Published on 2014/10/23

Efficiency Through Third-Party Relationships Can Lead to Differentiation

AUDIO | Efficiency Through Third-Party Relationships Can Lead to Differentiation
By working with vendors to implement systems that create back-end efficiencies, staff and executives can spend their time focusing on serving the needs of students and providing a top-end customer experience.
The following interview is with Sharon Duffy, dean of Extension at University of California (UC) Riverside. As higher education main campuses are struggling to maintain their status quo with fewer available resources, continuing education and extension units have historically not only provided students with great service, but expanded into new marketplaces under these conditions. In this interview, Duffy explains how operational efficiency can help institutions stay nimble and compete in new marketplaces, and discusses how that back-end efficiency contributes to the student experience.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can better operational efficiency help institutions react to new opportunities and serve new marketplaces?

Sharon Duffy (SD): As a self-funded organization, we have to be efficient and responsive to the expectations of our students and other constituents we serve. We have to be flexible and this means our systems have to have enough structure that we aren’t always starting from scratch and reinventing processes when new opportunities come. But they also have to have enough flexibility that we can be nimble and creative and that we can customize to implement new ideas that will attract students.

We try to create new models with the expectation the foundation can be used for similar opportunities in the future.

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

SD: In today’s world, students want instant access to all of their data. Since systems have become more integrated, students can go or should be able to go to one place to get all of their information and also to get access to a variety of student learning tools and services. They also need to be able to go office-to-office to visit advisors and registrars and other staff who will have access to the same current information about their academic histories and their academic plans. These staff can have more of a complete picture about the student to better assist with their situation.

The students want [an experience that is] simple, seamless, responsive, reliable and easy to navigate — they just want it to work for them.

We’ve found that if we meet all of these criteria they won’t compliment us on good service necessarily, but if we fail on any of them, it colors their whole impression of us and they will likely look elsewhere for their educational programs.

On the back end, to be efficient, we have to anticipate needs for change. This requires us to continually seek student feedback on systems to know whether they agree that our systems are easy to use and whether we provide the information they need and the functions they want in a format that works for them.

Through back-end efficiency, we can gain access to high-quality data analytics. This allows the organization to dedicate resources to the areas where they’re most needed, allowing us to adapt in real-time to marketplace changes and remain nimble. Most importantly, it means staff time is focused on thinking about and implementing change, rather than being bogged down in data gathering.

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

SD: One of the things we’ve concluded is that we shouldn’t shy away from acquiring services of third parties, like Software as a Service (SAAS) because these technically can also be back-end systems delivered by groups that have specialized expertise. It’s not efficient for our organization to try to be experts in all of the tech tools we need.

It’s very inefficient for us to try to be experts in everything. By having integrated systems that work well, our human resources are freed up to focus on our academic mission, allowing us to provide a concierge experience to students rather than being bogged down by cumbersome processes.

Importantly, efficient tech tools reduce the chance for error, which can have serious consequences for our self-supporting organization.

Additionally, first-class information systems and technology tools can help us enforce best-in-class business practices and allow [for] more transparency in our organization.

This interview has been edited for length

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Key Takeaways

  • Operational efficiencies and streamlined back-end processes allow students to experience a consistent process similar to what they would expect from any other major service.
  • Tech tools from third-party providers may allow institutions to implement industry-best practices without having to invest the time into figuring them out.

Readers Comments

Arizona R. 2014/10/23 at 7:16 am

I have no idea why schools are still building their own systems in-house. Even if we make the best system in the world, it will be obsolete in five years. We’re educators, not programmers. Let the programmers do the programming, let’s not spend time and money on that anymore.

Commenter 2014/10/23 at 12:10 pm

We’re on a slippery slope if we keep talking about this as a customer experience issue. If students begin expecting us to do everything for them, how long until they expect we’ll do their homework and exams for them too?

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