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Colorfast Change

You can upgrade student services all you want to—but certain factors ensure that the new processes are indelible.

By Robin P. Krakowsky

*In an ever-tightening economy, higher education has become an even more competitive marketplace. With a choice of more than 4,000 institutions of higher education, students, as customers, literally shop for educational experiences. They research, compare, and contrast academic program offerings, faculty reputations, sports-related activities and facilities, and national rankings, as they and their families select a college or university. They assume their interactions with administrative student services will be convenient and technology-driven. One bad experience—a registration glitch, a misplaced tuition payment, or frustrations in dealing with student services personnel—can cause students to rethink their college choice. How student services are effectively delivered plays a critical role in student satisfaction and retention.

How critical? One higher education executive (of several institution leaders who participated in a research project described later in this article) describes the situation at his institution this way: “The president's office was constantly receiving complaints from students and parents who just couldn't figure out our system. Student satisfaction is big on the list and our customers were dissatisfied. It just was too difficult to conduct our business. Transactions shouldn't be that hard to accomplish.”

READ AN ONLINE EXTRA. For further information and guidance on successfully achieving sustained change, read "Seeking and Securing Changes That Stick" in Business Officer Plus.

In addition, students didn't always understand what was required of them and felt puzzled and frustrated. Institutional leaders and staff members were frustrated as well, because some services were poorly delivered and existing technologies were dated. “Employee morale issues should not be taken lightly,” explains the research participant. “It was difficult and sometimes even chaotic for staff to accomplish their work. We knew we had to do the right thing for our students and our employees.”

In recognition of such challenges in administering student services, over the past 20 years many colleges and universities launched comprehensive change initiatives in this area. All had lofty goals focusing on innovative methods for accomplishing tasks and improving service. Although many of these institutions were able to implement significant transformations, not all have been able to sustain the resulting changes over time. It has been even more challenging to continue the momentum of providing increasingly better service.

The change initiatives in student services at my institution, Johnson & Wales University (JWU), Providence, Rhode Island, were similar to those at many other schools: They targeted increasing institutional effectiveness through the improvement of student services delivery. Pockets of student service departments successfully achieved significant change, sustained these changes over time, remained committed to the vision, and embraced continuous improvement. But the culture of change did not spread to all university departments, and the mainstream status of the change diminished over time.

Yet, change is crucial to survival, success, and long-term viability. And, now more than ever, higher education, often regarded as traditional and steeped in years of history, must be nimble to address the expanded expectations and financial concerns of numerous constituents. While change does not come easily, college and university leaders must rethink, re-evaluate, and adapt their operational and service delivery methods. The ongoing review and upgrade of administrative student services, in particular, can also attract and retain more and better students; promote improved use of financial, human, physical, and technological resources; create efficiencies; and assist in advancing a positive institutional reputation. But, how do you make that leap and make it permanent?

My own experiences with re-engineering student services piqued my interest to explore what factors had the greatest influence on sustaining improvements and fostering an ongoing culture of change and innovation. In pursuit of these answers, I identified institutions, like Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; Fordham University, Bronx, New York; and Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, that had been recognized for best practice in student services. (The designation of best practice in student services came from the IBM Best Practice Partners Group—a partnership between higher education and IBM that was in existence from 1996 to 2002 to develop and promote significant change and innovation in student services. It required a formal application process for recognition.)

The aforementioned institutions (and others) successfully implemented dramatic improvements through re-engineering, sustained those changes over time, and followed with continuous improvement efforts. (These and other institutions that participated in this investigation are private universities with many commonalities. I cannot definitively state whether the specific factors that sustained change in their continuous improvement efforts generally apply across all types of private and public institutions, although it is likely they relate in some manner.)

A common and resounding theme across these schools' initiatives was the commitment to embracing change. But, in addition, my research identified specific factors—present in and embraced by institutions—that appeared to make the new colors of change indelible: leadership, human input and interaction, and the cultural landscape. Following is an explanation of my research and a description of the factors that appear to be critical in implementing and sustaining the kind of change that won't fade over time.

