7 minute read 5 Mar 2024

For higher education to transform successfully, leaders need new approaches to keep people engaged and supported during the journey.

Multi-ethnic business team during brainstorming

How universities can keep people at the center of digital transformation

Alison Cairns

EY Oceania Education Leader

Bringing a human-centric, Technology Transformation mindset to Education

Catherine Friday

EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences; EY Global Education Leader

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.

7 minute read 5 Mar 2024

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For higher education to transform successfully, leaders need new approaches to keep people engaged and supported during the journey.

In brief

  • Are you thinking about digital transformation as a whole-organisation leap forward — or simply a technology modernisation program?
  • How will you prepare leaders across the campus to pay attention to the emotional and psychological impact of the transformation?
  • What will you do to inspire and enable people to get behind you and continually work toward your transformation vision? 

If universities want to deliver more successful digital transformations, it’s clear that leaders need to change the way institutions approach these initiatives. The best way to do that is to put humans at the centre of their efforts.

Our previous report, Is your university’s transformation centred on tech or people?, found many people reporting pain points around current digital implementation tactics, which are not keeping up with the expectations of students or staff.

But there is cause for optimism. A 2022 cross-industry study by the EY organisation and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School identified a model for success: an approach that puts humans at the centre — aligned around six core practices — can significantly improve the chances of a transformation achieving its goal. Having one or two of these practices in play is not enough. But when all these elements are executed well, the likelihood of transformation success is 2.6 times higher.

We looked at the realities of delivering digital transformation in higher education (HE) in the context of these six success factors. Our report draws on the findings from the EY and University of Oxford Saïd Business School report and insights from an in-depth research study with staff and leadership in the HE sector. 

  • About the research

    In 2023, EY teams led a primary research project that set out to find practical ways for universities to put people at the center of their digital transformation efforts, by talking to the people at the heart of universities.

    Between April and June 2023, EY teams collaborated with Times Higher Education (THE) to conduct a series of online focus groups with 116 teaching faculty and 147 professional staff across eight geographies: Australia and New Zealand, Canada, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, the UK and Ireland, and the US.

    In addition, between February and April 2023, EY teams conducted in-depth interviews with leaders at 28 universities in these countries. We used the framework of six drivers of transformation success identified by the 2022 cross-industry study mentioned and asked the research participants about the importance of each, the extent to which their universities were implementing them (and how), as well as asking them more generally about the benefits and challenges they are experiencing as a result of digital transformation efforts.

    EY teams analysed and synthesised the discussion outputs, drawing out common themes and examples.

Power your university’s digital transformation

As universities seek to transform, our report looks at how leaders should engage their people to improve transformation success.

Download the report

Why are universities finding digital transformation so painful?

When it comes to driving change, the traditional collegiate model of universities can be a major sticking point. Many institutions have fragmented and siloed structures. Individual faculties can operate as small fiefdoms, resistant to strategies that require centralisation or even coordination of efforts across departmental divides. 

“Universities are very unused to change, unlike in a commercial organisation, where change happens annually or even quarterly and people just have a ‘muscle memory’ for change,” explains Dr. Gerard Culley, Director of IT Services, University College Cork, Ireland.  

Compounding this issue is the fact that university staff, who lived through huge upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to be suffering from change fatigue. As one Canadian focus group participant put it, “(Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic…) we’re now talking about new tools and some of our faculty are saying ‘let me just breathe.’ After years of chaos, we need time to turn the temperature down.”

Six ways to put humans at the centre of your digital transformation

To combat a university’s structural and cultural resistance to transformation, leaders need to constantly support the people at the centre of change. Based on our conversations with faculty and professional staff, here are some practical ideas for university leaders to strengthen the six success factors.

1.      Lead – adapt and nurture the necessary leadership skills

In traditional universities, institutional silos are entrenched and protectively guarded, meaning leaders hoping to achieve institution-wide transformation must lean in even more deliberately than in other sectors. Our recommendations to address this issue in HE includes that leaders must:

  • Get all heads of faculties and departments ready to lead the change. Digital transformation is a whole of university endeavour. Not all staff or leaders will support transformation at the outset. They must all be brought into the fold. Even one dissenting or apathetic head of faculty can derail the transformation.
  • Acquire digital fluency. Leaders don’t need to understand how the technology works, but they do need to know what it can and cannot do and be able to articulate its benefits. One focus group participant summed up a common complaint by saying, “Leadership seems to be jumping on the hype train with no real understanding of the tools.”
  • Select the right team. Leaders must be prepared to choose people based on their skills, ability to learn and their willingness to embrace change. That includes being realistic about which faculty heads will be reliable champions of change.
2.      Inspire – create a vision that everyone can believe in

Digital transformation begins with leaders forming and communicating a clear vision – and articulating the path to achieve it. Our recommendations to get buy-in includes that leaders:

