Building an Office of Process Innovation

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Key Takeaways

  • Higher education administrators understand the need to adapt more rapidly to existing and anticipated conditions, yet institutions generally lack skilled personnel organized specifically to assess and suggest improvements to their business processes.

  • The University of Maryland addressed this challenge by creating the University Process Innovation Unit.

  • After two years, the UPI group measured its results, finding that the majority of its clients followed at least one of its recommendations and returned for additional project assistance.

Universities face unprecedented pressures to control costs while delivering a broader and richer set of services to an ever-growing list of stakeholders. At the same time, the environment in which universities operate is changing, with students and faculty expectations growing, the pace of change increasing, and "nontraditional" becoming the norm. Despite this, most universities struggle to transition their various processes as they respond to increasing financial pressure. The need for universities to adapt more rapidly is generally accepted in the abstract, but acting on that awareness has challenged higher education institutions.

One reason is that higher education generally lacks skilled personnel organized specifically to assess its business processes — that is, the way services and value are delivered to students, faculty, and staff. Formal structures at most institutions of higher education are generally vertical along functional lines (e.g., registrar, bursar, student housing, etc.), with limited ability to align or design experiences and services that exist horizontally across several functions (see figure 1). For example, the process of a student being accepted, arriving on campus, and getting to class includes upwards of 20 departments on campus with varying levels of coordination between them. What the senior administration often lacks is a group with the skill and charge to look holistically at these systems end-to-end, considering the processes, people, tools, and data that enable them.

Figure 1. Vertical organization and horizontal value delivery

Figure 1. Vertical organization and horizontal value delivery

This article introduces the work done in addressing this challenge at the University of Maryland, College Park, through the creation of the University Process Innovation (UPI) Unit. While groups such as this are common in the commercial space,1 only a handful of universities have individuals dedicated to process improvement roles, and even fewer have formalized those individuals into a strategic group. The Education Advisory Board (EAB) has pointed to Maryland's group as unique in higher education. For universities interested in pursuing a capability of process improvement and better addressing the challenges facing higher education, this article provides a general blueprint based on our experience, including the justification for such a group as well as guidance on its practical implementation.


This article focuses on the operations and mechanics of developing a process improvement unit. The intent is to provide pragmatic approaches for those looking to implement such groups within an institution of higher education. The focus is not on the need for organizations to adapt and improve in general, nor is this a discussion of the various barriers to change inherent in higher education.

Three key reasons explain why development of a process improvement office is so important in higher education. First is a need to have a set of highly skilled staff operating independently of existing personnel. Experience has shown that efforts hinging solely on existing expertise have a lower success rate because people can rarely take on significant extra work for extended periods on top of their existing workload. In addition, internal staff generally lack the external perspective that permits the necessary holistic analysis. External assessment allows for a level of objectivity that exceeds self-assessment. This is not a critique of anyone's competency — quite the opposite. The very talent that allows a staff member to become a subject matter expert focused in a specific area typically results in a narrower view than the larger context.

Related to this, the second reason is that most higher education institutions lack an operational role that has a holistic view. Commercial entities generally exhibit much closer alignment between organizational structure and service delivery, as well as having executives whose sole responsibility is the management of that alignment (the chief operating officer, chief business officer, and others). These roles and even titles are much less common in higher education than in the business sector. The structural divide between the academic and administrative sides challenges the ability of any single leader to bridge the gap.

The final reason is that reliance on external staff does not scale effectively for long-term engagements. This is not to say that external consultants don't have value in higher education, but for a capability like long-term process improvement, they won't suffice. First, using consultants means that the institution is not developing a long-term competency in process improvement. In turn, it becomes continually dependent on external help, which can make long-term strategic process improvement engagements very expensive. Second, using consultants allows for far less education of the broader enterprise in the methods and tools of process improvement, further increasing external reliance, incurring cost, and reducing institutional knowledge.

Depending on internal resources in this area removes the reliance on continuous external support and helps build up the long-term institutional capabilities. Unlike IT system implementations or tactical process efforts in which surging resources with outside support often are justified, process improvement efforts of the type higher education needs will last longer and have a much broader impact. There is clear justification to develop this capability in-house to provide for long-term needs, as well as adapting those capabilities to the special context of higher education.