Learning About Change's Staying Power

The elements most relevant for continuous improvement center on people and the organizational culture.

I found that much has been written about the particular upgrades made in student services in recent years. And, while documentation noted that the focus for change varied by institution, improvements primarily addressed re-engineering processes in a student-centered manner, developing one-stop service centers, creating cross-functional and cross-trained work teams, providing self-serve opportunities, systematically changing and replacing student information systems, and leveraging one consistent source of data with the end goal of improved and more effective decision making. Revolutionary, comprehensive, and creative, these initiatives resulted in remarkable improvements bringing cultural, structural, and technological changes across multiple departments that once operated as independent silos.

Many of the specific changes eliminated the need for students to trudge from building to building or office to office to conduct business transactions—whether to pay an invoice, handle financial aid or loan processing, make a housing selection, schedule courses, see an academic adviser, access support services, apply for a parking permit, or research internship and employment opportunities. Co-locations and integrations of offices and functions took place. Processing became seamless to students as well as less cumbersome and time-consuming. New technologies moved many transactions to the Web. Training and cross-training staff members resulted in employees being better informed and able to provide more consistent communications to students. Generally speaking, institutional mind-sets shifted from processes that may have best served individual employees or departments to those that best serve students.

Regardless of the type of institution—private, public, small, large, community college, or research institution—or the department affected—be it admissions, registrar, financial aid, student advising, or student employment—the redesign efforts were based on specific institutional goals and priorities, circumstances, and technological opportunities.

In contrast, I found little information when it came to sustaining these significant changes. I did uncover a theoretical model, developed in 2005 by David A. Buchanan (professor of organizational behavior at Cranfield University, Cranfield, UK) and fellow academic and health-care researchers that addressed the sustainability of change in public health-care settings. However, to find the answers I sought to explain sustainable change specifically in higher education or student services, I chose to undertake my own exploratory research.

Using Buchanan's model as a framework, I conducted in-depth interviews with higher education professionals involved in developing and instituting significant change and innovation in student services. Senior leaders, 12 in all, from Boston College, Fordham University, and Seton Hall University—representing the positions of vice president, vice provost, associate vice president, director, associate director, registrar, business systems analyst, and faculty member—shared their experiences with me. I was further granted access to their change-initiative documentation, which gave me a more comprehensive picture. Two experts from the field of change management in student services and supporting interviews conducted at JWU rounded out my research.

One of the most telling comments came early in my investigation from a participant who noted, “It would have been nice to have a model of sustainability factors when we were first approaching our change initiatives. It might well have saved us a lot of time, effort, and issues, and would have identified gaps for us.”

Rich and detailed descriptions about student services change initiatives unfolded and common themes emerged. These personal and institutional experiences shed light on how and why some efforts succeeded, and remain successful today, resulting in the identification of some shared and significant factors for sustainable change. Based on all that I learned, I compared those findings to the Buchanan model and then modified it to be specific to higher education, in particular to administrative student services. The resulting “Model for Sustaining Change in Higher Education Administrative Student Services” (see table) describes the primary and secondary factors that help make change a reality as well as the related commitments and actions that sustain the changes over time. A discussion of the model's application will come later in this article.

Factors for Sustaining Change

Not surprisingly, the elements most relevant and critical for supporting continuous improvement, increased effectiveness, and sustainable change center on people and the organizational culture. These three primary factors fall into three categories: leadership; human—both managerial and individual; and cultural.

Leadership factors. Without strong leadership, commitment, and engagement from high-level executives, comprehensive, complex, and enduring change is impossible. Sponsorship and ownership from the outset is essential from these leaders, and also must continue for a significant period beyond initial implementation. This constant attention has the greatest impact on stabilizing the vision and goals, and eliminating or reducing obstacles and resistance.

As institution leaders, you'll need to maintain the focus on sustaining change and facilitating continuous improvement. This may require using coalition power and influence to consider and align new organizational structures, and when needed, supporting innovative service delivery improvements. Further, you must be the primary communicators of the vision, purposes, priorities, and goals for a student-centered environment.