  • Create a simple, bold and compelling vision. To inspire people, a vision should translate into a compelling, emotional “why” that faculty and professional staff can believe in and support.
  • Show how the digital transformation touches people. The focus must always come back to how the digital future will benefit students, faculty and professional staff and thereby the viability of the institution itself.
  • Let people have their say. Leaders must listen to people’s needs and concerns, involve them in decision-making and help them understand the complexities and conundrums the transformation must overcome and the trade-offs that must be made. Jason Oliver, Chief Digital Transformation Officer, University of Sussex, UK, has been through this process. He says, “It was important to co-create the strategy with the community ... to approach it from the point of view of … what benefits it would bring, rather than talking about the technology.”   
3.      Care – build a culture that embraces and encourages everyone’s opinion

Digital transformation is a disruptive and potentially taxing process. Leaders must go out of their way to provide emotional support for those in the thick of change. As well as acknowledging it’s going to be hard and talking openly about potential stumbling blocks, leaders should:

  • Listen – Prioritise listening over telling and consider diverse points of view. Throughout the transformation, everyone involved — especially resisters — needs a safe space to express emotions (good and bad). Then that feedback must be taken into account. Otherwise, as one focus group participant put it, “It feels like even if the feedback is being collected sometimes it is not taken into consideration and does not really influence any outcomes.”
  • Ask – Proactively create psychological safety by not just encouraging people with doubts and questions to speak up, but by directly calling them up. This is about leaders being interested and attuned to what’s happening in their institutions.
  • Admit – When leaders admit they don’t have all the answers, others are more likely to offer their own thinking. One way to signal leaders’ openness to new ideas might be to invite a number of front-line staff onto the transformation leadership team. 
4.      Empower – set clear responsibilities and be prepared for change

Allowing adaptation is essential because of the very distinct contexts in, for example, medicine, engineering or the humanities. Leaders should give people autonomy to come up with creative solutions, while keeping aligned with the broader digital transformation objectives. Our suggestions for making this work include that leaders:

  • Introduce agile ways of working. Organise cross-departmental working groups into squads to support innovation and transformation objectives, each accountable and empowered to achieve their assigned elements of the larger plan. Squads work in short, iterative sprints, with incremental showcases, feedback loops and “go-lives.”
  • Encourage experimentation within clear guardrails. Avoid hundreds of small, uncoordinated experiments across the university. A clear roadmap is essential to prioritise investment in not only the innovation pilots, but also the campus-wide implementation effort.
  • Incentivise and reward innovation. Encouraging and recognising innovation is key, as well as removing negative consequences for failed experiments. Incentives might include funding, competitions, prizes, public recognition, professional development opportunities or even new career paths. 
5.      Build – use technology and capabilities to drive visible action

Digital transformation success depends on both investing in the right technologies to support the vision and training and supporting staff to use it effectively. Staff clearly need to be trained in digital skills but also supported to develop a positive digital mindset. In terms of the IT organisation, this involves a shift in focus from “run” activities to “grow” and “transform” efforts. As Jason Cowie, CIO, Curtin University, Australia, put it, “You need a team who are not only capable, but also who have the right innovation mindset.” To help create this digital mindset, transformation leaders need to:

  • Get technology into people’s hands quickly. This way, they can quickly see the benefits and provide early feedback on additional opportunities or barriers that can be addressed in subsequent iterations.
  • Communicate deliberately and persistently about action and impact. Make sure everyone can see real impact quickly. When people see what’s possible, they are more likely to be inspired to get involved in gaining similar benefits in their part of the campus.
  • Give people the time and space to learn. To achieve digital transformation at scale, all university staff need to be digitally mature and teaching faculty must learn new ways of teaching. Learning will likely need to be delivered at scale, via large events or online platforms. Make continuous learning an expectation of the role and allow time for it.
You need a team who are not only capable, but also who have the right innovation mindset.
Jason Cowie, CIO, Curtin University, Australia
6.      Collaborate – find the best ways to connect and co-create

Digital transformation should act as a “river” that allows different parts of the university to converge to support a connected future. To extend and strengthen horizontal connections across traditional faculty or departmental siloes, our recommendations include that leaders:

  • Make cross-campus connections. Develop a centralised way to oversee all the experiments and transformations that are underway and make sure learnings are shared across groups. This may mean permanently adapting organisational structures to formalise these new connections or creating cross-departmental working groups on specific projects.
  • Keep connections going after launch. Help people keep the transformation front of mind by maintaining the cross-departmental connection points that signal a new way of being and working at the university.
  • Identify and harness the power of influencers. Identify invisible informal influencers via organisational network analysis. These important communicators can then be mobilised to support the transformation.

For the HE sector to achieve better outcomes from digital transformation efforts, investing in people is key — even more so than investing in the right technology. The crucial tasks for leadership are to obtain buy-in from faculty and professional staff, to nurture collaboration across the institution, to drive rapid and widescale adoption, to provide emotional support, to build digital skills and mindsets, and to regularly bring the university together to celebrate wins, share learnings and re-energise everyone to keep the momentum going.


As universities seek to transform, leaders need to embrace the wants and needs of their staff. This includes understanding and supporting the emotional and psychological impact of transformation. The good news is that by doing so, leaders are two to three times more likely to succeed in their transformation initiatives. Our report sets out six practices that leaders should adopt for transformation success.

Human-Centred Digital Transformation in Universities

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About this article

Alison Cairns

EY Oceania Education Leader

Bringing a human-centric, Technology Transformation mindset to Education

Catherine Friday

EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences; EY Global Education Leader

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.