Published on 2014/10/10

Efficiency Central to Nimbleness and Responsiveness

AUDIO | Efficiency Central to Nimbleness and Responsiveness
By creating internal efficiencies and freeing up staff time, institutions can become more nimble and able to respond to market changes.
The following interview is with Lesley Nichols, director of Continuing Education and Extended Academic Programs at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Higher education institutions are navigating a period of increased demands and declining resources. Some institutions have taken the need to become leaner as an indication that revenue will fall, but is that always the case? In this interview, Nichols tackles this question and discusses how creating internal efficiencies can actually help an institution increase its revenue-generating potential.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What kinds of changes can a higher education institution make to become more efficient?

Lesley Nichols (LN): Before making any changes, the most important thing is to take a step back and analyze what we do, how we do it and, most importantly, why we do it. Many times I’ve found that a process that may have made perfect sense at its inception no longer fits today’s challenges, but unfortunately change is difficult and routines are hard to break.

The biggest changes in the past few years have been in the technology sector. How we access, store and communicate information to each other as well as to others outside of our institution has changed so dramatically in our day-to-day lives, as has how we can leverage technology to create efficiencies and also do a better job of achieving our goals. One perfect example is that it’s probably impossible for an undergraduate student today to think about a time when online registration and online bill paying wasn’t available, but there are actually some institutions that are still struggling with this even though this has been common technology for the past 10 to 15 years.

The next big thing to look at is mobile technology, which is already an expectation of our students in the real world as they interact with consumer-based products. How can we then leverage mobile apps to help better serve our students and also make our internal operations more efficient?

Evo: How do these changes impact the day-to-day operation of a unit?

LN: It can really have a huge impact. The bottom line is to serve our customers, which are our students, but also to do our jobs more effectively. It’s a two-pronged approach.

It’s a big picture, universal view across the university versus a detailed approach. It’s important for every university to identify the common processes every unit deals with on a regular basis, such as purchasing, paying bills, the phone systems we use, responding to emails, accessing data. Having that big picture perspective across all units of an institution can help to identify some streamlined approaches to common problems to make the institution stronger as a whole.

You also need to look beyond the macro level and down to the micro level of each unit. In some ways, I like to think of universities as operating like a small city where we have the leader, we have operations that operate independently, but they’re all under the umbrella of the university as a whole. The needs of an athletics department could be very different than a research office or a financial aid office. There are commonalities between them, of course, but taking time to really understand the intricacies of how each unit operates could highlight some areas where the one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work. It could also uncover some creative solutions individual units have implemented to serve their audiences that could then be shared and rolled out to other units across the institution.

Evo: How does improved efficiency impact a unit’s capacity to plan strategically and enter new marketplaces?

LN: It’s all about the value-add. Time is probably the most valuable resource we have. If we spend our precious time doing inefficient things, it takes away from our energy and it takes our focus away from being strategic and, ultimately, innovative. We can also miss opportunities when we’re bogged down in the day-to-do minutia.

It’s a very competitive market out there with new entries into the marketplace all the time. The more nimble we can be through efficiency, the better we can proactively respond to changing markets rather than simply waiting to be told what’s next.

Evo: Ultimately, what impact do efficiency-related changes have on a unit’s bottom line?

LN: Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the startup costs if you’re implementing, for example, a new software system, to focus on that and think, “Well, it’s too expensive. How are we going to afford this?” We really have to take the long view and look at how it’s going to impact your operation and your time. One of the biggest factors is employee retention and morale. It’s so expensive to find talent, to spend time training them and to keep them on board with your organization. Employee satisfaction is definitely impacted when you have inefficiencies that can make it difficult or even create barriers for an employee to do their job. Imagine doing a tedious task day after day; it’s obviously going to impact morale and ultimately lead to losing your best and brightest employees. There’s a cost impact there.

The other part of it is on the revenue side and the barriers we create for students. The harder we make it for them to jump through our hoops to get to their goals, the more likely they’re going to leave and choose another institution for their educational needs. I’m always looking for ways to improve the student experience from start to finish, and a big part of that is the efficiencies of freeing up our staff time to allow them to spend more of their valuable time being responsive to students and helpful to them rather than spending it all on inefficient processes.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Institutional leaders must be very focused on understanding the processes that can roll up to the institutional level, and the processes that must remain with individual units.
  • Making bureaucratic processes easier for students is a big differentiator; the more hoops students have to jump through, the more likely they will start looking for a different university.
  • Improved efficiency supports an institution’s nimbleness, allowing it to become more responsive to market changes.

Readers Comments

Belinda Chang 2014/10/10 at 1:12 pm

The important point here is that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. I think institutions often confuse efficiency with standardizing processes across the board. In some cases, this is true. However, there are micro-level considerations we have to make, as Snyder says, to ensure that what works in one unit/department isn’t hindering another.

Virginia Mary Perdue 2014/10/14 at 11:20 am

It’s true that some processes and practices are only still in place because of routine, which is hard to break. Change is hard, and especially so when accompanied by concerns about staffing (which is often the case when institutions talk about change). I would recommend seeking an external consultant to review your institution’s processes and identify where there might be opportunities to cut back or become more efficient. The external consultant can be seen as neutral by all parties, and administration can gain the trust of faculty and staff by including them in the consultation process.

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