Published on 2017/08/02

Process Automation as a Strategic Differentiator: How Efficiency Impacts the Experience

The EvoLLLution | Process Automation as a Strategic Differentiator: How Efficiency Impacts the Experience
Creating an environment where all the various technologies and systems an institution has in place work in concert with one another is critical to delivering on the expectations of today’s learners while also improving operational efficiency—all of which positively impacts the bottom line.

When college and university administrators think about investments that make a positive impact on the student experience, they’re often drawn towards major capital investments in campus upgrades and amenities like cafeterias and climbing walls. However, though back-end efficiencies can have a significant impact on the student experience, they tend to get swept under the rug. In this interview, Mohan Mailvaganam reflects on the critical importance of back-end efficiencies and process automation in helping colleges and universities deliver the high-end, professional experience today’s students expect.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role can automated workflows and processes play in helping a college or university differentiate itself?

Mohan Mailvaganam (MM): We look at workflow automation as a critical puzzle piece within an overall digital transformation strategy, which focuses on enabling an organization to shift to a digital way of working. To gain faster return on efforts and investments we encourage organizations to focus on workflow automation projects within core business processes, as this is where significant benefits can be achieved to help grow revenue, reduce operational costs and gain efficiencies, while becoming more secure and compliant.

In the case of higher education institutions, we look at critical document intensive and manual business processes within faculties, administration and support areas that touch prospective students, faculty, staff and suppliers.  It’s really all-encompassing, and we find that organizations that take a holistic approach, with a phased rollout strategy, will be most successful in moving to digital way of working. With higher education being a competitive industry supporting a global market, the institutions that can accelerate the adoption of workflow automation will have a competitive advantage, not only in driving top-line revenue and attracting students but becoming more operationally efficient.

Evo: How much of a difference do operational efficiencies, like automated workflows, really make for students?

MM: We look at business processes because they absolutely have a big impact on how students interact with an institution. And when we look at the student experience throughout their lifecycle, it really starts at the prospect stage, with the admissions process, and then goes all the way to the alumni stage. When students interact with staff, faculty, admissions, the registrar, the health center or athletics, manual document-centric processes supporting those touchpoints create friction and impact the student experience. The more those processes are digitized and made self-serve through mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, the more students, faculty and staff are able to get information and process transactions anytime, anywhere, securely.

Changing the way students interact with the institution and staff—and leveraging today’s technology in business process automation and information management—transforms the institution from a reactive support model to a proactive one. This is more important now, especially when we look at the population of students coming into a school, and the growing number of international students schools are looking to attract. They’re going to school from all parts of the world and institutions are trying to track the diverse population of students who aren’t geographically bound. In order for institutions to really achieve that, they’ve got to go digital.

Evo: Why do back-end processes often get left out of the discussion of key differentiators for higher education administrators?

MM: Until now, institutions haven’t fully understood the business impact of the back office processes. Either from a lack of public funding, dearth of applicants or not enough donations from alumni, current financial constraints are driving organizations to look at where the cost savings and efficiency opportunities are, and it’s pointing many organization to the back-office. We see it especially in functional areas involved in enrollment management, business office, human resources, advancement, athletics and senior administration. These areas are paper-intensive, people-oriented, error-prone, multi-step interactions that not only impact the department but also touch other areas outside of that department, which is what drives the complexity. Any process that saves time and manual effort, whether it’s processing invoices, sending out acceptance letters or registrations, will save money for the institution that can then be re-invested in student services.

Evo: How must postsecondary management culture evolve to ensure leaders are spending as much time thinking about operational efficiencies and effectiveness as they do thinking about campus amenities?

MM: As organizations work to compete in the global market place, the key is to understand that the benefits of back-office process automation will be felt across campus. Our advice is to look at it holistically, no matter what processes are being automated—whether it’s student-facing, faculty or supplier centric. One great example is investments made in implementing a student information system, because that seems to be the core of the institution itself. However, this investment by itself does not solve all process challenges across the institution—finding the right platforms and strategic partners that can support business process transformation will be key to accelerating the journey to digital. Organizations need to focus on areas that will improve efficiency in the long-term rather than getting bogged down in short-term issues and solving them with point solutions.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact of process automation as a strategic differentiator?

MM: When it comes down to automating processes, the biggest barrier organizations face is digitally managing the process flow of unstructured information trapped in paper and digital documents and integrating them within core systems—such as student information, enterprise resource planning and HR information systems—to provide easy 360 degree access to student, faculty, staff and supplier information.

Organizations that are able to apply a holistic strategy to tackle this will not only gain strategic differentiation through increased revenues, reduced operational costs and faster responsiveness to clients, but also compliance from an information security perspective.  Since so much of a higher education institution’s information is on paper, and at risk of security breaches, this can cause a host of serious problems – from a cost of non-compliance to risk to brand reputation. Having the right strategy for overall information management and process automation, wrapped with the right change management and governance model, is integral to gaining strategic differentiation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Process and workflow automation are key components to the broader digital transformation movement, which is helping colleges and universities across North America to simultaneously become more student-centric and efficient.
  • Capital investments in the campus tend to contribute to a great first impression for students, but back-end efficiencies will ensure their experience throughout their engagement with the institution is positive.
  • Improving processes around enrollment and admissions helps to get students registered and in the door more quickly, which has a concrete impact on the institutional bottom line while also meeting students’ expectations.