Published on 2016/02/10

How Technology Makes a Difference in Scaling Personalization

The EvoLLLution | How Technology Makes a Difference in Scaling Personalization
Higher education institutions need to leverage technological tools and systems to deliver the personalized experience today’s students expect.

Personalization of service and experience is an expectation of today’s consumers, but higher education institutions have been slow in adapting to this reality. However, as students begin to act more and more like customers, colleges and universities need to start delivering the personalized experience students expect. This can be a challenge, given the large and diverse number of students enrolling every year, but technology helps. In this interview, Lige Hensley reflects on the importance of delivering personalization at scale in today’s postsecondary environment and shares his thoughts on the role technology plays in helping institutions do this successfully.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for colleges and universities to deliver students a personalized experience?

Lige Hensley (LH): Personalization is important in any industry because customers today like to feel like they are more than a number.

In education, I think this is even more important. At its core, a person’s postsecondary education is very much a personal experience. Higher education leaders know this and even publicize it when touting their faculty-to-student ratios. At our school, we’re doing a lot of work across the college to bring more personalization to our students. From our deployment of “one stop” registration centers to our use of online tutoring tools—not to mention a few of the projects we have in the works that haven’t been announced yet—we’re trying to cater to the needs of ours students. Giving the student what they need to be successful—sometimes before the students themself realize the need—is the ultimate personalized experience.

Evo: What are some of the key challenges to delivering a personalized experience at scale?

LH: There are two key challenges I see for us when it comes to scaling this level of personalization.

First, it’s critical to know where to personalize. We have a large and complex environment with lots of touch points with the students. We also have limited resources at our disposal. Knowing where and when to personalize in order to get the maximum benefit from the effort is key. While I don’t think we’ve mastered this just yet, we’re making real progress. We’ve started gathering data on college initiatives in order to verify they have the impact we expect. Our approach on the technology side is to literally keep every bit of data for future analysis. This has allowed us to gain real business knowledge from data (or the lack of data) that we would not have been able to do even five years ago. It also allows us to play “what if” scenarios. We can build behavior models from our data and then simulate changes to get an idea of the impact an initiative may have.

The second challenge, related to the above point, is getting the right people together to analyze the data we have gathered. We gather approximately 100 million rows of data, across hundreds of different systems, every day. It’s unreasonable to expect one or two people to have the right knowledge across all this information in order to analyze it. You have to get the correct mix of knowledge and insight together—along with a significant technical skills and technology—in order to get value from the data you have.

Evo: How important is technology to the effort of delivering personalization at scale?

LH: Technology is fundamental to delivering students a personalized experience at scale. The retail industry figured this out a long time ago. They can process a truly staggering amount of data quickly and get the right advertisement in the right hands. There are plenty of case studies on this and it’s clear that this does work. We’ve taken a lot of lessons that have been learned from other industries and brought them in-house to assist with our efforts. The only way to sift through over a billion rows of data every 10 days is to use technology efficiently and focus on those results that matter.

Technology even has a big impact in some areas that are less obvious. Whether it’s “smart” digital signs, systems that find and bring to bear the most efficient queuing algorithm, or identifying students who haven’t registered for the right classes in order to graduate on time, the possibilities are really endless.

It’s all a matter of picking the right effort, the right technology and sometimes thinking outside the box a bit.

Evo: What are the benefits and drawbacks of working with vendors on this?

LH: There are some clear benefits of working with vendors to achieve scale. Vendors can bring in new approaches, new technology or new techniques to the table. Good vendors can be the honeybees for good ideas. We collaborate with our good vendors nearly every day.

Unfortunately, the higher education industry also has more than its share of vendors that underperform. I think many schools settle with underperforming vendors because of a perceived lack of options, convenience or complacency. We challenge all of our vendors (and I’m willing to bet that if they are reading this, those folks are nodding their heads in agreement with this!). We are always looking for better ideas and new ways to improve or make things cheaper. One of our mottos within the technology team is “Bigger, Better, Faster.” Not only are we here to make things better for the college (and ultimately the student) but we require the same thing from our vendors, or we will find new ones.

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Key Takeaways

  • Today’s customers expect a personalized experience no matter where they are, and colleges need to meet that expectation.
  • Understanding what areas to personalize to have the greatest impact on the student experience is a significant challenge to overcome.
  • Technological tools and systems are central to any institution’s attempt to deliver a personalized experience.
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