Published on 2014/10/24

Efficiency: The Secret Top Schools Already Know

Efficiency: The Secret Top Schools Already Know
By creating a solid and smooth-running back end, colleges and universities can improve the customer experience for their students and set themselves on the path for long-term success.
For a long time, efficiency was seen as an enemy of the Academy. Lurking in the shadows and threatening to take away from rigor and performance, efficiency was all but avoided at top institutions. But it’s no secret that the business model of higher ed is changing, and as a result, efficiency is being looked at through a different lens. Once a detractor — a model used only by struggling institutions — efficiency is now a differentiator.

The key to understanding efficiency as a differentiator centers on the divide between the administrative side of an institution, where efficiency reigns supreme, and the teaching and learning (or faculty) side, where efficiency doesn’t hold the same value. Putting more students in a classroom or asking faculty to publish faster is not what we’re after here. Rather, efficiency is all about bringing new courses to market faster, answering student inquiries better, creating more agility within units and other such business-focused capabilities.

The value of efficiency is that it lets institutions do more and do it better, but with less.  Clayton Christensen predicted that half of American universities will be bankrupt within the next 15 years. It’s no surprise, considering that education budgets have been heavily slashed and that today’s learners are far more discerning when it comes to choosing an institution than ever in the past. And, when students don’t get what they want, they simply move on to another education provider that can better meet their needs—there are over 4,000 more to choose from. Efficiency offers a way for schools in a tough climate to not only scrape by, but to actually thrive.

Efficient schools are able to automate low-value tasks so that staff can spend time fostering a fruitful relationship with the student. Here is an example to break it down: rather than having students phone in for a transcript and then have a staff member manually print and mail it, efficient schools give students self-service capabilities online. The student is happier because their needs were met faster and the staff member is now able to focus on building relationships with other students with more complex needs.

Automation extends past self-service and should include numerous workflows that touch on all aspects of running a university. In an ideal situation, institutions input their own unique business rules and the system will run workflows to ensure that the school’s unique tasks are either managed automatically, or directed to the right person at the right time. Even simple workflows, like automatically directing a prospective student’s inquiry to the right person, can have big payoff. In this case, because the right staff member is notified about an inquiry immediately, they can respond first. Most students inquire at multiple institutions before enrolling, but the institution that responds first has a 238-percent better chance of converting the prospective student into an enrolled student than the school that responds second.

While automation is a crucial tool, it is not efficiency in and of itself. Efficiency is an enterprise-wide commitment to creating the best possible experience and infrastructure without redundancies or leakages. Efficiency allows schools to respond rapidly to changes in the labor market and in technology. It also empowers schools to centralize their operations by sharing assets across the institution to allow each unit to focus on its strengths.

On the back end, this means providing staff with the processes and systems they need to communicate with one another and with the institution’s tech infrastructure. On the front end, this means a better experience that students see firsthand.

We recently did a survey of nearly 1000 non-traditional students across the United States and Canada to see what they like about their institutions, how they feel they are being served and what they would change.  Without using the word outright, many students asked for more efficiency. Here is what one adult student said he would change about an institution he is otherwise very happy with:

“I would improve communication between departments. Sometimes it seems like the different departments work as isolated entities that don’t interchange information in a way that would benefit the ‘client’ of the process, in this case the student. I might go, for example, to an academic advisor and she can take notes in their system about my case, but let us say at some point she needs to send me to financial aid, where I have to repeat my story from the beginning because they wouldn’t have any access to all the notes the advisor already wrote.”

This is just one scenario demonstrating how inefficiency negatively impacts both the student and the staff members involved and how a simple process change could remedy both. The bottom line is that, by becoming more efficient, institutions can go from good to great and turn the challenge presented by this turbulent economy into pure opportunity.

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Readers Comments

Richard Choi 2014/10/24 at 1:50 pm

It’s crazy to think that, even 5 years ago, when we talked about efficiency we were talking about energy saving and being green. Operations efficiency needs to be behind everything we do, everyday. The government is turning off the funding tap and we need to find ways to stay in business now.

Nancy Rodriguez 2014/10/24 at 3:25 pm

The student quote is really interesting. Colleges are so siloed – it’s amazing that we haven’t figured out how to share basic information between departments.

    Tyler Flegg 2014/10/24 at 3:31 pm

    Did you see the article yesterday from UMUC? Students will leave a university after 3 bad interactions with administration. We need to get it together.

Ian Mulder 2014/10/24 at 5:50 pm

I always thought about efficiency from the perspective of “making life easier for our staff”. I never took it a step further to think about how efficiency can actually be noticed by students. More accurately, the absence of efficiency can be noticed by students. The best case scenario is they have no problems through their interaction with the school.

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