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Pattern-Perfect Process

Armstrong State University’s revitalization effort sorted chaotic student services into orderly technology-driven systems.

By David Carson and Robert Howard

*Two years ago, the leadership at Armstrong State University (ASU), Savannah, took a hard look at student services and realized that some of our processes were not as student-friendly as we wanted them to be. Like many institutions, we were struggling to meet enrollment goals. In some cases, we'd created obstacles to enrolling students and getting them into our great academic programs.

Armstrong serves a mix of approximately 7,100 traditional, military, and midcareer learners. Our academic programs, especially in health care and economics, are well regarded. We create transformative experiences for students and help them along their way to careers in academia or industry. Still, we have to compete for every student we enroll, and the competition seems to get tougher every year. Although student services alone do not win students, they can certainly lose them. Every interaction we initiate with a student, especially on the recruitment side, pushes prospective students toward or away from our university.

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For more about Armstrong State University's change management efforts, see "Making Changes on Multiple Fronts," in Business Officer Plus at www.nacubo.org.

Once students come to us, we also want our services to help them persist and graduate. The state projects that by 2020 more than 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require a certificate, associate's degree, or bachelor's degree. In 2017, the state will implement performance-based funding for the 31 institutions governed by the Georgia Board of Regents, an approach that rewards not only enrollment numbers but also persistence and graduation rates. Therefore, the processes most vital to our continued success include recruitment that yields the most fit class and mechanisms to ensure that students are successful, from enrollment through graduation.

One might argue, however, that our services were more like those at many an inefficient DMV (department of motor vehicles) rather than the ones at user-friendly Amazon. That recognition, along with subsequent discoveries, led us to undergo a significant culture change and a widespread re-engineering of our enrollment services with a goal of making it easier to be an Armstrong student.

The catalyst for the transformation was our cumbersome fee-assessment process. It took two employees (one full-time, one part-time) three weeks to execute time-consuming, manual activities—a process that delayed Armstrong's enrollment management efforts. And we were alarmed to learn that the knowledge for this process resided almost entirely with one employee who was nearing retirement and another who had already retired and then returned to work part time. The potential unavailability of either staff member would jeopardize our ability to adjust our fee schedule and, in turn, assess fees and collect tuition revenue.

As we looked deeper into the fee assessment process, we found a host of operational issues that further impaired our enrollment services. We realized we needed to conduct a holistic and systemic review of our processes to make the changes necessary for significant service improvement.

How We Became the DMV

Culture Change Caveats

During Armstrong State University's re-engineering initiative, campus leaders noted the following steps for effective change:

  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Allow time for the discovery process.
  • Prepare for pushback.
  • Move forward.

As we peeled back the layers around our student services processes, we discovered several underlying issues.

Lack of documentation could stall a process. This was certainly true when a staff member was not available, as in the case of the fee-assessment process.

Assessing and documenting processes required a more disciplined and cross-functional approach. Individuals sometimes made well-intentioned changes without realizing the impact on other parts of the institution.

Details for many processes were anecdotal. In many cases, processes had been shared verbally by former staff, with no written documentation. In fact, we discovered that someone at the university had turned off the built-in training resources available for our ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, and no one had realized it or reversed that decision.

Most staff did not know about online communities or listservers for posting questions and learning from others. These and other tools could be useful resources to them.

Many employees conducted business in ways that were familiar and driven by tradition, rather than efficient or customer friendly. For instance, our previous admissions decision process and workflow required the admissions staff to decide residency before admitting or denying a student. This step, unnecessary at the admissions stage, delayed communicating to students the fact that they were admitted.

Staff were using the same functionality in our ERP (Banner by Ellucian) that they had started with in the 1990s. They were far from using the program's full functionality. For example, we were manually processing the return of Title IV funds, even though our system can automate that process. Strangely, the governance for Banner lay with enrollment services. When new functionality became available, the changes were viewed within only the lens of enrollment services' needs.

