Published on 2013/09/23
AUDIO | Defining and Focusing on the Core Mission
Once an institution defines its core business practice, it can begin to outsource smaller and periphery tasks to allow the institution to focus on its instructional mission and on improving student access.

The following interview is with Jeff Fanter, vice president of communications, marketing and enrollment at Ivy Tech Community College. Ivy Tech was recently recognized for the efficiency in its approach to enrollment and communications management, a move made possible by the institution striking a partnership with a vendor. In this interview, Fanter discusses the importance of forming partnerships with vendors, and the challenges in determining which services to keep in-house and which to outsource.

1. How did the leadership at Ivy Tech come to realize staff were stretched too thin?

Well, when we looked at the actual demands and interests for the community college in Indiana — because, in Indiana, there is one state-wide community college — and folks were interested in learning more about community college also with intent of enrolling, what we were finding is that we just couldn’t service the demand. We couldn’t handle the volume we were experiencing.

At times, … prospective students were trying to get information about us [and] they couldn’t get answers back from calls or, sometimes, wait time could be double-digit minutes. And our current students who were looking for resources to financial questions — they just couldn’t connect with somebody.

Certainly not for lack of effort, … it was just a volume issue, and we needed to reassess and redeploy some of our resources and look at others who could bring in resources and technology to provide us other ways that our students could connect and get access to the information from the institution.

2. Once that decision was made, why did it make more sense to partner with a vendor rather than hiring more people to keep all work internal?

That’s … a question you have to ask yourself when you go through an analysis like this. Could we do it ourselves? Could we do it better and more effectively?

What we found was that we couldn’t.

From a cost standpoint, to look at what it would take for us to bring on the same infrastructure that a vendor brought to us — not only with people but with technology, which is an important part of this, in the way that you basically manage in-bound and out-bound calling campaigns or manage self-service that a student may interact with — what we found was that the price could be upwards of three to four times what we could pay to have a third-party vendor do this.

Frankly, for the third-party vendor that we chose, this was part of their core mission. They provided very seasoned and trained customer service experts. … What they did and did well every day was interact and work with students. [They] knew common questions that were being asked and needed to be handled with respect to financial aid. …

They knew that, they had that already with them that, for us to bring on more additional staff, and then do the training for that, the cost, it just didn’t make sense. And we did the math on the cost and looked at it and we came up with that. It would probably have cost us three to four times what it is costing us now to do it with a third-party partner.

3. The decision to partner appeared to have come from a discussion related to core business practices of the institution. Why was determining the institution’s core business practice critical to this process?

Well, we’re in higher education and what our core mission — our core business … — is what happens in the classroom. That’s what students come for, is the experience, the interaction, that takes place in the classroom.

But it’s because of barriers that we may be put up without knowing — i.e. not being able to handle the volume of students that have questions — if that puts up a barrier that they can’t get into the classroom to really experience what it is that we’re all about and doing (and that’s helping the student in the classroom) then we got to reassess our way of doing things.

For example, we reassessed at one point and looked at, “Is our core business really running college bookstores? Running upwards of 30 college bookstores that we have in Indiana.” Well, we said it’s not, that’s not our core business; there are people that do it better than us. We partnered with somebody … to be our bookstore across the state of Indiana. We got out of the bookstore business. Somebody could do it better… they get the book in the student’s hand faster and more effectively so [students] are prepared for that experience in the classroom.

Frankly, [that is] no different than the student needing to get an answer at 10 p.m. at night about their financial aid situation. We don’t have the staff there to answer the phone and answer the questions at 10 p.m. but now we do with this new model that we have.

Make sure those barriers are broken down so they can get to experience what we believe we do better than anybody, and that’s teaching in the classroom. Because, as a community college in Indiana, our teachers teach and that’s what they do and they come to school and they teach, but if we have barriers or reasons why they can’t get into the classroom, students never get to experience what we’re all here for.

4. How did leadership come to decide what constituted the core business practice of the institution?

Well, we know across the country that community colleges are just going to be vital to the success of rebuilding or, in some cases, improving the middle class. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we can ensure that our students are successful, they get credentials, they have currency in the workplace. So that’s our core mission, that’s what we’re about.

In many cases, that student — or the makeup of the demographic of community colleges … — it’s not your traditional college student who knows they need to go to school, who has people in their family that are their support system that went to school themselves. They have a lot of questions; there are a lot of … folks experiencing higher education for the first time.

Our mission is to make sure they’re successful. That’s our core mission and it happens in the classroom. Now, a lot of it obviously happened in the experience to get them in the classroom. There’s a lot of tools and technology and partners … that could help us do that more cost effectively, more efficiently and with a larger reach than we could ourselves.

And, so, when you look at it that way — and if the goal is to get them to get a credential that has currency in the workplace that’s going to allow them to be successful, or in case of many of our other students, first two years and then they can transfer on and move on to a four-year [institution] at a much more affordable cost to them — if we can never get them through that because of these other barriers that exist, they don’t get to experience what we do best and that’s what happens in the classroom.

So that was a decision we made and then we asked ourselves, as an institution, of all the things we do today that, maybe, there’s a better way of doing them? Some of these things popped up, and as I mentioned earlier, one case was driven by the fact that we had so much volume we couldn’t handle, but there’s got to be a way that we can do this better than we do it today.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of identifying one’s core business practice and ensuring all the barriers surrounding that core business practice are either handled in-house or externally?

I think one of the key things that we learned from this experience — and certainly would encourage others as they go through the same thing — is to be as transparent as you possibly can with your internal audiences. Because any time you bring in a third party, … people fear the stability of their jobs, the stability of their experience of the institution or company or whatever it may be.

We were as transparent as we could possibly be and came up very much upfront at the beginning: “This is not a job replacement. This is the fact that we can’t handle our volume that we currently have and we need to free many of you up from some of the common questions you get asked 15 times in a day that someone else can answer so you can interact and help students more.”

And I think that transparency right off because people really understood [what we were doing]. We were genuine and both trying to help the student — which is at the core of this all; their experience needs to be better — but, also, we’re helping the employee make sure their day-to-day experience at work and interaction with the student is better so they can really focus on the students who need the face-to-face attention and eliminate some of the, I’ll say, clutter of the same question that they get asked over and over again on the phone. So, I think transparency is the key, and I think that was one of the reasons we were successful in our launch.

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Readers Comments

Ian Hollis 2013/09/23 at 8:01 am

Transparency is indeed important to solicit buy-in from staff. As a former administrator, now retired, one of the challenges our team regularly met with was internal opposition to our modernization ideas. The staff resistance largely came from misinformation and rumors, which tended to be about staff losing their jobs. It’s important to honestly and clearly communicate what impact any decisions to use a third-party vendor will have on the staff, in order to avoid misinformation.

Greg Allen 2013/09/23 at 11:10 am

Great interview with Fanter on how institutions can cut costs and eliminate inefficiencies. I agree with him that the core purpose of a higher education institution is fulfilled in the classroom, and other services can therefore be outsourced to companies that are better equipped to provide them.

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