Digital transformation – the leadership challenge

As the programme for DigiFest pointed out, achieving meaningful change isn’t something that will be achieved by a handful of digital enthusiasts; instead, leaders will need to encourage and harness the collective ability of stakeholders to create new ways of working that improve the experience of learning and outcomes for all.

The job of encouraging and harnessing those stakeholders is a significant challenge – achieving anything at that scale is – and that’s where a new community of practice comes in. And it’s why we find ourselves in the pages of the DigiFest programme; specifically the entry for the Digital Leadership and Culture Forum – Who, What, Where and Why?, which took place on the final day of the event.

The session – at which I was pleased to present alongside Jisc colleagues Debbie Baff, Allen Crawford-Thomas and Mark Ayton – attracted more than 60 delegates who we asked to reflect on three questions about the digital challenges in their organisations:

  1. The challenges to effective communication and understanding of digital transformation.
  2. The resource challenges – both human and physical – that can be anticipated as they embark on digital transformation.
  3. The challenges to digital transformation presented by processes in organisations.


The discussion that ensued at the session identified a series of common challenges, many of which were similar to those pinpointed in our 2018 report Barriers and enablers to the embedding of learning technologies in the delivery of learning, teaching and assessment in the further education sector. We heard about the incompatibility of some pieces of kit with internal IT systems, dated legacy systems, a lack of confidence and capability, and problems accessing tech used in industry that will help prepare learners for the workplace.

Many constant problems that affect our sector beyond digital transformation were also raised: budgets and funding, the time to learn and apply learning, staff workload and capacity and recruitment, and cumbersome processes. Communication was raised as an issue too; in both the sense that communication overload in institutions impacts the reception of the message and that the scale of some institutions causes interruption to communication.

And we heard about what we can be loosely term organisational cultural challenges: a lack of understanding about the inter-dependencies and relationships between digital transformation and curriculum transformation; the tendency to see digital transformation as a buzzword without tangible outputs; and the problems presented by the scale of the task and the difficulties of breaking it down to communicate what it will look like for different aspects of organisations’ work.

The leadership challenge

A recurrent theme was the role of senior leadership in addressing and overcoming some of these challenges. Encouragingly, the sense in the room was that this was understood, even if it hadn’t universally been acted on yet. One attendee – John Seedhouse, an English Lecturer at BMeT College – captured that feeling perfectly, feeding back that the discussion was “…the first time I have seen multiple layers of deliverers and management openly admit to struggling with current challenges. There seems to be agreement that the sector is hampered by decision inertia and that we probably need to take a more active approach to risk and reward.”

That acknowledged mutual understanding in the room signals – in my opinion – that there is a body of people across our sector who understand the transformation Covid has helped to prompt, and that see the opportunity before us. That makes this a potential breakthrough moment.

It is now for us to sieze the opportunity we see and with this in mind – and encouraged by what we heard at DigiFest – we look forward to the next meeting of the Digital Leadership and Culture Forum, which we are planning for May. You can apply to be part of it here.

Vikki Liogier
National Head of EdTech and Digital Skills
Education and Training Foundation