Decisions were made in a relative vacuum, with no visibility into other departments. This obviously delayed the achievement of necessary improvements. For example, an upgrade that allowed faculty to move from Blackboard to Desire2Learn was delayed by six months, creating a stressful situation for faculty.

We want to be clear that the staff at Armstrong State University are highly motivated and have a strong work ethic. Nobody shows up to work thinking, "I want to do a bad job." In doing their work in the ways in which they were trained, however, employees were missing many opportunities to automate processes and achieve not only work efficiencies but also more streamlined customer service.

Also, Armstrong had experienced ongoing turnover in enrollment management leadership positions. This turnover led to a lack of a consistent strategic enrollment plan, blocked improvements in the underlying business processes, and prevented staff from taking advantage of modern technology systems. Although we talked strategy and spent money on systems, we needed to overhaul our operations to support strategic outcomes.

Other institutions likely face a similar situation. In higher education, it is easy to get stalled in the status quo. When resources are tight and people are busy, they revert to doing things the way they've always done them. This leads to an ongoing and gradual degradation of processes and services. In our case, we knew we needed to change that culture.

Becoming More Like Amazon

Amazing and life-changing interactions, unique to the student-professor relationship, occur in our classrooms. But we had lost sight of the fact that, outside the classroom, students are "customers." Higher education is one of the few industries that expect customers to learn the back-office processes. We want students to understand what a registrar is and what a bursar does. But as customers of other industries, none of us thinks about what happens behind the scenes. When we order books from Amazon, for instance, the company's internal processes and business units remain invisible.

Armstrong State University wants to be more like Amazon: We want to make it as easy as possible to be a student here.

In this regard, ASU wants to be more like Amazon: We want to make it as easy as possible to be a student here. To achieve that, we have been reviewing the end-to-end customer experience at ASU and making significant changes to give us a competitive advantage moving forward.

Precipitating our re-engineering was a drop in enrollment that started during FY10–11 and continued for several years. The entire cabinet was involved in analyzing the pieces of this multifaceted problem. Great educational programs? Check. Affordability? Check. Good location? Check. So what exactly was affecting our yield? We believed much of the drop was tied to the country's economic conditions. In addition, we thought we could be losing some students due to slow processing of admissions applications and to a general climate at the institution of not putting students' needs first.

The project steering team—comprising the two of us, the provost, the associate vice president for enrollment management, the chief of staff, a student affairs representative, and an auditor—helped prioritize and set deadlines. The director of enterprise applications led the meetings so the CIO could take part in the discussions rather than facilitate. We listened to line staff, managers, and others who were doing work that related to enrollment, to understand and delineate the specific problems.

It became clear that using technology more efficiently would deliver major improvements. Getting to that state required analyzing our current operations and then aligning our processes, people, and technology in support of our students. You can have great technology, but it won't be successful if the right people and processes aren't in placeand vice versa.

We began to support and initiate change in several ways:

  • ASU's president, Linda M. Bleicken, made resolving the issue a priority. To get the initiative underway, she approved our bringing in outside consultants.
  • We began a three-pronged effort, with consultants focused on our various goals.

Customer service. Design Thinking would provide a technique to create a culture of customer service and empathy, then craft new services reflecting the "voice of the customer." Miami University's Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies presented this approach to us (http://aims.muohio.edu).

Efficient processes. We would use Six Sigma's set of techniques and tools to measure and set goals, reduce waste, and look for opportunities for continuous improvement.

IT processes and systems. The most far-reaching and longest (18 months) engagement was with Ellucian for its Revitalization Services. Senior consultants from Ellucian took a holistic look at our overall ERP system, with participation from our staff, and mapped and weighed how departmental goals and business processes were supporting—or not supporting—the institution's strategic goals.

As the IT consultants reviewed business processes, they also gauged how well teams were working with current functionality in Banner. They identified best practices to give us maximum efficiencies and return on our existing software investments. Improvements were identified and measured through clearly defined performance indicators.

