’t recognize or provide the resources that the IT department must have to meet those needs and expectations. Some were told that the institutions had aggressive growth plans but were not planning to boost funding for IT. Some were told that their operations would, in fact, receive more funds, but they weren’t included in any ongoing discussions about priorities. That led them to wonder, “How do they know what we need, if we aren’t even being asked?” Others felt that no effort was made to engage them and other IT and Ed Tech experts in the conversation with boards when it came time for budget approvals.

Many also sensed that their boards did not necessarily have members who fully understood the impact of Dx or the changing student population at their particular institutions. We found that many attendees we spoke with aren’t sure if their governing boards are working with their institution’s leadership on Dx strategy. They continued to tell us that their boards, at times, seemed out of touch with how much and how rapidly higher education and their institution’s technology requirements are changing. Many also stressed that their institution does not seem to have a strategy for incorporating or testing various technologies that leadership wants to use. Nor do they have an internal group or advisory council where such issues are regularly discussed. Some CIOs and CTOs said they have spoken to their boards about special technologies, but they have not been part of ongoing board-level discussions.

Our Next Steps

From our attendance at the conference, and our many conversations with participants and vendors, we are seeing a disconnect between the digital needs of higher education institutions and the approaches and solutions vendors are offering. Many vendors are approaching the interaction from a business perspective rather than from a partnership perspective. Vendors are marketing solutions to problems that their products can solve rather than digging in to better understand the specific needs of different college and universities. Many seem to offer solutions across various markets, such as finance and healthcare, and not just HE, which means that they are not focused on higher education, and thus cannot adequately address the many issues institutions are currently facing.

We will continue our learning sessions with webinars, panel discussions, and conference presentations to better understand the needs of individual colleges and universities, as well as to determine how AGB can best provide its expertise on digital transformation strategy for all types of higher education institutions.