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Foresight and Commitment: What It Takes to Deliver a Leading Student and Staff Experience

The EvoLLLution | Foresight and Commitment: What It Takes to Deliver a Leading Student and Staff Experience
When higher education leaders begin thinking of themselves as executives managing organizations that serve thousands of customers, it becomes increasingly clear that investing in the student and staff experience should be immensely high priorities.

We spend a great deal of time trying to understand the ingredients that compose a great student experience. Depending on the students they serve, some institutions turn to amenities like climbing walls and lazy rivers, while others look at ways to make the academic experience more flexible. But what does it take to deliver a great staff experience too? And what impact can that have on the all-important student experience? In this interview, Michelle Fach reflects on how she and her colleagues at the University of Guelph Open Learning and Educational Support (OpenEd) work to deliver a leading experience to non-traditional students and shares her thoughts on the role customer lifecycle management software plays in supporting that work.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What were some of the reasons behind Guelph OpenEd’s decision to explore new management systems?

Michelle Fach (MF): One of the drivers was that the system we had in place was developed and customized in-house approximately 20 years ago. In order to take advantage of advancements in technology, we needed to move away from our customized solution and adopt a solution that transforms the learner experience, integrates with various institutional systems, and provides rich data and improved workflows.

Access to the improved services was another reason behind our decision. We were able to give students more control over their experience. We could create internal efficiencies for the department so that we can eliminate the need for paper, eliminate the need for multiple steps, and other major inefficiencies.

One of the other reasons behind my decision was the consolidation of functionality. There are a few different systems that were facilitating all of the work that our new system does. For example, we had a website that displayed some of our course offerings. Our English Language Program had its own international student database. With Destiny One, I can eliminate the need for multiple, disparate databases and bring all that information into one environment.

Evo: What was the vulnerability created by sticking with your homegrown system?

MF: We have had a single developer supporting our system for the last 20 years. It was written in PowerBuilder and even though we had a SQL back end, the front end was still PowerBuilder. 20 years ago, there were lots of PowerBuilder programmers, but our expertise in that programming language was not maintained. Ultimately, if something happened to that individual developer, we would not have support for our system. That was a significant vulnerability.

Additionally, we would have had to re-develop the entire system from scratch in order for it to provide the student-facing functionality today’s students expect. Although we had built functionality that provided an online interface, the actual system wasn’t web enabled, so to make it web-enabled—to create that student experience that we were looking for—it would have had to been built from scratch.

Evo: How will the new system allow Guelph OpenEd to expand its stakeholder groups?

MF: At Guelph University, most of the continuing education work is centralized but there are some units that are offering their own CE programming separate from OpenEd. So we plan to roll Destiny One out to them to support their needs and provide these departments with the ability to work with major corporate partners like Loblaws or Maple Leaf Foods to offer that high-end corporate experience through Destiny’s Corporate Module.

We’re also exploring how we can support registrations that are internal within Guelph. Our HR department conducts a lot of its own staff development and those programs, courses and sessions are available to staff throughout the university. Rolling out that functionality would be valuable for them because they would be better able to manage the registration aspects of these professional development offerings.

Evo: What were a few key challenges Guelph OpenEd staff faced when serving specialized non-traditional populations, like Intensive English Language program students or corporate employees?

MF: There were a number of challenges our staff faced in serving specific non-traditional populations. The systems that they were using were not flexible or scalable and they had a lack of access to data.

It was difficult to make informed, evidence-based decisions on markets and trends because the data was sitting in multiple systems. It was difficult to really get a good picture in a timely way. This is especially challenging for us because, as a cost recovery department, we run like a business and timely information is really important. The process of making data-driven decisions was very challenging and labor intensive.

Additionally, the fact that the systems we used were mostly not web-enabled meant we had a number of other systems—like registration systems—built on top of our core system to facilitate different functions. This meant we always had to deal with numerous integrations.

At its core, different populations expect different services and so we were using multiple systems to facilitate and meet those expectations. Trying to manage a business this way becomes challenging and you just can’t scale.

Evo: What were some specific aspects of the student experience you were trying to transform?

MF: At its core, we wanted to give students more control over their own experience. For example, if a student wanted a copy of a receipt, or they wanted to get a copy of a grade report, they would have to send us an email or fill out a form and then we would print out the document and send it to them. Students no longer have to engage with a staff member to get their documentation. We’re giving students more control over their experience with the university. Now, students have 24/7 access to their full academic history so they don’t have to wait to get a hold of a staff member to ask for a copy of something. They just login at a time and place that is convenient for them.

This shift is totally aligned with the values and the reason for our department, which is about promoting and creating access. We’re about responsiveness, timeliness, improving access, and allowing students to control their own experience. We want to continue to be known for our student support and service and in order to do that, we must continue to anticipate and exceed their expectations. Students have choices with respect to where they enrol for continuing education opportunities. We want to be their first choice. We have high-quality academic standards and our service standards must be aligned. We pride ourselves on the quality of service we deliver and the personalized support that our staff provides to our clients, and Destiny aligns with that vision.