Ultimately, the main performance indicator is enrollment, and to this end we created a dashboard to track the year-over-year data for new, returning, graduate, and undergraduate students. This supplements the rich data we already receive from our institutional research group. We began to look at the components of the enrollment funnel, including the volume and rates of applications and their progression through the funnel. Although the consultant engagement was tied to Banner functionality, the outcomes were about much more than software. Through the revitalization, technology was a catalyst for changing our culture as well as our processes.

A cohort of our staff from enrollment services (financial aid, bursar, admissions), academic affairs, advancement, and information technology underwent training in Six Sigma as well as Design Thinking, and participated fully in the Ellucian Revitalization engagement. Using outside consultants gave the initiatives more accountability and a sense of urgency. We funded this project mostly from one-time allocated funds, spending about $500,000 over two years.

Culture Change: A Team Effort

While finance and business services, along with IT services, played a definite role, change has been a top-to-bottom team effort throughout the university. In the midst of the project, our president formed a strategic task force with broad representation to make sure that progress was made toward deliverables and goals around the revitalization effort, as well as other areas that didn't specifically involve technology. These efforts would not have been successful without clear goals and significant engagement and accountability from members of the cabinet; deans; faculty; advisers; the university auditor; and the entire staffs of the bursar, registrar, admissions, and financial aid departments.

Here are some key steps we observed during the change initiative:

Begin with the end in mind. At the start of the revitalization engagement, consultants met with leadership to discuss the outcomes desired. The group included deans and the project steering team. Our strategic goal was to identify opportunities to improve our effectiveness in recruiting, retaining, and graduating students.

Allow time for the discovery process. The consultants did the intense work of helping our staff move from current processes to more streamlined and customer-oriented ones. They worked consecutively with staff from the finance, bursar, registrar, financial aid, recruitment, and admissions offices to review current processes and map the path to using the best practices available in Banner and related software—plus the changes required. Discussions about the changes in processes were first mappedto the department's goals, then to those of the institution.

This stage took about three full days of each department's time. The staff involved included vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, and every staff member in the department who touched a process that supported the department's function. Members of other departments joined in at times when the process being discussed intersected with their work.

Prepare for pushback. We framed discussions around changes that could improve the student experience and make our staff jobs more satisfying. That context made the changes a fairly easy sell. Occasionally, we encountered pushback around two areas: "We're too busy to change" and "What you are suggesting is good, but it violates X,Y, or Z regulation."

To deal with the first issue, we used metrics to show the efficiencies we would gain and explained that the consultants would teach us the new processes quickly. The consultants' expertise also helped with the second issue, which related to a perceived need to maintain paper financial aid records. The consultants already knew how the University System of Georgia and the industry use document imaging and remain in compliance legally, which gave us the confidence to move forward. Today, the financial aid group is the largest supporter of the imaging and workflow efforts on our campus.

Move forward. The consultants trained staff on the various new functionalities, tested the outcomes, and developed a plan for rolling out the changes. Most departments spent three days a week—for five to six weeks—stepping through the processes and training. We staged the engagement so staff would have several weeks in between to attend to their ongoing, day-to-day work.

Improved Student Services and Staff Morale

Armstrong's revitalization efforts resulted in substantial automation of processes, the use of best practices, increased functionality in Banner, and the elimination of outdated processes and some improper uses. In addition, we've reduced the amount of data entry and, with it, the likelihood of errors. Here are some of the more dramatic and measurable improvements we gained in the short term.

The fee assessment issue is resolved. It now takes one person one week to complete fee assessments, versus two people taking three weeks.

Students receive earlier notifications of financial aid packages. What used to take about a week, with intense staff effort, now takes a little less than a day because of document imaging and workflow. Before, students applied for financial aid after being admitted. Now they apply for aid and admission at the same time. The earlier receipt of their award package helps students make decisions and will give us a better recruitment yield.

Students can now check the status of their award online or receive notifications by text message. When they call the office with a question, the person answering has access to all the student's information and can offer immediate help. In contrast, when Armstrong maintained paper-based files, the counselor had to first find the file and then call the student back.

