Important considerations for schools tackling digital woes

This is the third post in a three-part series on digital transformation in post-secondary education. In our first post, we examined the poor state of digital transformation at post-secondary educational institutions and the biggest factors driving the need for digital transformation, which include: skyrocketing tuition, increased competition for students, and student expectations. In our second post, we covered the top seven barriers to digital transformation at higher learning institutions.

Today, for our finale, we’re going to talk about important considerations for post-secondary institutions looking to overcome their digital transformation challenges.

Things to think about when making your transformation plan

Don’t do digital just for the sake of digital. Instead, link all digital activity to the school’s vision and strategy:

Just because something is digital, doesn’t necessarily mean it can solve your particular problem. While it’s true that post-secondary schools have lagged behind the trend towards digital, it’s important to look before you leap. So, don’t lose sight of the reasons behind your digital implementations. Taking the time to consider what makes the most sense with your organization’s vision and long-term strategy will help to avoid wasted investments and user frustration.

Related: if your school’s vision and strategy doesn’t fully reflect digital, update it:

Say you take the time to consider your options for digital solutions and you weigh them for strategic fit. It’s entirely possible the answer to: “Does this implementation fit our vision and strategy?” could be “Our vision and/or strategy doesn’t address this.”. Most post-secondary institutions are well behind the trend when it comes to keeping up with digital, and part of that delay stems from a failure to include digital in the long-term vision for the future of the institution.

However, it’s not enough to discover that the gap exists. Once identified, time needs to be taken to update your vision and/or strategy accordingly. To be effective, digital transformation requires organizational change, and that change must be built on a solid strategic foundation to be successful.

Create a student journey map:

This process is the same as creating a customer journey map. Identify each touch point and transaction type, then for each interaction ask: “Could this process be more engaging? Could it be less frustrating?” This will help you identify points of friction that need addressing.

Post-secondary schools are large organizations with a lot of data, a lot of students, and a lot of turnover. This means the process of making and evaluating a comprehensive journey map will be a big job. Working through the identified points of friction to make the overall experience easier and more satisfying is not something that can happen overnight. But it is critical to ensuring that the experience you want to deliver to your students is the experience you are actually delivering.

Ask what your students need and not what the existing administrative structures are:

When looking at digital solutions, it can be easy to get trapped at evaluating potential solutions through a lens of what will be most compatible with current systems and administrative structures. But in a hyper-competitive educational landscape, where students are increasingly demanding that schools prove their value, new digital implementations must be planned, keeping in mind, first and foremost, the needs of students.

Related: If this process highlights conflicts between student needs and administrative processes, fix them so that student needs are being met. 

When considering alternatives, you may find yourself looking at a solution that seems like a poor fit – a proverbial square peg destined for a round hole. But this is why considering student needs and student experience first is important. Post-secondary institutions can be resistant to change, and often students find themselves forced to interact in ways that are inconvenient and counterintuitive, simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

So, shake yourself out of old mindsets and evaluate solutions with a fresh eye. If a solution looks like a poor fit, step back and ask if it just looks that way because it would require adapting the organization to fully integrate it. By the same token, if a solution looks like a good fit, take the time to consider if it solves an actual problem, or if it only looks like a good fit because it fits into existing administrative structures that are currently failing to meet student needs.

Also related: Consult front-line staff, adjunct faculty and students:

It should go without saying that the only way to understand the needs of your intended users is to ask them. And yet, many is the organization that has attempted to embark on a journey of digital transformation without taking the time to speak with the people who have the clearest picture of what the day-to-day realities of student/school interactions look like. So, take the time to gather feedback from all parts of your organization, and ask them specifically what requirements they need to have met.

Don’t forget to train your staff: 

It’s not enough to implement digital solutions and expect people to know how to use them. When you change processes, even in a way that reduces friction, staff need adequate training to adapt to the change. Implementing new systems without providing training, support or documentation will frustrate users and reduce  efficiencies, as students, staff and faculty struggle to adapt to doing things differently.

Obtain buy-in from key stakeholders:

Digital transformation is meaningless without buy-in from institution leadership, and a willingness to commit resources to the work of organizational change. After years of inaction, catching up is going to require a serious investment of time and money – so be sure the appropriate decision-makers are on-board with your transformation initiative, so that you don’t waste time creating a strategy and plan, only to have decision-makers balk at the price tag.

Plan for how you will manage the transition from legacy systems to newer systems:

Most post-secondary schools run year-round, meaning that any transition will need to happen in real time. Given the size and complexity of most post-secondary organizations, this will represent a considerable undertaking. Make the transition part of your plan from the beginning so that it doesn’t come as a nasty shock when it comes time for final implementation.

Related: Plan for protecting student data:

While there are unquestionable long-term benefits to digital implementations, it is an unfortunate reality that transitioning systems will increase the exposure of student data, putting that data at increased risk. Your transition plan needs to answer these questions: What is your plan for student data? How will you protect it as it migrates from one system to the next?

While the costs of investing in data security might seem high, the costs of large-scale data breaches are even higher. So be sure the security of student data is part of any implementation plan from the beginning.

In conclusion

Digital transformation is a complex topic, made more complex by the fact that the state of digital technology continues to evolve at an accelerating pace. Post-secondary institutions have largely failed to keep up with the pace of change, but in an increasingly competitive market, it is more important than ever to invest in creating an excellent digital student experience.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider