Published on 2014/10/10

How Back-End Efficiency Is Central to the Development of a New CE Unit

AUDIO | How Back-End Efficiency Is Central to the Development of a New CE Unit
As PLU looks to build its CE unit from the ground up, the first step they’re taking is to find a management system that will allow them to scale and grow efficiently.

The following interview is with Geoff Foy, associate provost of graduate programs and continuing education at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). PLU is currently on the hunt for a management system to help organize all the different elements of their continuing education operation, with an eye on scaling and growth. In this interview, Foy expands on the importance of management software to achieving this goal and discusses the importance of efficiency in institutional growth.

1. What are some of the biggest challenges CE leaders can face when looking to scale their operations?

There are three main challenges that come to mind. Firstly, there’s always a balancing act between the number of staff a CE unit has and the number of programs they can support. If a CE office takes on more programs or courses than they can support, the quality of those products can be negatively impacted. CE leaders need to have an accurate assessment of the knowledge, skills and workload capabilities of their staff in order to maintain a manageable portfolio of their products.

The second challenge deals with the financing of these new programs. Since the economic downturn, I’ve seen CE leaders have a harder time building up or even maintaining their investment funds and reserves, whether due to necessity or short-term strategy. [Main campus] higher education administrations have utilized the surplus funds from CE and other auxiliary units to serve broader institutional leaders. Without this seed money, CE leaders have a harder time adding new programs. Consequently, they are required to be more creative with their funding models in order to launch new programs.

Finally, the last challenge is building successful partnerships with both internal and external constituents. It’s always a challenge to do this for CE leaders. We need to be excellent at forging collaborative partnerships with internal academic departments and external local businesses, community organizations and government agencies. Moreover we have to discern which ones to foster and which ones to pass by otherwise there’s a lot of time wasted for everyone involved.

2. How can management efficiency help institutions grow?

When management is efficient, time and money are saved; that’s one of the consequences that translates into an opportunity to pursue additional projects and initiatives. If we’re increasing efficiency and producing savings in certain areas, then we’re going to be able to devote more attention to the programs that require more labor. There’s also a benefit for worker satisfaction, which helps to build that loyal workforce that we need. Satisfied workers are willing to take more risks with their leaders.

3. What are a few of the steps your institution is taking to increase operational efficiencies in CE?

We’re trying to change the current organizational model from a decentralized model to more of a hybrid that would both be centralized and decentralized.

Right now we only have two areas that we have CE programs, which are Education and Nursing. With PLU’s new initiative to increase CE programming, we’ve created a central CE office that will not only provide services and support to the existing programs, but also begin forging new partnerships with other academic units in order to develop new programs and courses. Establishing an organizational model that both makes sense for PLU and increases efficiency is vital for current situation.

In order to make that happen we’re trying to see what we can do with third-party vendors to bring in certain kinds of technology to help service that model. With a very small staff we’re going to have to look at ways of being very efficient with the kind of technology we use to support all facets of the CE programs; from the marketing, the registration, and the payment process to the evaluation. All of those features that are seen in the type of CE units across universities, those need to be serviced by management systems that are going to increase the efficiencies so that we can have very successful programming.

4. How do you bridge the gap between trying to meet those very unique, individualized needs and meeting the larger overarching infrastructural needs of the institution?

We’re working with the representatives from the existing CE units and also some other representatives across campus, whether they’re faculty or academic chairs, deans, other types of administrators, to form a committee to look at how we can standardize certain kinds of policies and procedures that would support CE broadly but also allow for that uniqueness within the academic units.

We’re seeing overlaps of what those other technologies can provide us in servicing the standard policies and procedures. If we can have that third-party vendor help us with those standard processes and still allow the identifiable uniqueness to come out of the academic units, then we’ve achieved both. We’ll have been able to achieve that hybrid model that we want.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of efficiency to institutional scaling and growth and how this highest common denominator model can help influence the way that the unit itself grows?

As we start out at basically ground zero for establishing a central office, it’s challenging us to consider what we can and cannot do. We need to establish realistic goals, which point to the pathways for sustainable growth. For now, we are going to rely on a cooperative framework (i.e., the hybrid model) that divides responsibilities between the central office and our partners. As we establish this organizational infrastructure and the policies and procedures that support it, we’ll have an easier time identifying areas in our system that function well and others that require adjustments. In this manner we’ll be able to grow at the pace that makes sense for PLU.

This is the first installment of a long-term series by Geoff Foy, where he will chronicle PLU’s process of developing a new CE unit from the ground up.

Next installment coming soon

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Technological tools that handle back-end administrative functions are critical to helping smaller institutions grow their CE capacity.
  • Those tools allow the small numbers of staff to focus more on the product they deliver than the periphery services surrounding it.
  • A hybrid tool that serves the unique needs of the CE unit while also lining up with the infrastructural needs of the institution would be a best-case scenario.

Readers Comments

Xavier Fleming 2014/10/10 at 10:56 am

This is a practical piece looking at how smaller institutions could conceivably grow their capacity with the use of third-party vendors and some creative internal changes. Foy falls short, however, on describing what exactly the “hybrid tool” to achieve this would entail. Is this something that would be developed in-house or by an external provider? It would be helpful to have a real-life example that takes you from conceptualization to development to implementation.

Grace Nickerson 2014/10/14 at 11:23 am

Good point about staffing capacity playing a central role when institutions look at scalability. In the rush to expand, especially online, many institutions have neglected to properly account for staffing impacts, instead expecting staff to “do more with less.” It’s necessary to take that step back and identify areas where the institution might need to grow (staffing wise) in order to accommodate the scaling and new capacity.

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