Published on 2014/10/24

Demand for Efficiency Gives Institutions Leg Up in Marketplace

AUDIO | Demand for Efficiency Gives Institutions Leg Up in Marketplace
Efficiency is a critical need in the mind of today’s students, and by serving this need institutions can actually improve their positioning and market share.

The following interview is with Robert Wensveen, associate director of continuing education at the University of Calgary. Since their inception, continuing education (CE) units have navigated the challenges of providing high-quality programs and services on a limited budget to a constantly changing marketplace. This is a challenge main campuses are only starting to become familiar with, and learning how to successfully accomplish this task will require some process and policy changes. In this interview, Wensveen discusses how CE units use their need for operational efficiency to their advantage, and shares his thoughts on how these efficiencies can improve the student experience.

1. What are some of the operational improvements that can help institutions effectively react to new opportunities and serve new marketplaces?

The first thing to consider is time to market for new courses and programs. If you can take a course and program or a new program and meet the demand the industry or the public has efficiently and quickly, then you’re going to be successful.

It’s all about increasing the speed of your approvals. You can use technology to help automate your workflows and approval process. As opposed to the traditional methods, perhaps, that many institutions have where there are multiple paper documents that have to be circulated, if you can use those and turn those into electronic formats or workflows, you can expedite or speed up your time to market. Thus, you would be more effective and you would serve the market and increase your opportunity.

2. Why are tech tools and back-end efficiency inextricable from one-another?

Tech tools and back-end efficiencies are largely tied together in the form of how the staff use them. Are the staff effectively using tech tools to make themselves more efficient in terms of how the process of supporting the students, supporting the registration process and supporting the approval process for students is carried out?

A lot of that has to do with looking at your technology culture within your workplace. What kind of culture do you have around technology, what is the pervasiveness of that technology — and as an IT manager or as an operations manager, there are a few questions you need to ask. Are you recommending new technologies, are you looking at new approaches to using technology and are you making those suggestions to the business? How is the staff reacting to that? Are they engaged in training, are they keen to learn new technologies?

That’s about the culture and how you build that culture within the workplace. If they’re keen, if they want to learn new technologies, if they’re adaptable and amenable to taking on new technologies and learning technologies, you’re going to be much more efficient in the back-end, in how you serve the students and how you serve your instructors. They’re tied together; they’re one and the same.

3. What impact does back-end efficiency have on the customer experience for students?

The back-end efficiency provides the great product or the great experience and that’s what it’s all about; it’s about the experience of the student.

If you take registration, for example, what we’re seeing within our institutions is that our online registrations are coming close to 60 percent or above overall. That’s really quite a feat because we have so many certificates and programs, which require a lot of advising. Students have a lot of questions in terms of where they are in their program, in their studies, and they need a lot of information to help them manage the course load or the program they’re taking.

We’ve really worked hard to try and improve the quality of information we have on our website, so when the student does go to our website with the hope of registering, they have the information they need there and they don’t necessarily need to call in and seek that information by phone. We see that by improving the information and improving and streaming the online registration process, we’ve been able to increase our online registrations and thus it’s freed up our staff to be able to do more important things, in a sense, while enhancing programs and aiding in the marketing and retention of students.

4. Are staff usually receptive to the idea of re-allocating their time in the name of efficiency?

They are if you present it in the appropriate manner. Again, it all comes back to the culture within the environment, the approach to technology and the approach to wanting to learn.

There are going to be some staff who are very complacent, but there are also ways in which to convert those attitudes and present it in a way that there’s an advancement option for them. They can grow, they can learn, and from that, if they’re more efficient and effective, then in essence that’s a way they can advance within the organization.

5. Is greater efficiency or simpler processes something students are excited about or simply something they expect?

Students expect efficiency. They might notice if they’ve experienced something one way in the past and they’re experiencing it in a different way now, either if they’re at a different institution or because the processes changed for them or they’re dealing with a different department within the institution. As customers, we all expect that our experience with any service we encounter is as efficient as possible. Higher education students are no different.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Readers Comments

Doug J. 2014/10/24 at 11:02 am

Academic efficiency should be the next area we look at in this ongoing discussion about organizational renewal. So far, the focus has largely been on improving the operational side of higher ed — which is important, certainly, but has not had a heavy impact on the student experience. I like that Wensveen has introduced the point about looking at time-to-market for new programs as the next area to tackle.

Grace Nickerson 2014/10/24 at 3:27 pm

Great piece. I wonder if Wensveen or anyone else has advice on how to create that culture of learning among staff. If I may be candid, we’ve experienced staff resistance to many change efforts over the past several years. It stalls our decision making as administrators and sometimes makes for a tense working environment.

    Robert Wensveen 2014/10/27 at 4:52 pm

    Thank you Grace,

    One of the things we are experimenting with is, increasingly, getting the IS/IT staff of the unit in front of the staff. The intent is to try and break down communication barriers (both ways), by creating a comfort-level between the two groups. There is nothing worse than a “We vs. Them” culture. We are doing this in two primary ways. The first is to to hold stand-up meetings with specific teams where the IT/Operations group is allotted 10 – 15 minutes during a monthly team meeting to come in and provide a quick update on projects and other related news. The second is to offer numerous demonstrations of reporting or registration system functionality at specific times of the academic year. One demonstration might be on performing a complex registration transaction, another demonstration might be on new reporting functionality. This also provides opportunity for open discussion as to what is or is not working between the users and the IS/IT support group. Communication and trust are two of the greatest barriers. We are trying to address both of these in the examples I described above.

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