Embracing the human side of technology


When asked if you can have a proper digital business transformation without the buy-in from everyone up and down the leadership chain, Jim Dwyer says no. And you can quote him on that.

As Assistant VP, Auxiliary Business Services at Arizona State University, Dwyer has had a front row seat to the extraordinary and unprecedented changes the higher education space has encountered in the wake of the past few years. Driven exclusively by the global pandemic, schools and universities everywhere are monitoring the way they do business, continually enacting new strategies and practices to stay in step with the changes.

And the higher education space is not alone—not by a long shot. According to a recent McKinsey Global Survey of executives (, their companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions—and of their internal operations—by three to four years. Nearly every respondent said their companies have stood up at least temporary solutions to meet many of the new demands on them, and much more quickly than they had thought possible before the crisis.

“Technology is impacting virtually every aspect of the higher education landscape—from teaching and learning to business and operations,” says Dwyer, who has more than 20 years of experience in higher education business operations. “We are quickly needing to adapt to the latest technology from the moment we begin communicating with a prospective student; chatbots and text messaging are compulsory now, to how we engage post-graduation.”

As universities continue to embrace the accelerated digitization of their students, supply-chain interactions and internal operations, the significant impact of digital transformation on working models, roles, organization structures and employee engagement is more than critical. Dwyer says today’s schools must maintain their focus on their primary goal, which is student outcomes and how they shape our communities and our society. “If we can do more with technology from an impact perspective, we need to make that clear to our teams to help lead the change.”

“If we can do more with technology from an impact perspective, we need to make that clear to our teams to help lead the change.”

— Jim Dwyer, Asst. VP, Auxiliary Business Services, Arizona State University

In his book, “Exponential Organizations,” Indo-Canadian serial entrepreneur and bestselling author Salim Ismail says that organizations respond to change in a similar way to the human body. For example, when a virus or foreign element is introduced, the body’s immune system will attack and fight against it to protect the status quo. Similarly, an organization and its existing culture may fight against change and transformation. Ismail calls this amygdala response (see sidebar, “4 Ways to Implement Change”).

Dwyer believes that the key to successfully transitioning change into your organization is to find a common place of agreement—even if that agreement must come to fruition faster than in times past. “[For example] information security used to be something that was worked through as the final phase of executing an agreement, but now it is a main consideration that needs to be addressed at the forefront of considering a new technology purchase, and this consideration takes time. As a counter consideration, we need to focus on speed and adaptability, which means technology purchases are often a process that cannot avoid the necessity to manage countering priorities.”

The ‘now or never’ factor

There is no question about the importance of technology in the higher education environment. Technology and access to more data are impacting schools in a variety of ways—from the ways they deliver learning (virtual, hybrid and even some VR experiences), to how they track data across the institution (traffic from different social and external channels from websites).

Regardless of what the technology is, schools and universities have to understand what and how it helps. Does technology solve an existing problem? Does it help you do your job better and be more effective? Do you already have a technology solution that was supposed to solve this problem? Is the time and cost savings going to be greater than the investment? Is the technology already proven in similar-sized organizations?

“No matter how great the technology, if the people who are supposed to be using it don’t understand it and leverage it properly, it’s a waste of time and money,” says Brian Piper, Director of Content Strategy and Assessment at the University of Rochester.

Therefore, as Piper emphasizes, change must come with the buy-in across the board. “It is a change management process that starts with early onboarding, and building an understanding and acceptance before the purchase is even made. Data and case studies can be very helpful in fostering acceptance and open-mindedness with new technology. This must be paired with effective training, monitoring, and reporting on adoption and impact.”

More than anything—and something Dwyer and Piper both emphatically agree on—is that support must come from leadership. An understanding and acceptance must exist at the user level. If technology adoption is not integrated at every level of an institution, the technology cannot overcome that barrier. As Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

And it will eat technology just as quickly.

“Any new technical implementation must have champions who can not only socialize the importance of adoption, but who can also be available to answer questions, help with implementation and execution hurdles, and act as early adoption role models,” Piper says. “Your chances of complete failure are much higher and, as part of an effective change management process, the initial audit should determine what the resistance risk is and, if it is too high, determine if the technology adoption is worth pursuing.”

“Any new technical implementation must have champions who can not only socialize the importance of adoption, but who can also be available to answer questions.”

— Brian Piper, Director of Content Strategy & Assessment, University of Rochester

Not too long ago, the University of Rochester was having an issue with its content performance, which was not where leadership thought it should be. It used trial versions of several different software solutions to test out use cases within the department. One of the tools worked better and fit into its workflow more effectively than the others.

In the end, the software was able to make its processes more efficient. Showing the improvements to leadership, the marketing team received approval to purchase the entry-level version of the software. After using the tool for six months, the results were off the charts. “Once they saw the results, we upgraded our subscription and are now using the tool across the institution to monitor and improve content performance at an institutional level,” Piper says.

As we move into an even more technologically paced future, having the tools to properly evaluate the impacts of what works and what doesn’t—i.e., the human factor—will be needed to properly accelerate the pace of change.


4 ways to implement change

Link digital transformation to a shared purpose and future vision
It is easier to drive change within an organization when people understand the why. Define a clear purpose and vision for the transformation. A clear purpose and shared belief will provide direction and rally people behind the transformation journey.

Clearly define and reward desired actions and behaviors
Change is easier to embrace when there is clarity on what must be done and how to do it. This means a clear definition of the behaviors and actions needed to enact change, as well as how success will be measured and rewarded.

Take small and consistent steps in the right direction
There often is an underlying assumption that transformation involves big and bold action to be effective. But companies that focus on consistent efforts involving small modifications are more likely to be successful. Break initiatives down into “bite-sized” actions that feel non-threatening and are easier to adapt.

Identify trusted internal influencers and ambassadors to drive the change
A key part of digital business transformation is the stakeholder analysis: a thorough assessment of the roles, influencers and decision-makers in the organization. Done early on, this helps identify the people in the company who can drive the change process.

— Source: “Exponential Organizations” by Salim Ismail