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EDUCAUSE recap: Traction on Demand gets “phygital” with higher ed

October 22, 2019By
Speaker presenting at the EDUCAUSE annual event

Reflections from Traction on Demand’s Vice President of Higher Education Services

Recently, members of the Traction on Demand higher education practice attended EDUCAUSE in Chicago, Illinois. The event is the world’s biggest education technology conference. If you’re new to EDUCAUSE, here's an overview:


The annual EDUCAUSE conference has long been considered the event in higher education tech circles. This is where higher ed techies go to see what’s new and different in the world of education technology.

Who attends?

8,400 of your closest friends in higher ed technology. Vendors. Admins. CIOs. Departmental users. Everyone interested in higher ed tech. While it seems like that would create a jumble of objectives, various tracks help narrow down the content by attendee type.

What’s it like?

There are sessions and a vendor exhibit hall to keep you busy! There are many opportunities to connect with others through meet and mingle areas, receptions, constituency group meetings and “braindates” where you can meet individually or with a small group around a topic you suggest.

Why would you go?

Breadth. As someone who regularly thinks about ways to support educational institutions through Salesforce solutions, I appreciate the opportunity to get out of my Salesforce bubble and consider the broader technology stack that my customers work with every day. In this world, Salesforce is the new kid on the block with a lot to prove. So, this isn’t Dreamforce with Salesforce logos and Trailhead characters everywhere. I find it’s a much-needed reality check to see the Salesforce booth nested within a sea of other highly competitive vendors at the exhibit hall.

The orange star marks Salesforce's booth in the exhibit hall, showing it's just one of many highly competitive vendors in the education technology space.

Themes and highlights: Let’s get innovative

There was an overwhelmingly clear message this year: higher ed is under pressure, not just to do things better but to do things drastically differently. And why wouldn’t we? Enrollment is down, student debt is up, schools are folding or entering into new partnerships to stay afloat. Higher education is being challenged to adjust the way it operates, and we will need to think creatively about ways to address this.

Claims of transformation

At the EDUCAUSE vendor exhibit hall, practically everyone was advertising “digital transformation,” and I was no exception. I contributed not one but twobuzzwords by presenting on “Salesforce - Catalyst for Digital Transformation” at the Salesforce booth. Visitors to the booth all wanted to know how they could re-imagine how they worked using Salesforce. It would seem that the old way of working tended to yield the same results, and they are looking to new approaches and new solutions to move into a new phase.

There's our logo at the booth. I presented on how Salesforce is a catalyst for digital transformation and spoke with attendees about how they can use it to re-imagine how they work.

Reflections on innovation at the keynote

Keynote speaker Steven Johnson (author of 11 books and Wikipedia-dubbed “media theorist”) primed us on innovation. He said innovation is not the romanticized notion of an individual having a “eureka” moment. Instead, he pointed to the power of evolving a hunch over time through collaboration with others. The “collision of world views,” as he calls it, at universities and colleges gives these institutions built-in potential for the kind of interdisciplinary collaborations that spark such transformation. He also warned against blindspots created by viewing the world through our own single frame of reference.

Insights into Gen Z

Of course, working in higher ed means we should understand changing generational needs better than anyone! A fun session with father and son duo David and Jonah Stillman of Gen Z Guru underscored how transformation should reflect the “generational personality” of the next generation of students, Gen Z.

Gen Z is a generation whose dinner conversations center on an unstable economy, and they've never known a world without the internet. Translating these factors to their world view and expectations, we know they are a cost-conscious, competitive, driven, bunch that expects a personalized, “phygital” (physical+digital = my new favorite word) world. This session drove home the need for us all in higher education to consider how we appeal to these expectations.

What’s next?

All this talk of the demands of Gen Z and the importance of enabling innovation made me revisit a quote from Traction on Demand’s recent TractionForce Toronto event where we explored the theme of “Shift or Drift."

“The notion of pivoting only gets business so far. In a time when everything is moving exponentially faster and organizational models are constantly being challenged, shifting is the new way forward. By not embracing this new reality, businesses/educational institutions (my edit) risk being left behind.”

We’re witnessing a collective understanding that in order to remain relevant, higher education must seek out innovative approaches driven by open minds and investments in new solutions. At Traction on Demand, we have the privilege of collaborating with many of these institutions who also wonder, "What if we did things differently?” These are the people who are poised to help their institutions shift rather than drift.

We’re already looking forward to continuing the discussions with our customers and partners at the next EDUCAUSE. In the meantime, we can’t wait to highlight some of the transformational work Traction on Demand is now doing with partners. Learn more about our growing higher education practice.

Let's chat

Please be in touch if you have any questions about our higher education practice.

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