Focus on Faster and Better

As part of the discovery process that unfolded at the departmental level within Armstrong State University, team members identified waste and areas where we were not using technology efficiently.

We found, for example, that an admission decision required admissions staff to determine residency. In reality, we only need three items for a decision: ACT/SAT scores, high school GPA, and a high school transcript (for a Georgia-specific curriculum requirement). The state of residence, however, has no bearing on whether you qualify for admission. Rather, it is a financial consideration when the time comes to assess tuition. By removing this requirement from the admissions workflow, we increased the speed of decisions. Now, the bursar's office staff handle the residency portion, for which they are much better equipped than the admissions department.

As another example, in financial aid we were using an inefficient and chaotic paper-based system. By implementing document imaging and workflow, we could process a similar volume in days rather than weeks. In addition, we retired an outdated, clumsy system for generating letters; we now synchronize Word and Banner to streamline mail merges and reduce the likelihood of errors.

We also created new applications that will allow us to deliver or adjust financial aid packages proactively. Helping students secure financial aid will help with retention. Plus, our financial aid staff are enthused and energized now because we eliminated the drudgery of a manual, paper-based system.

We revised our tuition bills. A multitude of programming changes had resulted in a complex bill that was hard to understand. Our staff started fresh, creating new models that we tested with students. This might sound like a small thing, but just one change can demystify costs and help students make more informed decisions—particularly first-generation college students and their parents who might find the entire process overwhelming.

We're implementing an online application for graduate students. This is more customer-friendly for the applicant and eliminates another manual process for our staff. For undergraduate applications, we reduced from 15 to four the number of screens that our employees need to process, lowering the cost to the institution from a little over $11 to just over a dollar for each prospective student. Screens and savings are nice, but the real metric is that we can process a student's admission documents in five minutes instead of 45. Now students know right away whether Armstrong is an option for them.

Banner is now our single source of data. Staff no longer create and access shadow databases. Also, we've removed the customizations we had made to the ERP. These two changes made it possible for us to integrate new third-party applications, such as recruiting software that will help us engage different cohorts of prospects. We are implementing new reporting software that will be beneficial for accreditation, helping to demonstrate that we are meeting our educational outcomes as well as business ones. We're also exploring technology that will help us understand factors that make students successful and identify situations where learners need help.

In addition, we finally implemented workflow software we had purchased several years earlier but placed on a shelf. That's right—we had thought about automating workflows some time ago and paid for a product; however, the software never made it into the work plan to be delivered. All the new applications are integrated into our ERP so users can aggregate, in real time, the information critical to their jobs.

Now, IT employees have a fundamentally better understanding of enrollment services and how to help staff do the vitally important work of enrolling students. We increased our security, following a thorough audit of the list of positions that were allowed systems access. During that exercise, we re-evaluated and revised the list, then followed up with the implementation of stronger controls.

Going forward, a full business case, including total life-cycle costs and risk quantification, is required for any deviation from the use of baseline functionality. This will ensure that we are not making choices based on tradition; a desire to accommodate personal preferences; or an inaccurate, informal, or incomplete estimate of value and cost.

Analyzing processes activated communications and helped departments understand how their work impacts other functional units. We rearranged workspaces to allow for more interactions and communication within the enrollment areas. This change, along with regular meetings, supports the cross-training that helps staff provide better service to students.

All these improvements in administrative processes have made it easier to be an Armstrong student. They also make it more satisfying to be an Armstrong employee. Staff find their jobs more fulfilling; with the ERP managing the routine work and streamlining the processes, staff are freed up to interact more with students and focus on meaningful work. They take more pride in their work, because they understand its connection to ASU's mission. When people can see the powerful impact of what they do—that they help a student make decisions or get into a class, for example-they become more connected to the mission of the institution.

Many staff members have commented that they wish we'd undergone the transformation earlier. Going into the revitalization, we did not believe we were spending too much on staffing positions, and our goal was not to reduce staff. It was to automate processes and increase accuracy, so that our staff could spend more time with students rather than chasing paper trails. Over time, natural attrition will allow for fewer staff, and we will focus our resources where they are most needed.