Beyond championing the change initiatives, what specifically can leaders do? What should you communicate, what media do you employ, and to whom do you address the messages? Who needs to be aligned with the cause? There are several ways for you to address these questions:

  • Determine the most appropriate ways to engage stakeholders, relative to their culture. For example, at Johnson & Wales University, the full support and commitment of the university president facilitated the allocation of human, technological, and physical resources, and clearly set expectations for all constituents on strengthening our university's student service focus. The most dramatic acknowledgment of this commitment was the creation of a new department, responsible for the redesign of student services, and the dedication of five full-time reassigned staff members, including a senior vice president.

    Additionally, up to 20 individuals at one time (from around the university) were released on a part-time basis to perform project work related to the change initiatives. By incorporating this into our strategic plan, the foundation for continuous improvement was solidified. (See sidebar, “Be Part of the Change You Seek,” for other examples of leadership involvement in change initiatives.)

Be Part of the Change You Seek

Institution leaders can display active involvement and support in numerous ways. Specific examples include:

  • Meeting with other executives privately and in group settings to keep them informed and garner ongoing support and alignment.
  • Using a steering committee comprised of a cross section of influential stakeholders.
  • Conducting town hall-type meetings to provide open forums and opportunities for feedback.
  • Holding frank discussions on what is working and what needs to be modified.
  • Being accessible to managers, staff, and other members of the university community.
  • Leveraging various communication vehicles for repetitive and positive messages.
  • Incorporating the student services vision into the institution's strategic plans.
  • Make a strong argument for sustained change. Whether originating from the president or other key executive, it is crucial that the message be broadcast about the consequences of not changing or, in a more positive approach, what might be gained by adopting a long-term vision. Continuing to meet student expectations, staying abreast of higher education trends and standards, or maintaining focus on increased efficiency—all are reasons to continue the particular effort after the initial implementation. As some departments or institutions received recognition for their effective student service improvements and outcomes, it encouraged and almost required others to follow suit, to “keep up.” Without voicing these compelling reasons and the accompanying expenditures of time, effort, and resources, rallying institutional efforts is difficult, and the intended change becomes diluted and perhaps even impossible to maintain.
  • Permeate the entire organization, up to and including the board of trustees, with audience-specific messages and communications. Discussions with those directly affected by change require a higher level of detail than explanations of less-sweeping actions. The heightened responsibilities of change leaders include anticipating potential issues, acknowledging problems when and where they exist, and proactively managing fear and anxiety regarding new roles and organizations for existing staff.

    One institution I studied faced a tough challenge when it decided to separate two distinct functions that were ineffectively operating under one department. These two functions had different goals and even required different skill sets of the employees. Change leaders assembled a redesign team that included one member from the department who was liked and trusted by his peers. By making this person part of the redesign process, coworkers had more of a connection with the work being performed. And the designated staffer was able to help convey the change leaders' ongoing support and reassurances about the progress of the project.

    Periodic staff meetings kept everyone updated on progress, allowing employees time to understand and absorb the issues and the need for change. Leaders encouraged staff to raise concerns and provide suggestions. When final plans were announced to the group, the senior executive with reporting responsibility was present and affirmed his support of the new direction. Although the staff exhibited a level of understanding and some resignation, follow-up discussions with each individual provided further explanations, where needed, and helped allay remaining fears. Throughout the entire process, leaders treated employees with respect and acknowledged staff expertise and care for students. For those who felt they could not accept the new direction, other options were available.
  • Secure the necessary resources for implementing and sustaining change. Your organization's politics and governance generally will determine the approaches for doing this. Specific strategies are often built on collaborative relationships that should definitely be used where they exist, and built where they do not. Collaboration among leaders can do much to sustain momentum in ongoing student service change efforts. Many institutions find that maintaining an executive committee of vice presidents and other senior leaders responsible for student services, including representatives from human resources, facilitates the ability to secure appropriate staffing and other resources.

