'Digital Transformation' and the University

What might the convergence of cloud computing, big data, IoT, and AI mean for us?

August 8, 2019

Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction by Thomas M. Siebel

Published in July of 2019.

Tell us if this story is familiar to you?

At its peak, Blockbuster employed 60,000 people and was worth $5 billion. In 2000, Netflix offered to sell itself to Blockbuster for $50 million. Blockbuster declined. Today, Netflix has a market capitalization of over $136 billion, and Blockbuster has vanished.

In 2000, Yahoo! was valued at $125 billion. In 2008, Microsoft attempted to buy Yahoo! In a hostile takeover bid for $45 billion. Yahoo successfully resisted. In 2016, Verizon bought Yahoo for $4.8 billion - and then killed Yahoo! as a meaningful brand.

Or consider Borders, a bookseller that in 2003 had 1,249 physical stores. Today, Borders is gone.

These and other stories of once great companies that have been demolished by the digital juggernauts of Amazon, Google, and Facebook make up the backbone of Siebel’s Digital Transformation. 

The question in reading books like Digital Transformation is if these stories have any relevance to our world of higher ed?

Are we anything like Nokia, or shopping malls, or Kodak? Or are colleges and universities something different, and will that difference protect us from the existential threat of digital disruption?

I read Siebel’s Digital Transformation with a high degree of initial skepticism. Siebel, after all, is a billionaire businessman. Thankfully, Digital Transformation is no vanity project. Siebel is not only a fabulously wealthy and successful entrepreneur - he is also an excellent writer.

My digital book library is stocked with books on artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, big data, and the internet of things (IoT). These are the elements that Siebel argues that coalesce into an accelerating digital transformation. Siebel’s explanations of each of these technologies are among the clearest that I’ve read. 

Digital Transformation does an excellent job of explaining both broader technology trends, and their relationship of these trends to large-scale business challenges and opportunities. Siebel’s advice is practical, modest, and grounded in decades of failures and successes. 

What will be less clear for academic readers of Digital Transformation is the relevance of cloud computing, big data, IoT, and AI to us?

Siebel does not train his digital transformation lens on higher ed. He is enthusiastic about Coursera and edX, and the power of open online learning. The book spends considerable time on the cultural and organizational changes that large existing companies will need to make to thrive in the digital age.  No pages, however, are devoted to what college and university leaders must do.

Can you point to a book that has looked deeply at the impact of cloud computing, big data, IoT, and AI - as integrated and long-term technology trend - on the future of higher ed?

I can think of books that look at these technologies separately from a higher ed perspective. But I’m not able to think of any books that bring all these technology trends together with the challenges of postsecondary quality, access, and costs.

Of course, we are fortunate that Siebel does not attempt to tackle the higher ed challenge. It is rare for those outside of academia to understand the full complexity of our sector. Or to honor our values, traditions, and norms.

What we need is someone with the expertise and experience of Siebel, combined with the wisdom of knowledge of someone who has spent her professional life in higher ed. I want to know what cloud computing, big data, IoT, and AI will mean for the future of higher ed. Don’t you?

Should we use this space to speculate?

What are you reading?


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