The Value of Digital Transformation

By Patty Patria, VP for Information Technology and CIO, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Within higher education and corporate America, Digital Transformation has become the new buzzword for the last few years. In its simplest form, Digital Transformation is the use of technology to transform services or businesses, by replacing manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer, more agile systems. For some organizations, it might mean reviewing all paper-based processes and moving digital; for others, it means large scale transformations to nimbler, cloud-based ERP, or Student Information Systems. Digital transformation is not easy; it requires different technical skills, change management skills, and intestinal fortitude at the leadership level to really effect change.

Although Digital transformation is difficult, organizations that successfully engage in digital transformation see much better results for their students and employees. Although many universities were investigating or starting digital transformation initiatives prior to COVID, remote interaction during the pandemic made digital transformation imperative. Now that we are navigating the post-COVID world, employees and students expect flexible digital services that can accommodate them anywhere, anytime.  

Having overseen a significant Digital Transformation initiative, which involved moving from an outdated Student Information System to a new cloud-based ERP, I can attest that its value to both students and an institution is significant. Prior to this digital transformation, which was a multi-year initiative, there were many paper-based manual processes for human resources, finance, and student facing functions. Financial transitions, like purchase orders or expense reports, often required multiple levels of physical signatures, were sent via inter-office mail, and if any of the required individuals involved in the process were not in the office, the process could not complete. It could often take weeks or months to process information from start to finish, making the process both inefficient and time-consuming. Some student processes also required students to get physical signatures from faculty on processes, then walk those forms over to the Registrar’s Office, which was both time-consuming and inefficient.

As the first step in any digital transformation, it is critical to review and document all existing business processes and convert all of those processes to digital processes. Although this is never easy, and requires significant amounts of change management and communication when COVID hit, and all students and employees moved 100% remote, institutions that had migrated to the digitized process were able to perform all functions remotely without missing a beat. From a finance perspective, this can include processing expense reports, invoices, purchase orders, and closing the year end remotely. From a human resources perspective, this could include entering time and running payroll fully remotely. For institutions that had not started Digital Transformations before COVID, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage operations fully remotely.

For higher education, the next major milestone in digital transformation is the ability to deliver educational content in a flexible format. During COVID, many institutions moved all courses to HyFlex; this gave students the ability to attend classes in-person, online, or in a hybrid manner. These courses are generally more time-consuming to set up and require additional technology for effective collaboration, but they also provide students more choice and can help grow online enrollments. Because of the extra workload, many universities want to move back to traditional in-person or fully-online courses. However, a handful of universities are already making this HyFlex format successful, and because they are offering students choices and options, they see increased revenue.

Although digital transformations are never easy, and generally require new skills as well as change management expertise, to thrive in this new post-COVID world, it will become increasingly more important to not only streamline and digitize all processes and improve the end-user experience but to give students choices allowing for better customer satisfaction and growth.