    At JWU, for example, two cross-functional and systemwide committees are charged with allocating resources for facilities and information technology expenditures. While the committee members represent a wide variety of interests, their purpose is to ensure the overall success of the university's strategic plan. Given JWU's focus on continued improvement of student services delivery, and with the unwavering support of the university president, resources were allocated to create a one-stop location for integrated student services. Additionally, numerous comprehensive technological solutions and infrastructure upgrades supporting the student services vision have been approved and implemented.
  • Stay on course. Since institutional leaders play a significant role in sustaining change, a change in leadership can cause a shift in direction or priorities, a regression of progress, or even abandonment of initiatives. Committing to a long-term institutional vision, not identified solely with one senior executive, is an effective way for colleges and universities to stay on course despite changes in leadership.

    For JWU, “excellence in student services” was a highlight of our 2006 strategic plan—streamlined and simplified administrative processes to increase student satisfaction. This served as a building block in the foundation for the next strategic plan, FOCUS 2011. The diagram illlustrates the foundation supporting the three major components of the plan: selectivity, affordability, and the student experience. One senior leader says, “Were it not for the re-engineering of student services, this new strategic plan would not have been possible. FOCUS 2011 has been a transformative plan for JWU.”

Human factors. To sustain change, the human factors, which are further differentiated into “managerial” and “individual” factors, are almost as strong as the leadership factors. The commitment of managers and staff members is necessary to maintain the service expectation focus and reshape the institutional culture at the department level.

Addressing human resource issues to encourage alignment with the change initiatives and the cultural shift requires deliberate and strategic actions from administration. Change initiatives are typically not an easy transition. Managers, staff, and even vice presidents can experience anxiety as their job requirements change and new knowledge and skills are needed. Senior management must deal with overt and covert resistance and even saboteurs. One participant explains, “Most of the resistance arose from pride, fear, or protection of what some individuals saw as a loss of power.”

To hold resistance at bay, keep the lines of communication open; provide employees with opportunities to express concerns; deliver messages in a methodical and appropriate time frame; use employees to work through initiative details as the daily problem-solvers; and modify unrealistic plans or goals, all while holding firm to the vision. “Frequent meetings, where difficult issues are confronted,” advised one institution leader, “are key to making it work. Everyone definitely needs to feel like they can speak their mind.”

For a variety of reasons, staff turnover can be higher than normal during these times. But, through ongoing training and positive, supportive, and collaborative experiences, a new environment can evolve. “It is important to celebrate successes, no matter how small, because they tend to heighten the engagement of those involved in the change and build individual confidence. You learn very quickly what can be accomplished, and it's hard to argue with success.” 

Conference Focuses on Top-Notch Student Services

Hear more innovative ideas and best practices at NACUBO's Student Financial Services Conference, March 14–16, 2010, in San Antonio. This multitrack conference focuses on financing postsecondary education—both from the institutional and student perspective—and the management of internal operations to provide top-notch customer service. Other subjects include bankruptcy and collections, federal-regulation compliance, and the latest in systems and technology.

Comprehensive content. This year's lineup includes plenary speakers who will motivate you both inside and outside the workplace. Presenters will also provide insight on federal policy initiatives. Concurrent sessions are designed to address emerging issues and explore new approaches for improving student services and related operations. A consistent conference theme focuses on the ways you can use technology to improve customer service, increase efficiency, and save money. With new rules and systems coming from all directions—and perhaps major changes on the horizon for student loan programs—you can't afford to miss this informative event.

Interactive format. Connect with newcomers and seasoned student financial services professionals from large and small institutions to share your successes and struggles. Network with faculty, fellow business officers, bursars, and student services and financial aid professionals. Plan to meet with representatives from more than 30 student financial services companies to learn about the latest products and services.

To register, or for more information on this and other NACUBO professional development programs, visit NACUBO's Web site or call 800.462.4916. In addition, don't miss the chance to join our experienced faculty members in a more intimate setting for a concentrated learning experience on “Bursar Fundamentals,” a preconference seminar on Sunday, March 14, and special programming for institutions switching to the Direct Loan program.

