Create a vision, empower people: six ways leaders can inspire digital transformation in higher education

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Leadership is key to digital transformation in higher education, but leaders must take the right steps toward transformation to ensure success. Beyond investing in the right technology for the school, they must adapt and nurture the proper skills, create an inspiring vision, build a caring culture, and more.

There are many things universities need to consider if they want to undergo a successful digital transformation. But leadership is “the single most important factor contributing to a transformation’s outcome,” research by professional services firm EY found. A good leader can make all the difference, the research shows.

A cross-industry study by EY and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, carried out in 2022, found that organizations that put humans at the center of their transformation efforts were two to three times more likely to succeed than those that didn’t. Beyond investing in the right technology, considering people’s emotional needs is essential to success, according to researchers who surveyed 935 senior leaders and direct reports, as well as 1,127 workforce members across 23 countries. And as a 2023 report from EY – which looks into digital transformation in higher education – shows, the value of human-centric transformation is as applicable here as it is in blue-chip corporations.

“The underlying challenges in higher education may be different to the corporate world, but staff and leader anxieties and emotions remain the same, regardless of the type of organization,” says Juliet Andrews, people consulting partner at EY Oceania. “Leaders across the board need to embrace this and put people at the center of their transformation efforts.”

EY interviewed 28 university leaders and held focus groups with hundreds of faculty and professional staff around the world, which revealed that most staff and leaders believe leadership is critical to the success of a digital transformation.

“You have to have someone senior who is clued up and collaborative but has the knowledge and ability to bring it all together, own it and make decisions,” a focus group respondent in the UK said.

But how can leaders ensure they are taking the correct steps needed to ensure they are giving their institutions the best chance of transforming successfully? Here are six human-centered strategies to help leaders digitally transform higher education.

Adapting and nurturing the necessary leadership skills
“Success as a leader means creating other leaders,” says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. In the context of university digital transformation, this ethos is crucial; silos are entrenched, and institutional change can be derailed if even one faculty or departmental head is unprepared. Institutional leaders can become role models by transforming themselves at a personal level, exemplifying human qualities like the humility to inhabit a place of not knowing, the courage to challenge the status quo, the curiosity to understand different perspectives, and the care to make space for colleagues’ anxieties.

It might seem obvious, but acquiring digital fluency is imperative to leading a digital transformation. Leaders needn’t become digital experts, but being able to understand and articulate what technology can do for their institutions will allow them to inspire others. Equally important is selecting the right team. Leaders must consider who has the right skills and attitude to make transformation possible, as well as who will galvanize others during what will inevitably be a challenging process. As Jason Cowie, chief information officer at Curtin University says: “You need a team who is not only capable, but also who has the right innovation mindset.”

Creating an inspiring vision
Leaders need to create a clear vision for a digital transformation. The vision should be bold, ambitious and future oriented, as well as believable, compelling, engaging and pragmatic. It needs to speak to staff priorities and clearly explain the benefits that change will bring. Leaders must also create a detailed, credible roadmap.

Leaders then need to communicate their vision clearly and effectively. Respondents to EY’s 2023 research complained of strategies that were too vague or abstract. They also didn’t like it when leaders attempted to scare them into accepting change, or when descriptions were overly technical or brief.

“I wish it [the digital strategy] was communicated,” one focus group member in India said. “It is only communicated to a few people who work in the university, but not to all the teachers.”

Building a caring culture that embraces everyone
Digital transformation can be emotionally taxing on those involved and is a continuous, constantly evolving process. Successful leaders don’t neglect the emotional health of their workforce, EY’s research emphasized.

In EY and Oxford’s Saïd’s 2022 study, respondents in high-performing transformations were almost twice as likely to say their organization provided the emotional support they needed during the transformation process. The follow-up 2023 higher education EY research found that change fatigue and burnout are very real consequences.

In general, respondents wanted to be consulted about changes, but not so much so that it significantly slowed the process down. “It’s a balancing act,” a focus group member in Canada said. “You can consult to death and end up discussing things for years, but you also need to make sure that voices are heard, that students are involved.”

Good leaders, EY’s latest report argues, should acknowledge things that may be difficult, check in with and listen to team members, ask people to speak up about how they feel and admit when they don’t have all the answers.

Empowering people to prepare for change
In successful digital transformations, leaders kept a clear vision in mind while simultaneously creating space and freedom for people to explore, experiment and let new ideas emerge, EY found.

Different departments, such as medicine, the humanities and education, can operate very differently. So a good leader will give individuals and teams autonomy and empower them to come up with creative solutions, while keeping those solutions aligned with the broader vision.

Empowering people during digital transformation can also mean incentivizing and rewarding innovation by offering funding, competitions, prizes, public recognition, professional development opportunities or new career paths. During the course of EY’s research, one UK and Ireland higher education staff focus group argued that “you need to give people the license to innovate. Internal staff mobility needs to be part of this – there are super talented people who need to be empowered.”

Build and drive visible action
Leaders who want to oversee a successful digital transformation must invest in the right technology and support people to be able to use it.

People experiencing a high-performing transformation said that their organization had both digital skills and a digital mindset.

The higher education study found respondents voiced frustration at leaders who took a “scattergun” approach to technology, or just wanted to invest in the latest “shiny toy.” Instead, money should be spent on technology that creates growth. “You have to be focused on innovation, because that’s where the funding is coming from,” Cowie says.

University staff also told EY that they wanted leaders to invest more in upskilling staff and teaching them how to use new technologies. Staff need to be supported to develop a more digital mindset. This involves purposely embracing technology and getting it into people’s hands quickly so they can see the benefits and provide feedback, as well as giving people the time and space to learn to use new technology and systems.

Collaborate, connect and co-create
Introducing new, cross-departmental ways of working can be a big cultural change for many universities. EY found that in high-performing transformations, 48% of respondents said collaboration across different departments was embedded into the roadmap.

Some leaders were praised for proactively nurturing cross-department teams. “There’s a sense that we walk hand-in-hand with staff and faculty – we learn together, we teach each other,” a staff member from a focus group said. “I have enjoyed the collaboration and co-creation more than before.”

To build an environment of collaboration, universities need to develop a centralized way to oversee all the experiments and transformations that are underway and make sure the learning from each is being shared across groups. Some ways to do this could include creating cross-departmental working groups, appointing digital champions or creating a digital steering committee, EY found.

It’s important to choose the right digital investments but, ultimately, people are key to digital transformation success. Leaders need to constantly support the people at the center of digital transformation.


This article was written by Abby Young-Powell from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the DiveMarketplace by Industry Dive. Please direct all licensing questions to

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Abby Young-Powell