Maintaining the Momentum

The consultants are gone, but we expect our progress to persist. We continue to look for new ways to use more capabilities in Banner and other software. We replaced our ad hoc governance approach to business processes and technology with a well-planned structure. It ensures a partnership among business units, academic units, and information technology in driving decisions about how Armstrong uses and supports software solutions. 

On a broader level, we are reviewing our portfolio of technology solutions to identify gaps and redundancies and establish guidelines for the selection, acquisition, and deployment of new solutions. We developed metrics around what the IT department is doing to compress costs on mundane applications so we can make more strategic investments. In one instance, we switched to a different networking provider and saved 30 percent on maintenance costs. We can redirect those savings to more academically oriented programs.

We are monitoring our recruitment and retention rates closely and expect to see the impact of our transformation on these numbers in fall 2015. Already students are telling us that our processes are much easier for them. If enrollment increases as expected, we can handle the increased volume with our existing labor force because of the automation we've gained, then use the increased tuition revenue for instruction and other strategic initiatives.

Anticipating that staff will continue to be curious about new ways of improving processes and feel empowered to ask questions, we also will monitor our new culture. We hope employees maintain an understanding of how their work supports students and is tied to the mission of Armstrong State University.

Learning the Hard Way

Undergoing these critical transformations often proved difficult. Both the university and the consulting firms have scars and bruises from the process. Here are some of the more important lessons we learned.

ASU's revitalization efforts resulted in substantial automation of processes, the use of best practices, increased functionality in Banner, and the elimination of outdated processes and some improper uses.

Budget appropriately so you have enough funds to complete the initiative. This means planning for unforeseen work-otherwise, you will only scratch the surface. As you review your processes, you will find other unexpected issues, many of which have little to do with technology. In fact, Armstrong has a list of discovery items—prioritized based on potential impact—that we will continue to address over the next three years.  

Develop a strong CIO-CFO partnership. Fortunately, Armstrong's leaders already had a strong relationship and a good understanding of each other's jobs and terminology. We entered this initiative believing we were both accountable for the spend of these funds. We kept each other informed about potential concerns before they were allowed to develop, so there were no surprises, and remained open about the availability of additional funding.

Many times the problem isn't the large amount an institution spends on IT but rather the value received for the dollars spent. CBOs are in a good position to help focus the IT conversation around cost, risk, and value creation; and the CIO needs to understand that context. The CIO also needs to enable the institution's strategic mission through technology if IT isn't considered a cost center, making sure the technology division understands its role as a change agent. Having this shared perspective, aligned with the goals of meeting enrollment and retention targets, made our discussions about costs and outcomes easier.

Don't wait until the details have completely materialized, or you will lose time. A few times, we struggled with not having a tight project plan due to the discovery phases underway. This uncertainty at relatively high cost led to conversations about possible scenarios and their cost implications. Even when we had imperfect information, we discussed scenarios so we could be ready to make decisions once we received enough resolution and detail. 

Watch your language. We occasionally had some "spirited" conversations about wording of the successes. For instance, communicating that we "fixed our financial statements" could have been misinterpreted. At no time were our financial statements wrong. The "fix" was improving the process time and effort needed to generate the same correct result. In the end, regular and familiar communication helped. Any disagreements were fairly trivial, with both of us centered on the goal of making it easier to become and stay an Armstrong student.

Maintain a positive attitude. As the "face" of this initiative with team members and executive staff, especially at the beginning, we needed to keep a positive attitude with staff and help them do the same. This was difficult when people expressed negative attitudes or key staff members left. Also, at times the improvements and momentum were not as noticeable, and we needed to keep everyone focused on the mission and the future.

Celebrate wins. High fives and small parties can greatly boost morale. In retrospect, we didn't do enough of this. Last summer, we hosted a luncheon to celebrate the official completion of the initiative. Staff members' level of excitement surrounding the event surprised both of us. 

Be transparent about the process. Acknowledge when you've hit a stumbling block. Share successes and progress, and keep explaining the end goal and why people should be excited.