Managerial factors. Over time, it is the department managers who bear the greatest responsibility for maintaining the implemented changes and fostering a culture of continuous improvement. When the change initiatives cease to be a special project, it is the managers who own the new model, and their creativity and collaboration are crucial.

The managers ultimately hold the student services vision in their hands. They are accountable for addressing student needs and expectations, developing and enhancing employee performance, and supporting institutional goals. To achieve this, they must be given the responsibility and empowered with the authority to initiate innovative solutions. Additionally, as communicators across a wide sector, they must build high-trust relationships to keep their staff engaged and informed; build collaborative working associations with colleagues; and work with senior leaders to update them on progress, issues, and resource requirements. Most importantly, they need to have the desire and the ability to continue with a forward momentum for change and improvement. Where the greatest successes are experienced, “the managers are right in the thick of it with staff,” notes one research participant.

Managers also support and advocate for staff by providing training and development opportunities; encouraging active participation and teamwork; communicating on an ongoing basis; and providing open and safe venues for employees to give feedback and offer innovative ideas, without fear of retribution. Based on the significant role that the managers play in sustaining change, they must be believers. Fill these positions with loyal employees who have no hidden agendas; understand the student services vision; and will do what is best for the student, the staff, and the institution. A few participants openly discuss department managers who were moved out because “they just did not get it” and actually impeded progress. “It was not going to happen with that person in place,” one participant says.

So although many requirements and opportunities arise for employees during a time of significant change—lateral moves within functional areas or to new groups, new titling schemes, demotions (or what are seen as demotions), or even advancement opportunities—the manager plays the roles of both leader and worker in the process. 

Individual factors. The best ideas for change may come from individual staff members—the ones closest to the work, who typically first identify problems and offer potential solutions. This, coupled with their relationships of trust with certain peers, can offer productive outcomes.

By using team approaches for specific aspects of change, you can achieve buy-in, greater commitment, and ownership. Even staff members not part of a specific team can be energized when they see their colleagues creating new processes, policies, protocols, and documentation. Employee involvement in these types of initiatives can also complement developmental opportunities by building confidence, fostering the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, providing opportunities for participation in decision making, and identifying individual advancement potential. Often, emerging leaders are identified in just these circumstances.

Cultural factors. For organizational change in student services to take hold, changes must fit with the institutional shared values and core beliefs. Further, when you build the commitment to creating a quality customer-service foundation into an institution's vision and strategic plan, it becomes part of that shared culture.

You can create a climate receptive to change and continuous improvement by establishing a clear, articulated purpose; preparing and training managers and staff members; encouraging teamwork and innovation; and making needed resources available. To solidify this culture, make sure that the concept of change is understood and accepted as a constant, bolstered by collaboration and flexibility.

At the institutions that collapsed or integrated departments into new organizations, a transition occurred, resulting in a very different culture from what had existed before. Each office had its own culture around things such as approaches to the workday, management philosophies, and differences between support staff versus professional staff (real or perceived). Planned social and volunteer activities, besides the development of new work teams, can help to bridge the gaps and build camaraderie among group members, as the new shared culture evolves.

Secondary factors. While more significant for implementing change, other important contributors to indelible change include organizational, procedural, contextual, and communication factors.

  • Organizational factors—the policies and systems that support or create obstacles to change and may need to be modified as a result. For example, human resource practices, such as union contract provisions or reward systems, may not support the new environment.
  • Procedural factors—these describe the methodology used, such as project teams, steering committees, schedules, and time lines. Project timelines must be realistic and planned appropriately. 
  • Contextual factors—the change concepts that relate to the “fit” of institutional circumstances and address internal and external pressures. The essence of the change, as well as the conditions under which change is implemented, needs to have meaning for those involved and contribute to the institutional mission.
  • Communication factors—the methods needed for fostering an understanding of the change vision. In addition, communication promotes commitment to continuous improvement and provides information in support of informed decision making.

