Published on 2015/07/09

Accelerating Time to Market: Understanding and Navigating the Approvals Process

The EvoLLLution | Accelerating Time to Market: Understanding and Navigating the Approvals Process
Though colleges and universities are innovating and creating new courses and programs responsive to market needs, the approval process can impact their effectiveness by delaying their time-to-market.

Improving market responsiveness is a major priority for college and university leaders across the United States. One of the major critiques levied against higher education is its inability to react to labor market changes and shifts in student demand. However, while higher education institutions are constantly creating new programs with in-demand subject matter and innovative delivery modalities, these programs can be significantly delayed in getting to market because of the approvals process. In this interview, Kara Monroe discusses the impact the approvals process can have on innovative course and programs and shares her thoughts on how institutions can speed up the time-to-market for new offerings.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most challenging aspects to the approval process for new, credit-bearing online courses and programs?

Kara Monroe (KM): The approval processes are not built for online programs, especially in public institutions that already existed prior to online courses. For the most part, they are processes that have been adapted to fit online programming or other new innovative forms of programming and inherent in them are inefficiencies that may have already existed. For example, in an on-ground program, you’re typically only going to consider enrollment for your local areas, but in online programs you may consider enrollments that are nationwide. But if the box on the approval form asks, “What is the enrollment you anticipate from the service area?” you have to go back to the approver and ask whether it is okay to define the service area more broadly. In most cases it is, but it’s a question that has to be asked.

The other thing is that higher education’s approval processes are not always built for speed. Online learning is becoming traditional now and we’re looking at other, newer forms of learning. In an online program, we want to get the program out there; we want to get it launched because we can reach more people faster. However, these programs often require multiple reviews. Approval processes are necessary but I’m not sure they have been adapted completely to fit that genre.

In addition to the institutional- and accreditor-level approval processes we have to go through for the program, there’s also this whole other layer of state authorization. In order for us to have students in our programs from other states, we have to be authorized to do business in those states. That presents an entirely different set of challenges and business processes that higher ed institutions for the large part have never had to deal with. The cost involved in being able to open an online program up to other states, because of all the legal compliance issues you have to deal with, is a little absurd.

Evo: What are the benefits to having a robust approval process in place for new online courses and programs?

KM: The approval process forces you to go through a planning and evaluative process, especially now as more of the approval processes are also focusing on what the result of your implementation will be. It forces you to think about how you’re going to evaluate your work and to ensure that we’re doing what’s right in terms of meeting students’ needs.

Evo: Reflecting on your own experience, how have you navigated these obstacles to get programs out more quickly?

KM: We have done a lot of work at making sure that we understand what the approval processes are and have someone in-house who becomes an expert, developing relationships and maintaining those relationships with the various organizations from which we need approval. We’ve worked very closely with accreditors and other approval agencies to make sure that we understand their current direction, where they are headed, how we can help them and what we need to do to make sure that we can inform their processes and be involved and engaged in them.

Evo: How do you think course and program approvals could be made more efficient when it comes to getting all the necessary buy-in from stakeholders across the institution?

KM: One of the things we have to do inside our organization is more routinely pull together cross-functional teams of people to look at the new ideas that are coming up and figure out ways to operationalize those more quickly.

Right now, new ideas usually come from a single program area or discipline, and then they are left alone to figure out how to navigate the pathway. We need to make sure that the approvals processes are clear, written and kept up to date but that they’re also as open as possible to allow for new ideas, new programs and new innovations that change what we do and how we do it every day.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the challenges the approval processes can create when trying to launch a new online course or program and what can be done to overcome those obstacles?

KM: So much of what we do in the community college is on a semester-based calendar. That’s not necessarily how our consumers think anymore.

I wonder if there are ways that we can change the calendar culture of our organization to better reflect consumer needs. People are making that decision to go to school much more quickly now, especially with adult learners returning. A lot of the data we’re seeing is that people make their decision within 90 days. If that’s the case then within any 90-day period we should have a start date so that they can start school at any time and get on with accomplishing their goals and improving their lives.

Evo: To your mind, what impact would a more efficient approvals process have on an institutions’ ability to actually serve multiple groups and multiple start dates for students?

KM: It would allow us to iterate more quickly. A lot of the approvals we have to get, some of them are “desk approvals”—we’re changing an objective or things like that. In iteration, it means there is a really minor change to a course but we have to wait until the next 16-week term begins before we implement that. Whereas, if you had more frequent start dates, you could build in more iterative processes, you could get newer content out to students even faster. The way information changes and builds today, making that faster makes more sense.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • The approval process for new courses and programs has not been redesigned for today’s education modalities, considerably slowing the time-to-market for new opportunities.
  • A more efficient approvals process would contribute positively to an institution’s capacity to offer multiple start dates.
  • A critical step for institutions to take in improving time-to-market for new opportunities is establishing a cross-disciplinary innovation team that helps new program and course creators navigate the approvals pathway.

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