People not technology: the role of leadership in digital transformation

Most UK universities want more direction from leadership in terms of digital transformation, but what should this leadership look like? John Sumpter, digital practice specialist at Jisc, explores

What makes a great digital leader?

As part of our digital leaders programme at Jisc, we define being an effective digital leader as understanding your own practice and constructing a plan to develop it. Leading an effective digital organisation is also about understanding the impact and implications of digital and using these tools to respond to challenges and opportunities.

There are various elements that make up this process, one of which is to look at the digital tools you use and notice where your skills lie. For example, if an academic is using a VLE to upload and share content with students, being a digital leader could mean reviewing the VLE use and developing the skills needed to use the platform as a more interactive tool.


Identifying these gaps in your skillset is an important step to becoming a digital leader. It’s also essential to understand how to select the tools you need, rather than just using digital technology because it’s there. An essential point to understand is that digital transformation isn’t about technology. It’s more about working collaboratively with others and adapting your working approach as processes change and culture shifts.  

Why is leadership important in digital transformation

Leaders are essential due to the impact that digital transformation has on a working culture and individual members of the team. Digital transformation is a journey and without a leader, team members can become lost and opportunities can be missed – especially for utilising the best that both technology and people have to offer. 


But leadership in this context isn’t about rushing out ahead and leaving your team behind. Digital transformation is a collaborative process and is about taking people along with you.  

Leaders aren’t necessarily those at the top of the organisation’s hierarchy, either. Every person within your institution can be a digital leader by taking ownership of their own practice. This is the only way that an organisation can move forward together.  


In fact, a recent report we created in partnership with Ucisa showed that in HE, the “three areas in universities – besides IT – which have embedded a great deal of digital thinking and practice are, respectively, library (59.09%), marketing (40.91%) and frontline services (27.27%). In contrast, the three departments with the least amount of digital embedded in them are academic staff (0%), legal and procurement (4.55%) and the leadership team (9.3%).” 


Ultimately, a digital leader is someone that understands that people are the most important factor in digital transformation, and that technology is just there to enable those people to achieve their desired outcomes more effectively. Digital leaders also help to nurture an environment in which skills are appreciated and developed, and in which the working culture makes the most of those skills. 

You might also like: Envisioning the future of HE with Jisc

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