Remain totally focused. Several times, we had 10 things that were each 80 percent finished but functionally unusable, which led to frustration in IT and the functional units. Switching priorities has real cost and causes delays. Inevitably, these kinds of frustrations will happen occasionally, but minimizing such responses will help arrive at the solution more quickly.

Realize that training is key to continued progress, and make sure that training is infused throughout the departments. In addition to regular attrition, some people will leave when you make big changes in workplace and culture. Departures will slow forward momentum. At Armstrong, for example, one or two people left just after a big service improvement and took that training with them, so we had to retrain existing staff or wait until new staff were hired. This was true in functional areas as well as IT.

Set expectations with the cabinet. Normally, you present projected outcomes first so the cabinet can make its decision about a project and funds of this scale. For this effort, we flipped that approach. The project had a general outcome of "better, faster, more efficient" enrollment processes, but the specifics required a lengthy discovery process and funding before we could establish specific expected outcomes. Many times it felt like the discovery process would never end and that our problems emerged like a large set of  Russian nesting dolls. To get the best net impact for our goals, we had open conversations and prioritized work efforts. While the intense work with consultants had a finite time period (and budget!), we have much more to do.

Transfer leadership to functional staff as soon as possible. Initially, the information technology team led the initiative, which started as more of a prescription than a collaborative effort. But the sooner you can reverse the leadership dynamic such that functional positions assume more of the leadership role, the more successful it will be. Otherwise, people will resent another department that instigates and seemingly forces changes upon them.

We are now in a much better place, with the functional areas requesting help rather than IT pointing out areas for improvement. IT often functions best when it acts not only as a service organization but also as a consultant to solve problems or create opportunities through the use of technology.

Finally, frequent communication and strong relationships helped when difficult conversations or problems arose along the way. Communication, relationships, and a focus on the big picture—helping our students succeed—allowed us to be hard on the problem but not on the people. We are not perfect by any means, but we are much better than we were two years ago-and we have plans and capabilities to become even better. We believe that recruiting for our fall 2015 class will yield much better results, with fewer bumps, and that fall 2016 will be even smoother and better.

Now that our enrollment processes aren't barriers, we can focus on the great academic programs that Armstrong offers in the incomparable location of Savannah. Who doesn't want to be in a beautiful place, while they are starting strong with a great university?

DAVID CARSON, formerly Armstrong State University's vice president for business and finance, is now vice president of business services at Flagler College, St. Augustine, Fla. ROBERT HOWARD is chief information officer, Armstrong State University, Savannah.

 

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Conducting the Right Conversations

A significant amount of turnover within the leadership of Armstrong State University's enrollment management group had left us without solid plans for recruiting students and for keeping staff and processes current to achieve a plan. Building our transformation around our ERP made the review of our processes less personal. In addition, we emphasized that we had arrived at—and gotten into—this inefficient state together and would solve it together. In meetings and communications, we underscored that the issues we identified resulted from a lack of training, tools, and focus, not intentional neglect by individual staff members.

Despite the no-blame approach, some people still felt threatened when we identified specific processes that either didn't yield a desired outcome or produced an outcome that wasn't timely or efficient. We believe our staff, who are not unionized, felt more comfortable sharing their issues and traditional processes with consultants than they would have been with university personnel. The consultants' industry knowledge also helped reduce resistance among staff members.

As with many a change initiative, not everyone welcomed the changes. Some questioned whether the new processes met state regulations, while others simply announced the new processes would not work at our university. We had tough conversations with some staff members, emphasizing the need to get on board with the transformation. Some key people left. Those departures were discouraging and slowed our progress. When someone left, we encouraged the affected user group participants to discuss their reactions, and we offered them support in their areas of concern.

We also reminded them of the bigger picture: that Armstrong and our staff are here to help students achieve a better life through education, so we needed to stay on track with the revitalization. When you go through tough times, having a "north star" will help guide the focus back to the end result. Our north star for enrollment is helping students realize their goals by providing a quality university education at a great value.

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