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How COVID-19 is Pushing Digital Transformation into Hyperspeed

May 4, 2020

From ‘Cancel everything’ to ‘We’ll get through this,’ we’ve weathered many storms in the last few weeks. As we know, when the storm of this virus settles, many things won’t return to the way they were.

For starters, we’ll never forget the importance of clean hands and six feet of distance. We’ll also remember the radical shift to remote work. Perhaps students will find they prefer virtual classes, and a handful of faculty may realize they don’t mind teaching them that way. Organizations, including higher ed, will realize how much staff can do from home. And all the work put into this digital transformation overhaul won’t go to waste.

Digital Transformation (DX) in the higher ed industry was on the rise well before the novel coronavirus came into focus. EDUCAUSE defined it in 2018. It was discussed at length at SXSW EDU and ACE in 2019. It is a well-covered theme on industry news sites. Many of us expected digital transformation would continue building popularity as a theme for higher ed throughout the next few years. We didn’t predict it would steal the show in less than a month.

Because of the virus, DX is in the spotlight. Suddenly, overnight, institutions can no longer use their traditional processes to get things done. In many cases (dare I say the majority?), those processes include paper. So what happens, then, when Rachel can’t cart a paper across campus to get an approval for *insert really important student-, donor-, or research grant-related issue*?

Well, there’s still email. Rachel could always send a PDF. 

All IT leaders know that PDFs are not the answer. Due to the loss of paper processes, every institution has an immediate need for cloud-based processes. Faculty and staff need to have access to software systems from anywhere, including their homes. They need to have secure tools that protect confidential information. 

Let’s be clear. In a normal situation, institutions would never shift everything online as quickly as they did for COVID-19. Responding to a rapidly changing environment is different than a thoughtful, methodical transformation of culture, workforce, and technology. But whether we like it or not, we’ve been catapulted right into the thick of digital transformation.

And experts suggest institutions won’t take backward steps at the end of this thing. “Once colleges develop the ability to serve their students via technology, there’s little reason for them to abandon it,” wrote Goldie Blumenstyk in her weekly column The Edge.

That’s not to say that everything will remain online, but institutions might be more open to online, in-person hybrid courses or flexible work from home policies for staff. 

From an IT standpoint, faculty and staff may be more open to new software in the future. At a minimum, college administrators will come out of this pandemic having learned how to use at least one new tool. Even the traditionally tech-wary department members will have learned how to use Zoom to watch a peer solve a software problem. 

At the institution level, leaders will recognize how digital processes enable agility, a core trait of a resilient college. Agility through digital processes enhances communication, data collection and syndication, and informed decision-making. It gives institutions “the ability to react swiftly to provide students, staff, and faculty with the resources they need” in times of crisis or peace. 

In this time of ambiguity, we can at least be confident that DX is here to stay. Take the opportunity to push changes with your executive leadership. Change the policies you know need to adapt to support digital transformation. If you want to hear how three IT leaders have begun to transform their organizations, listen to our recent webinar about Automating Processes through COVID-19


Higher Ed's Guide to Digital Transformation eBook
Explain Digital Transformation in 30 seconds or less
Three leaders on automating Higher Ed processes

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