Organizational Location

There are several places an office like UPI could reasonably fit into the enterprise, depending on the existing organizational and functional structure. The key is that the office occupy a location in which it will have the necessary end-to-end view of the university and exert the appropriate positional authority. In commercial organizations these groups are typically found in the office of the CEO, COO, or CIO.2 Depending on the specifics of the university, such groups are best positioned in the office of the president, provost, or CIO. However, universities with an existing C-level operations group may have another option. While many process improvement efforts are tied to technology investment, which makes the CIO's office an option, doing so can limit the group into an overly technology focus. One challenge originally faced at Maryland, where the office sits under the CIO, is that many clients assumed that the group's recommendations would largely focus on new IT tools, while, in fact, much of the work was people and process focused.

Taking all these factors into consideration, the office needs a location in which it will have the authority, insights, and tactical agility to address process systems throughout the enterprise. Placing such a group in an overly political, niche, resource-strapped, uninfluential, or singular-focused area will detract from the ability to execute on a process improvement mission.

Structure and Roles

Development of a process innovation group requires a relatively small investment of personnel, which can grow as work merits. No matter where it is located, such a group can start with as few as two or three individuals. Even at full maturity, per some of Paul Harmon and Roger Tregear's observations, successful groups should not be much larger than six or seven people.3 Therefore, one of the group's primary roles is to execute on process improvement and innovation projects and also to educate and train other campus employees in order to increase the institution's overall capabilities.

The key is for the office to focus on attracting or acquiring a handful of highly qualified, energetic, and driven individuals. Because the discipline of process improvement requires such a rich combination of analytical and creative skills, there is a drastic difference in output between average and top talent. As a result, paying well for a few strong individuals is worth the investment. At the time of writing, the Maryland group comprises four individuals, with a partner organization that includes a couple more. Yet with this seemingly small group, the team has been able to substantially impact a number of key areas of the university, including advancement, human resources, information technology, advising, and research administration.

At a minimum, a UPI group requires skills in analysis, change management, process improvement, data modeling, and research. However, the Maryland UPI Unit has also found a strong need for individuals skilled in facilitation, organizational development, narrative design, and emotional intelligence. Luckily, colleges and universities are perfectly positioned to have top talent in many of those areas in their administrative and academic units and in the student body. In addition to the "professional" staff in the UPI Unit, Maryland has extensively employed student workers at the undergraduate and graduate levels to augment the staff positions. In addition to conducting research, these students lead projects, design mockups, and facilitate the UPI's relationship with the academic units on campus and involvement in teaching and learning.

Project Prioritization and Governance

Depending on the existing project prioritization structures, generally two governance approaches can be used for project selection: opportunistic and strategic. The opportunistic approach just means pursuing projects considered easy opportunities. In this case, the office works on projects brought to them without the use of a formal governance and prioritization structure. Assuming that the office is not overloaded with current projects, this allows projects to start with relatively little effort on the part of the new office to push a specific set of priorities or strategic targets. While this approach makes project selection easier and requires far less time spent building out governance structures, it gives the new office little control over priorities. These projects are also less likely to directly align with the strategic priorities of the college or university, which can diminish the new group's visibility.

For a number of reasons, the opportunistic approach is often the recommended one, and the one that succeeded at Maryland. The lack of visibility can actually allow for nurturing the group, without the focused pressure of heavy governance that can cause a new group to collapse. Using this approach allows the team to mature and grow while engaging with projects and sponsors who will be more supportive and more likely to execute on recommendations. Generally, this approach, where the eventual client comes to the office proactively, leads to higher success rates, which helps boost the brand of the new office. More often, a new group will want to use this approach for the first year or so as they build their brand and reputation.

Strategic prioritization is much more akin to traditional project portfolio governance, in which projects are scored along a set of criteria and then pursued in order of importance to the institution. This approach requires more engagement at the executive level and a far more formal and often slower process. Inherently, this approach will drive the new group toward working on larger, more strategic projects. As a primary benefit, the strategic approach places the new group in a position of prominence and gives it a higher level of political influence. This might be appropriate when the office is developed specifically at the request of the president or provost to address a series (10 or more) of strategic initiatives and cultural transformation.

Contrary to the opportunistic approach, the clients in this case might not be fully supportive of an outside group assessing and making recommendations. This puts the group in a more sensitive and high-pressure environment, without the opportunity to grow into the university culture. It also makes possible a much higher return on investment of the new office, as their work will be more tightly tied in with more impactful initiatives. This is the approach most established offices want to eventually adopt, but it can be very challenging to start with this approach without already having built your reputation.

Timeline of the UPI Group

Table 1 shows the general timeline and approach used at Maryland for the development of the UPI group. Any institution would need to tailor the approach to align with its local culture, strategy, and organizational structure.

