Published on 2014/10/20

Efficiency Central to Innovation and Growth, Despite Upfront Cost

Efficiency Central to Innovation and Growth, Despite Upfront Cost
Though critics of efficiency will point to upfront costs and task reduction, these changes are necessary to allow institutions and their staff to innovate and grow.

The following email Q&A is with Evan Duff, vice president of adult and professional studies at North Carolina Wesleyan College. Duff writes frequently on the roadblocks faced by small colleges in today’s highly competitive higher education marketplace. In this Q&A, Duff discusses the particular challenges faced by continuing education leaders (CE) when it comes to implementing efficiency-related changes. He discusses the importance of these changes and outlines some of the common misconceptions surrounding efficiency-related change.

1. Why is operational efficiency so important for CE leaders?

Operational efficiency is no different in higher education than it is for non-profit and proprietary organizations. As the leader of a college or university, you want to produce a high-quality product (education) in the most efficient way possible to protect the bottom line and to provide the best possible services to students.

With heightened awareness of federal regulations on financial aid, colleges and universities have to be smarter with their operations so their dependence on tuition is minimized. The less wasteful spending that occurs, the more affordable college can become, and the dependence on federal financial aid can then be reduced.

2. How can back-end efficiency and streamlined bureaucratic processes help CE units improve the student experience?

One great example of this is online registration. Many colleges still don’t have an automated registration process. Students still register by hand, someone keys it into the system, and it ultimately filters through the registrar’s office. Not only is this time consuming, but mistakes can also be made and paper is wasted.

If colleges had an all-inclusive online registration process, students could register themselves, enter their courses automatically into the system and automatically generate student billing. This process reduces manpower, speeds up the process, reduces errors and provides for a much more enjoyable experience for the student. It also ultimately holds them accountable for the classes “they” register for.

Another form of back-end efficiency to improve the student experience is the processing of financial aid and student accounts. Many schools do this manually and it slows down the process. If the process were automated, students could track their progress in real time and know when to expect their accounts to get cleared.

3. Often, efficiency-related change is met with criticism; either around short-term spending to make the changes or around fears of what the changes will mean for staff and faculty. How would you respond to such critiques?

Being more efficient is usually never about reduction in force. It’s usually about removing mundane tasks from employees’ plates so they can focus on other issues that are more important or visionary in nature.

Vision is stalled with many employees because they don’t have the time to focus on it. They get into a routine of putting out small fires, or remedial tasks, and it stifles innovation. This is why many colleges and universities want to be more efficient, to give these employees more time to focus on the vision of the organization and on their jobs.

Almost any change to be more efficient will have short-term costs and sometimes just a one-time cost. However, colleges normally see the savings immediately and those savings outlast the initial cost. For example, if a process is automated in the business office that saves staff 15 to 30 minutes a day, they can focus that time on other activities and save the college from having to hire additional employees. Also, if a college replaces their lighting on campus to LED lights, there would be a cost, but the new lights would be brighter and would cost less to generate. Over time, the college would be saving much more than the investment they made. Most changes can be explained in a way to reduce the concerns of these employees.

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Readers Comments

Alice Brezicki 2014/10/20 at 10:15 am

The biggest value of finding operational efficiencies is that the student experience is improved. “Customer experience” is particularly important in CE, as these students tend to be older, have more experience in the “real world” and view their foray into higher ed as similar to being consumers in other industries. Improvements to their experience will translate into a better reputation for institutions and could even impact enrollment. I won’t pretend to have numbers to support this, but perhaps someone will share about the correlation between a postitive experience and increased enrollment in the comments.

Evan Duff 2014/10/20 at 12:28 pm

That is a great point Alice. College leaders should be intentional with their efficiency measures to make sure they have a positive impact on the students. Some of the things I mentioned and others include:

1. Online registration
2. Automated financial aid and student account processing
3. Online transcript orders with e-transcripts

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Evan Duff

Cathy E. 2014/10/20 at 1:18 pm

It’s important to do whatever it takes to free staff up to focus on high-touch tactics, especially in continuing education. CE is a constantly evolving beast, and sustained effort and invention on the part of staff is vital to helping students transition into CE and helping CE transform. Staff will only be able to do this if they are given a break from worrying about the “small fires,” as Duff puts it.

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