Evo: What are some of the central characteristics of a great customer experience for postsecondary students?

MF: There are a few key characteristics that define a great customer experience for postsecondary students, and chief among them are approachability of staff and the system. We need to create an environment where students don’t have to go to multiple spots to get one piece of information—or to get different information on the same question from multiple sources.

It can be intimidating for adult learners coming into a postsecondary environment to take a course. Some individuals have never come to university so the whole experience is intimidating and we need to remove those barriers. We need to remove the fear and combat their concern that they don’t belong here because they absolutely do—they make the environment richer. We need to be approachable, available and responsive. We can’t make people wait for information. We must provide them with accurate, important information in an easily digestible way. We can’t leave them to read through 50 pages to get to the information they need, and then leave them to try to figure out if that actually applies to them. We need to provide them with a supportive environment.

Evo: How have staff reacted to the shift to the new software?

MF: As a senior leader, there’s always a level of concern around change management when introducing a new system. We’ve had our old system for 20 years, and we knew we were going to have to change some processes and some workflows.

However, our staff were very excited, open and willing to make the changes necessary and to do things differently, so that was a real added benefit. They were excited about the opportunities it would provide students and how it would change the nature of their work.  They really see how this shift is going to allow them to add value to the student experience in a different way. They fully adopted it and I don’t have any concerns at all with respect to staff trying to go back to the old ways.

We only implemented at the beginning of October 2016, so we’ve only really been live for a few months, but we immediately saw efficiencies. In terms of people’s work, the numerous steps staff once had to take to help facilitate a registration or respond to an inquiry have now been automated and taken off their plates.

Evo: How are those efficiencies improving staff satisfaction and time use?

MF: People’s roles will no longer involve moving paper around. Instead, they’re actually getting into the environment and getting caught up on things that they weren’t able to get done in our previous system.

I think what will happen is there will be less time spent on routine administrative tasks and more on services that add value to the learner experience.

As we reduce the number of administrative tasks, my administrative costs will reduce. My staff, in some ways, will need to evolve and because they’ll be providing expertise and service in a different way—and in different areas—which is great because I’ve got a keen group of people that want to learn, develop and grow. Am I going to need staff sitting at a registration desk five days a week for eight hours a day? No, that time will probably be cut in half and they’ll be supporting other aspects of the department.

What’s more, all staff—be they managers or curriculum development support personnel—will have more data and evidence on which to base their decisions, practices and programming.

Ultimately, we want to grow enrollments and we want to grow programs and now we’re going to be able to do that without actually adding more cost to the bottom line.

Evo: How much of a concern is it when an institution puts a process change into place for staff to simply ignore the new business process and why is this different?

MF: You would think that it shouldn’t be that easy for staff to revert to the old ways of doing things but there are individuals that have been doing their job a certain way for a long time and just don’t really want to—or they fear—change. They get concerned about how a new system or new processes are going to affect them and their job. As such, they oftentimes can put up barriers and create excuses for why they don’t shift to the new process.

That happens lots in organizations, but there a few reasons why I don’t think it happens here. Part of it is culture. We have a responsibility as cost recovery unit to continue to evolve in order to remain viable. If we don’t continue to evolve and improve we’re not going to be around, and our staff see that and know that, so they really want to invest in the ongoing development of the department and the programs. The staff here also care greatly about the student and the faculty experience—they’re care about their jobs and they feel a sense of ownership.

Evo: With the ability to focus more on quality programming and other differentiators and with the ability to deliver a student experience that more closely mirrors what they’re used to, how do you see the role of Guelph OpenEd changing within the broader university structure at Guelph?

MF: OpenEd will continue to be seen as innovative, forward-thinking, focused on students, responsive and nimble. We’ve always been known for that but I think Destiny One will only enhance that reputation. In fact, I already see that. Our commitment to enhancing and supporting the student experience through this type of technology is being recognized by other departments at the university. They are getting excited about this functionality and want to know how they can take advantage of these opportunities as well

I was talking to a Department Chair and I told him, “I’ve got this new system in place and it’s going to have a corporate module.” He wanted to know more so I wrote up one-pager for him talking about the corporate module. He was just thrilled about the possibility because this is something that he could really see adding benefit for him when he is working with corporate clients.

OpenEd is the only place where these kinds of conversations are happening. Without a doubt, we will be a leader on this campus in those areas and we’ll be seen as the place to go for supporting lifelong learners.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To download a case study that goes into more depth on the impact of implementing Destiny Solutions’ customer lifecycle management software, Destiny One, on the student and staff experience at Guelph OpenEd, please click here.

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