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Addressing the Digital Leadership Gap in Higher Education

Digital Leadership in Higher Education

Ask anyone who works in the not-for-profit higher education sector about where his or her institution is on the digital experience curve, and you’ll likely hear a very similar tune: lagging behind other industries and struggling to adopt effective organization-wide digital practices. An underlying factor is that many institutions are stuck in a hamster wheel of content publishing. In the research for our 2016 study on Digital Transformation in Higher Education, web team members and managers commonly reported that they are unable to spend time or resources thinking and acting on future strategies that could bring them to the forefront of digital engagement with education customers.

Those institutions that are attempting to use digital practices to engage education customers are laying on, rather than building in. Digital solutions are often seen as an afterthought – a practice separate from the rest of the institution – rather than something that is woven into the university’s DNA. It makes sense; most educational institutions have been in existence for decades, some for centuries – well before it was the norm to engage with 4 different devices from various locations to research new schools, or to find the quickest route across campus.

Like many other industries, there is no “one size fits all” solution, but there are unique mitigating factors that explain why integrating experience management practices has been seemingly more difficult in higher ed than in many other industries. For one thing, higher education environments tend to be highly decentralized, set up in a way to encourage creative thinking and autonomy within the different disciplines, departments, and affiliate schools. The various departments are often in competition with one another, vying for funding and school prestige based on the number of students enrolled in their programs. As heard through interviews with higher education leaders and practitioners, the various departments and schools within higher education institutions tend to be distrusting of any top-down approach – to digital solutions or otherwise.

Another key factor that separates higher education from other sectors is its leadership structure. Universities have some centralized institution-wide decision-making, resource allocation, and governance (the degree of which varies according to each institution) that are expressed through a central leadership structure. These roles tend to focus on areas such as academic integrity, student affairs, finance and facilities, teaching and learning, and external relations and include titles such as “Office of the President”, “Vice Provost, Student Affairs”, and “Vice President, Research & Funding”. But by and large, alumni relations, communications and marketing, enrollment management, and other essential functions are performed at the level of individual schools – leaving digital practices to be run by each department, which is often in turn supported by a larger campus-wide IT group. Again, digital practices tend to sit on the outskirts, rather than building digital experience practices from the inside-out.

The Digital Leadership Gap

Often, there is no direct central leadership role for digital engagement and IT. Instead, the crucial role is frequently viewed as an operational unit, rather than that of a strategic partner. Rather than a centralized CIO role that holds similar authority and empowerment akin to a Vice President of Student Affairs, many universities have IT leaders and Chief Digital Officers who act as one subset of those more prominent leadership roles. Content management and digital practices are typically viewed as a layer within a department, and not as a strategic tool embedded within the principles of the institution.

Yet, as customers’ digital expectations rise, so does institutions’ need to step up the pace of transformation. The tipping point – the time at which a change or an effect cannot be stopped
– will occur when a higher education institution’s inability to meet the digital expectations of today’s education customers affects the quantity and quality of students enrolling in their programs – across all schools and departments.

So what’s the answer?

After speaking with dozens of people at both higher education institutions and the vendors and service providers who support those institutions, one thing is clear: organizational and leadership structure is unlikely to change in the near term. Therefore, it is imperative to take a specialized approach to creating digital engagement strategies within this unique environment. While University leadership may “want a great looking website” without understanding the immense technical details that surround those products (as one higher ed practitioner told us), institutions need to start looking beyond delivering basic content, and start looking to envision what digital engagement can bring to their institutions – from the inside out – and the implications on time and resources allocated to such efforts.

So if universities are mistrusting of top-down leadership, and university leadership doesn’t yet fully grasp the imperative nature of embedding digital into all aspects of engagement and outreach, then what’s the answer? Some institutions are introducing small pockets of change: educating leadership on very practical and imminent digital needs; forming working groups across departments and schools to bring together new ideas and align goals; and educating faculty and staff not directly involved in digital initiatives around the possibilities that come with embarking on a more collective effort. Any and all of these are good places to start, but the key is actually starting. Action – any action – is essential.

For more information, you can download Digital Clarity Group’s report (free with registration) – Digital Transformation in Higher Education: How Content Management Technologies and Practices Are Evolving in the Era of Experience Management.


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