How Higher Ed Can Avoid the Pitfalls of the Digital Transformation Journey


Most institutions of higher education are focused first and foremost on their students, faculty and researchers. Behind the scenes, of course, they are busy improving business operations and overall institutional performance and metrics. Colleges and universities are at the mercy of the changing economy, changing demographics, changing funding models, changing student expectations and ever-increasing competition for students, faculty and researchers. On top of that, this year they’ve had to accommodate remote work and teaching. Institutions of all sizes and profiles are turning to technology to help them transform their services and operations.

A Good Customer Experience Requires Strong Administrative Systems

As institutions of higher education consider digital transformation, they often struggle with where and how to start. Do they start with customer-facing solutions to improve the student (or faculty or alumni) experience? Or do they start with back-office, administrative support systems like Finance and Accounting, Procurement, HR or Payroll?

For many institutions, the answer is to focus on their greatest strategic, competitive and financial needs – to promote better enrollment and retention by improving the student experience with technology solutions.

What’s interesting is that digital transformations can come with unintended consequences.

As digital natives, today’s students expect their experiences with their educational provider to be the same or similar to those they have with online retail and entertainment providers – with a high degree of automation, personalization and immediacy. If the institution’s business processes or systems cannot meet these expectations, students get increasingly frustrated and the institution soon discovers they are not achieving their goals or meeting their vision of improved service. Paper forms, non-digital processes, inconsistencies in the information being provided or the experience, non-integrated processes and delayed system updates are all examples of how slow back-end, administrative systems can undermine an otherwise good student experience.

Here are two real-life examples to demonstrate this:

  • A large university with a large percentage of first-generation, under-represented and part-time students did not want to give students the ability to appeal their financial aid award online. The school believed students would not provide the necessary information online and thought it could provide better service by meeting with the student in person to discuss their situation. This decision, however well-intended, created a roadblock for these students, at a point when they are probably already frustrated by their precarious financial condition. The students had to call the office to schedule an appointment, find an available time in between their work, school, and family schedules, and then follow up after that appointment with documentation that they may or may not actually have. The result was that very few students appealed, they could not afford to pay their bills, and the institution had a large number of administrative drops for unpaid accounts.
  • Another school had a network of systems managing different aspects of its business and the student lifecycle. These systems were not integrated or updated in real-time and created confusion and frustration for students. The school accepted tuition payments online, but the online payment system only updated the financial system nightly, and the financial system did not release the registration hold until a batch process ran the following morning, potentially 36 hours or more after a student made their payment. This did not make for a student-friendly process.

In their bestselling book,” George Westerman, Didier Bonnett, and Andrew McAfee (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014) discuss this very concern. They write, “strong operational capabilities are a prerequisite for exceptional digitally powered customer experience.” In numerous case studies they explore this and show how operational systems and processes must be modernized and aligned with the new customer experience. They state, “Whatever stands in the way of delivering a compelling customer experience, fix it.”

Digital Transformation Is Not About the Technology

Digital transformation is not simply about automating existing processes or implementing new technology. It’s about redesigning processes to leverage modern capabilities such as workflow, AI, machine learning, robotic process automation and recommendation engines to provide improved service and institutional agility. Most institutions have processes that have developed over time and that have been shaped by constraints in their legacy technology capabilities. Simply implementing new technology to support the same processes does little to help transform the institution. While the institution may achieve some superficial improvements from the new technology, it will not realize a true transformation if it does not redesign its processes to leverage those new innovations and introduce truly responsive and customer-centric processes.

Modern technology is constantly evolving. Software providers are pushing out new innovations and enhancements on an almost continuous basis. Institutions must adopt a similar mindset of continuous innovation and improvement to keep pace with technology and customer expectations. Institutions should dedicate resources to understand these new capabilities and help departments adopt them and continually upgrade and improve their service accordingly. A number of successful institutions have hired change management and technology experts from the corporate sector to facilitate adoption of this approach into their institutional culture.

Train Up, Not Just Down

Another consideration for institutions embarking on a digital transformation is training. Most institutions focus their training efforts on end users – helping them enter transactions, look up information, run queries, etc. But modern technology solutions like modern CRMs and ERPs bring far more than that. They are data-rich and increasingly automated, with tools such as management dashboards that track real-time KPIs and trend analysis, employ intelligent workflows, automate notifications, alerts and recommendations.

Indeed, the ability to access this new data and benefit from these new capabilities is often one of the primary drivers for adopting new systems. But, all too often, training programs exclude executives and managers, who are left without the knowledge or resources to incorporate new tools into their daily regimen and decision-making. They, too, need focused training to learn how to leverage these new tools and make objective, data-driven decisions to achieve the benefits of these new solutions.

At a recent workshop on data analytics provided by a large ERP vendor, an executive from the Chancellor’s Office of a college system with multiple member institutions and campuses remarked that while the vendor demonstrated beautiful dashboards and KPIs, her institution did not have a single campus president capable of using and interpreting the information. The institution needed to implement an extensive training for it, which they did not have the resources to do. In her mind, the investment in the new technology would be wasted as the tools would not be used effectively. This is why buy in and support from leadership is critical for an institution to transform and achieve success.

How Higher Ed Can Re-emerge from the Pandemic

In its recently released Top IT Issues for 2021, Educause presented three scenarios for how institutions might emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Restore. We will be focused on figuring out what to do to get back to where we were before the pandemic.
  2. Evolve. We will be focused on adapting to the new normal.
  3. Transform. We will be focused on redefining our institution and taking an active role in creating the innovative future of higher education.

Especially for the second and third scenarios – evolving and transforming – digital transformation is a critical component for success.

Where does your institution fit into these scenarios and where are you on the transformation journey? Regardless, it’s time to start. Your competitors are doing so, and with the increasing acceptance of remote learning, working from home and other digital activity, you may in fact have new competitors on the horizon. Your students need support, and they expect you to engage with them like any other organization or (dare I say) business with which they interact. And you deserve to have happy students that can focus on their studies and research.

ISG helps institutions of higher education use technology to help them transform their services and operations. Contact us to discuss how we can help you.


About the author

Gary Allen

Gary Allen

Gary Allen is a Director in the Higher Education and Academic Medical Centers Practice. He has over twenty-five (25) years of experience in Higher Education including Enrollment Services, implementing and developing ERP and Student Information Systems, Project Management, and Organizational Change Management. Gary specializes in enterprise-wide transformation projects that include strategic planning and implementation of leading practices often in parallel with the evaluation and implementation of Higher Education administrative systems. His strengths include his ability to understand complex higher education organizations, systems, and business processes that span the organization, engage with senior leadership and diverse constituent groups, communicate effectively, develop new initiatives and offerings, and quickly grasp new concepts.