A Model for Maintaining Momentum

So what is the practical use for the “Model for Sustaining Change in Higher Education Administrative Student Services”? It can serve as a tool to determine how ready your institution is to embark upon a significant and comprehensive change project and sustain that momentum after initial implementation. No institution that puts considerable effort into change management expects short-lived results, but rather foundational building blocks for future improvements. Organizations must not only be ready to take necessary steps and make hard decisions for successful change implementation, but more importantly, they must put a system and culture in place that will foster continuous improvement and ensure that changes “stick,” to guarantee that they don't regress to former ways of doing things.

The model provides insight and guidance into what it takes to successfully implement and sustain organizational change, specifically in the administration of higher education student services. Change management practitioners should be aware that the simplicity of the model does not signify that change management work is easy nor that a model alone is sufficient to sustain change. But, it is a good starting point for those engaged in the endeavor of putting changes into place and refining them over time, and it does provide some helpful suggestions for things to do along the way.

The individuals interviewed for this study did not have an existing model to guide their work. Rather, they had to figure out what it took to retain and improve upon the alterations and upgrades they were able to put in place. And, in modifying their student service change-management practices, they learned from their mistakes and continue to move forward today with a focus on what have been identified as the primary factors of sustainability. Their hands-on experiences resulted in the identification of conditions essential to sustaining change.

Could the model extend beyond student services to other administrative functions in higher education, such as accounting, purchasing, payroll, or maintenance? The assumed answer is “Yes,” as department customers may be different, but the concepts of improving organizational effectiveness and increasing customer satisfaction are not. That said, the model would first have to be applied in other areas to prove its validity for that function. The knowledge learned through student services improvement efforts, along with an understanding and appreciation of the factors that sustain organizational change, can potentially enhance other administrative functions.

Going Forward

Updated research from the participating institutions indicates ongoing process improvement initiatives and system enhancements in student services. Each new idea or improvement opportunity supports the change culture that has been created. As one participant says, “There has been minimal turnover among senior staff members, and we have the support of senior administration. It's been business as usual, with continuous improvement, ongoing training and development, and exemplary service as our goal.”

Other institutions report similar projects that continue to build on and secure ongoing process improvements. One school has moved from course-based to credit-based graduation requirements to provide increased flexibility to students and to simplify the management of course scheduling and degree progress. Another is capitalizing on some of the newest technologies by providing for Web transactions and system access via smart phones. “Today's students have very high expectations for technology and how they conduct their business,” explained one study participant. “It plays a prominent role in their lives, and institutions need to address the technology gaps that exist.” Other enhancements include:

  • Implementing or upgrading various software tools and technology solutions, such as online course evaluations and access to textbook pricing, new phone systems with advanced capabilities, document management systems, and new e-mail systems.
  • Launching studies to better understand student needs and wants.
  • Reorganizing department functions to be more effective.
  • Offering programs to assist students with debt management.

The need for continuous improvement is reaffirmed by one participant who notes, “What we did six years ago was wonderful, but if we were still doing that it would no longer be wonderful.” Another says, “These efforts make the institution a stronger place, a more attractive place, and a better place to work.”

In light of the current economic downturn, institutions are facing new challenges: budget cuts, hiring and salary freezes, and the postponement of some projects. One institution reported that a new student information system is on hold due to the high purchase and implementation costs. Further, financial concerns have caused some institutions to make tough human resource decisions. For some, adding additional staff members “is a luxury we no longer have.” Despite such setbacks, these institutions remain committed to improving processes as resources allow.

The value of instituting and sustaining improvements in student services is compelling, even when some projects are postponed. One senior executive is passionate when he says, “I compare these efforts to a reformation. Departments that embraced change and continuous improvement efforts have succeeded and thrive today. Other departments, unwilling to undergo a transformation, continue to struggle.” Higher education is unlike other sectors. What we do is “more than an exchange of services, but a partnership between the institution and the student, with high expectations on both sides.”

ROBIN P. KRAKOWSKY is senior vice president of administration, Johnson & Wales University, Providence, Rhode Island