Digital Transformation vs. Transition

During a recent presentation about the mass transition to Zoom/online-based classes in Spring 2020, the term “digital transformation” was thrown around. Now, admittedly, it was a very short presentation – 20 minutes – and encompassed the experiences of 3 institutions/systems to boot. So the presenters did not dig deep. But the clear implication by some was that by going online, teaching (and learning) was transformed. There were comments about how the intense crucible (my words) of switching to online in the spring necessitated transformation.

I…don’t know how I feel about this. First, transformation is thrown around in a lot of industries, and higher education is no exception. Second, transformation is about changing how you go about doing your work, not just morphing it from one form to another. As someone working with faculty (I am one step removed, however, from direct interaction), I regularly see and hear about courses that were airlifted from in-person design to virtual settings. Little to nothing was changed in the course. Lectures stayed the same, grading methods did not change, and engagement tools were not put in place above and beyond a discussion forum in Canvas or something similar. I would argue that this is not digital transformation. It was not the crucible of pressure changing the way we teach. It was just teaching the same material and using the same methods but in a different format.

Similarly, our work hasn’t necessarily changed that much. We still have meetings like we did; they’re just online. We still communicate generally as we did; we just do more email. Etc. If anything, we’ve regressed a bit. We used to be able to have “water cooler” chats or just walk down the hall for a quick question. Those 10 minute chats have become 30 minute (because that’s the standard shortest length in Outlook) meetings with agendas. One exception has been the digitization of forms on campus – in many cases, a business process efficiency discussion takes place about the form, and a new methodology is born. But even in those cases sometimes it’s just taking a paper form and making it electronic. That’s not transformation.

I would argue that this is digital transitioning. It is taking what you’ve done before and just moving it into a different form or delivery method. It is not fundamentally changing the way one goes about doing work.

Now, please bear in mind that I am not criticizing faculty at all, even though it sounds like I am. Even just switching to a new environment is incredibly difficult and challenging, and I am not one to speak as to whether it is possible to transform on any timeline, much less the one under which we operated, both in spring and over the summer. I am not faculty, nor do I teach a course in my current capacity. I actually have no problem, per se, with a digital transition. I have a problem with calling it digital transformation.

The “heat of battle” does not create transformation. The pressure to go online in the spring and now in the fall does not mean transformation, and stats as to whether we are or are not using Zoom do not support (nor dispel) this notion. The stats in particular are neutral. They are what they are; nothing more, nothing less.

This long preamble leads to a set of simple closing comments. Digital transition is…painful but not complex. Digital transformation is incredibly difficult. But is also incredibly crucial. How should we change the way we work from yesterday to today’s world (trying not to say “new normal” here, because there is nothing normal about it)? How should we morph our processes? What new kinds of emotional intelligence are required of us, as leaders, under these conditions, when the most we can do is show a headshot of ourselves in a Zoom box or send an email to express that concern and sensitivity? I don’t have even my own answers to these (yet? – check back with me later). But I do believe there is a difference between digital transition and transformation, and that we need to be looking deeply within ourselves and our organizations for the latter, and not getting caught up in the hype of the former.

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