Published on 2014/10/21

High-Touch, High-Tech: The Future of Postsecondary Efficiency

AUDIO | High-Touch, High-Tech: The Future of Postsecondary Efficiency
By introducing tools that allow staff to focus on high-touch tasks, institutions can improve their customer service while simultaneously reducing operating costs.
The following interview is with Wayne Smutz, dean of continuing education and Extension at UCLA. Higher education institutions are under immense pressure to improve their level of service for students, but are trying to meet this demand with significantly fewer resources at their disposal. Achieving this outcome with these circumstances demands a great deal of efficiency from today’s colleges and universities. In this interview, Smutz shares his thoughts on the value of efficient operations in this environment and discusses some of the roadblocks facing the realization of this postsecondary innovation.

Click here to read key takeaways.

1. What are some of the biggest challenges to efficiency that higher education institutions struggle with today?

Higher education has the challenge of not having placed a value on efficiency for many years, so it hasn’t been anything they’ve actively sought to achieve. With the financial challenges we face now in higher education, that has changed rather dramatically.

When you don’t have efficient processes, it can cost you in many ways. One is in terms of customer service, where people get frustrated about the inefficiencies they have to deal with, and the other is in terms of the bottom line, where you’re using human resources and paying staff to do things that otherwise could be automated and be done less expensively.               

We are deliberative institutions and that has been an important value in maintaining the strengths of what colleges and universities are. Faculty are very deliberative about the issues they deal with and that sometimes slips over into other ancillary operations, like continuing education. It’s this issue of how we talk about issues and cultures of existing processes, or processes that have not been well articulated, that slow us down and make us incredibly inefficient. It’s those kinds of things that we have to address.

2. In the long run, how do these challenges impact the institution?

We risk serious damage. One of the things that happens with that sort of environment is that decisions don’t get made in a timely fashion. This is not just about business issues; it’s also about how we serve our constituents and our students. One of the key issues in that context is: are higher education institutions going to continue to be faculty centered or are they going to move to a more student-centered approach? They have been the way they are because they are very, very faculty centered. That’s a core issue institutions have to deal with; how much do we move to a more student-centered approach, and what impact does that have on the institution?

The other thing I would say is that environments that have so much ambiguity, like higher education institutions, tend to have a lot of lack of accountability. It also inspires a lot of rogue behavior. People go off and do whatever they want because nobody is holding them accountable or there aren’t clear processes for how to make that happen. While efficiency can be seen as how to make things run smoothly, if you don’t have it, then you end up with lots of things that actually, over time, make the situation worse.

My effort is to try to be clear about decision-making processes, and, when I can, push back against the higher education institution to say, “We can’t afford to do some of this stuff anymore.”

3. What role can technology play in helping staff focus the bulk of their efforts on high-value tasks?

It does seem to me the role of technology is to help us automate things that aren’t core to our business. I’m one who believes in high touch and high tech. You bring in technology to automate processes that allow you to do that effectively. Some things happen with technology that aren’t so effective. Anything that is student related, I’m very reluctant to entirely automate or [I’m] very careful which pieces get automated. You have to be really careful with this stuff and pick things that can really benefit, and don’t affect your relationship with, the customer.

Technology has a great role to play and I do think this is a golden age of educational technology where so many people are trying to figure out how to make things work better in higher education through technology.

4. How does the institution benefit from these kinds of efficiency changes?

There’s a variety of impacts they have. One is that it can result in better service for people. There may be occasions where it doesn’t, but in general I think we’re in an age where people do more and more things for themselves; that’s the way technology is being designed, so there’s lots of self-service stuff that helps. People feel better served if they can get into a system, do what they need to do and get out as opposed to waiting for somebody else to take care of them.

The second thing is the bottom line. If you can’t create more efficiencies and save money, then you’re looking at the wrong issues because in general it can reduce the amount of staff time and it reduces the amount of time you spend on processes. For example, one online institution had to do a proctored exam. They took a look at the processes to find out how long it took for a student to sign up for a proctored exam. When they mapped the process, they found it took anywhere from eight to 20 hours of time for that to happen. They began to look to see where the holdups were. What they found was that the primary culprit was that students didn’t adequately complete the application form for the proctor. What they came up with was an online electronic form that required students to complete all of the fields in order to move forward. The result was a drop in times to the average completion time being two hours. Not only did it serve students better, it also served the staff better. When you save time like that, you create better service for the student and you save money on the bottom line simultaneously.

The other thing it does is free up time to do other things. Sometimes people will think that if we get more efficient, we’ll need fewer staff. Well, maybe, but you also may be able to free up staff to do things you haven’t been able to do, which means the value-add that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. That can actually help your connection to students and [the] benefits you’re bringing as an educational institution in general.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Greater efficiency can save the institution money and also ensure staff can spend more of their time on high-touch tasks.

  • This outcome can lead to an improvement in customer service, which improves the overall student experience.

  • Exploring processes to find hold-up areas is a critical first step to improving operational efficiency.
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Readers Comments

Ted B. 2014/10/21 at 12:09 pm

Every institution needs to go through an audit of its practices, like in the example Smutz gives about the proctored exams. My institution recently undertook such an audit of 33 of our processes, and we identified what amounts to 650 hours of, essentially, wasted time (an average of almost 20 hours per process!) We’re now combing through our findings to identify systemic barriers and potential process improvements. We aim to cut the 650 figure to 200 by the end of 2015, and to eventually reduce it to 0. Part of this will be achieved through a new LMS we’re implementing, but the rest will have to come from our efforts to understand the extent of the problem and think creatively to resolve them.

Samantha Avery 2014/10/21 at 4:40 pm

I agree with Smutz’ point about the need to make better use of staff by having them focus on high-touch, high-focus activities rather than mundane, repetitive tasks that could be automated. It’s up to every institution to first identify what those tasks are for their particular institution, and the tech tools needed to address them. Then, as staff shift to high-touch, value-added work, they need to be supported throughout the transition — whether that means training to do this new type of work or additional resources.

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