Published on 2014/10/24

Efficiency Through Technology Central to Operational Excellence

AUDIO | Efficiency Through Technology Central to Operational Excellence
By adopting a range of technology tools, institutions can provide a much higher level of customer service become operationally excellent.
The following interview is with Diana Wu, dean of the UC Berkeley Extension and executive director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education. Despite shrinking operational budgets for higher education institutions, they’re being forced to compete against rising numbers of competitors all working to improve their product and provide best-in-class customer experiences. This is, of course, familiar territory for continuing education (CE) professionals. In this interview, Wu discusses the value of operational efficiency in helping institutions navigate both challenges and successes in the modern postsecondary marketplace.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can better operational efficiency help institutions become more nimble and responsive to market needs?

Diana Wu (DW): One way I think about operational efficiency is, “Why do we need to be more efficient?” Your end goal is not just to streamline or to reduce cost or to even think about how to better serve your customers. The end goal is actually about your organization’s broader goals; how to become nimble and responsive to market needs.

One of the things that’s happening at Berkeley at the campus level is the pursuit of operational excellence. It’s big picture and it’s thinking about how to strive for excellence across the board. Yes, it’s a massive initiative — its goal is to save the university $75 million a year — but when you really break it down, its goal is how to become more operationally efficient in order to achieve that goal. It has everything to do with providing better service, forcing us to think about our business processes and how to do everything better.

For CE, it becomes critical to think about it. I think about it in terms of an opportunity cost: what can we do to become more operationally efficient in order to free up our talented staff to work on more important things? For us, that has implications for staff recruitment, retention and career and professional development. Right now we have program directors, assistants, all very dedicated and committed, but they have to do A to Z. In other words, they were having to do everything from approval processes, pushing paper, all the way to the other extreme in terms of being creative, thinking about new program ideas, doing outreach to the community and how we’re going to do better public programs.

If we’re more operationally efficient and able to relieve them of some of the tasks — especially the mundane, repetitive tasks — then they can do higher order, higher-level thinking, and more creative thinking.

Evo: What impact does back-end efficiency have on the customer experience for students?

DW: We’ve been emphasizing the need for really great front-line customer service. To that end, we’ve been doing things like bringing in consultants to do customer service training for our front-line staff and for anyone else who touches the student. We pretty quickly realized that’s great and that’s important — our staff welcomed it and there was some really good learning coming from that — but we weren’t providing our staff with the tools they needed in order to provide really excellent front-line service. That goes back to your point about back-end efficiency. In other words, you can be on the phone with the student, the student could walk in and be at the counter and you’re talking to them, but if you’re not able to get on the computer and find the information the student is looking for or enroll them right away or take their money and process it right away, these things all affect your ability to provide a good customer experience.

To take it a step further, the experience is getting better for students because they may not even have to pick up the phone or come in person anymore, because our back end is becoming better and better. Everything that’s tied into customer service — it’s a change for our students. It’s actually been a challenge on both ends, but it will lead to better outcomes. From the staff’s perspective it’s more obvious; they have to get used to new tools, used to new systems and be able to use them effectively in order to provide better service. On the student’s end, what we’re finding because we have a lot of repeat students coming back [is] they’re used to getting their information or level of service in a certain fashion or format.

Everything we’re doing on the back end is having huge implications and reaches for what I would call the front-end experience.

Evo: How can tech tools help institutions streamline processes and become more efficient?

DW: Technology has been the driver and often times the catalyst that forces us to look at our business processes because in order to streamline, in order to become more efficient, we have to revisit those things. I can give you a few highlights.

Before, we could not do a broadcast email to all our instructors. That’s doable now. Instructors can email all students at once [or] they can email students individually. For students, we’ve vastly improved their ability for self-service. In other words, students can log in and see their grades, their enrollment information, look at their schedule — it’s a whole set of tools we’ve made available that we can point to in terms of the customer experience.

For our purposes internally, it’s the technology that has helped us to streamline processes. It’s been a time saver where one system was replaced or has replaced multiple legacy systems and when that happens, you don’t have people having to double-enter data. It was a lot of redundancy that no longer exists. I feel the relief of my staff who no longer have to do these very mundane tasks. It relieves them of that.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the strategic importance of efficiency to helping institutions differentiate themselves and succeed in the highly competitive postsecondary marketplace?

DW: We have to do it. Any organization, regardless of how operationally efficient you are, can become more efficient, thereby increasingly improving your customer service and your ability to serve the market.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Process streamlining allows staff to focus on high-touch customer service and improving the student experience.
  • This streamlining is made possible by the adoption of technology tools.
  • Improved efficiency is a strategic asset to institutions looking to transform into operationally excellent organizations.

Readers Comments

Nancy Mabee 2014/10/24 at 11:08 am

Wu adopts a broad definition of “efficiency,” and perhaps this is something we should do as CE leaders. The example of giving staff customer service training doesn’t immediately strike me as something efficiency related, as we’ve had “efficiency” hammered into us as something that involves downsizing, lower costs, etc. Staff training seems to run counter to that, as it involves maintaining staff levels and higher costs (to run the training).

For Wu, efficiency is related to overall business improvement — and I’m slowly coming around to this line of thinking. By making staff better at their jobs, we might be able to improve productivity. We would certainly improve the student/customer experience. Staff would be able to work more independently. All of these could impact our bottom line.

Rebecca Muir 2014/10/24 at 3:28 pm

Interesting observation, Nancy Mabee. I agree, and I think Wu makes a good point that the objective of improving operational efficiency should be to free up staff to focus on high-impact, high-touch activities.

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