Table 1. UPI group timeline




Month 1


Identify organizational location

Hire office director

Establish initial prioritization approach (opportunistic/strategic)

Identify initial projects

Months 2–4


Hire initial staff (1–3)

Identify initial service offerings

(Assuming opportunistic) Engage in smaller (1–3 month) efforts

Months 4–9


Develop success metrics for ROI analysis

Engage in initial projects

Identify research needs

Months 10–15


Begin engagement in large-scale (4+ months) engagements

Publish success stories

Formalize methodology

Months 12–15

Assessment and Refinement

Conduct internal assessment of process improvement process (using outside assessors)

Month 24


Consider transition to strategic prioritization and governance


Project Selection Guidelines

Whether the opportunistic or strategic approach is used, project selection can employ sets of criteria. With the opportunistic approach, the decision making is less formalized, but no less important. There is likely to be more demand for work than resources available; regardless, some vetting must be done to ensure the success of projects the group undertakes. Good guidelines for opportunistic selection include the client's:

  • Ability to objectively define the scope of the end-to-end process
  • Ability to measure their current process performance
  • Willingness to commit resources to the project
  • Openness to recommendations, including those outside their initial ideas

While no criteria exist to score these items, they indicate the likelihood of success for a project — that is, actions taken on the recommendations resulting in measurable improvements to the process.

Alternatively, with the strategic approach, the criteria are objectively scored and used as a basis of comparison between projects. These criteria are not dissimilar to those used in traditional portfolio management. They include:

  • Proximity to core mission
  • Cost to currently deliver
  • Frequency of process
  • Institutional knowledge risk (how many people know the process and how well is it documented)
  • Current process risk
  • Number of people impacted by the process.

In general, this scoring determines the opportunity between the as-is and to-be process.

Role and Professionalism of the New Group

A process innovation group has three essential functions: practice (project execution), education, and research. Depending on the group's organization and maturity, these three areas will take on more or less prominence. Initially the Maryland group dedicated approximately 85 percent to practice, 10 percent to education, and 5 percent to research; those levels of commitment have slowly grown more balanced. While the focus of such a group will always go primarily to the practice area, the enterprise receives significant value when the office engages in research and education. It is well established in other disciplines (medicine, public safety, education, etc.) that the cycle of research, practice, and education is the best model for optimal outcomes.4 This approach is particularly beneficial in higher education, as having an administrative function support core missions of the college or university (research and education) increases the group's value.

This model of practice, education, and research can easily be integrated into a process innovation group, even while keeping the focus on the project (practice) component. A plethora of opportunities exist to research and publish on best practices in process improvement and how to implement them in the context of higher education. This research can then help guide the practice of the unit and provide the basis for ongoing education. At Maryland, these efforts include teaching undergraduate and graduate students; training administrative staff on process improvement; sharing findings and best practices with peers at other institutions; and providing frameworks, tools, and case studies for internal and external consumption.

Key Recommendations and Lessons Learned

  • The creation of a process improvement office is critical to improving the delivery of administrative services in higher education.

  • An agreed-upon need at the highest levels for change and improvement of business process is a prerequisite for the creation of a process improvement office.

  • The process improvement group should be developed with a clear charter and the support of senior administration.

  • For long-term strategic efforts, use in-house staff rather than external consultants.

  • The location of the office will intrinsically impact how it is perceived (e.g., those under a CIO will be viewed as "selling software solutions").

  • Do not hire a large team. Focus on hiring and developing two to three key staff as the core of the practice.

  • Project governance can be done formally or opportunistically as the environment permits.

  • Heavily promote early project success.

The Future

As the University of Maryland UPI Unit finished its second year, we wanted to take stock of the impact we were having. As part of this process, we had our assessment group conduct a survey of our clients. Two numbers stood out in the responses:

  • Over 75 percent of our clients had implemented at least one recommendation.
  • Over 80 percent of our clients had come back for more work.

With this in mind, we see the need to increase the services that help our clients build projects from our recommendations, and we might need to leave our opportunistic model of governance behind in favor of a more strategic one. We are also working to establish more formal relationships with our enterprise program management office to make the transition easier from process analysis and solutions design into implementation when technology is involved.


  1. Paul Harmon and Celia Wolf, The State of Business Process Management 2014, a BPTrends report, 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Paul Harmon and Roger Tregear, eds., Questioning BPM? 109 Answers by 33 Authors to 15 Questions about business Process Management (Tampa, FL: Meghan-Kiffer Press, 2016).
  4. Denise M. Rousseau, "Is There Such a Thing as 'Evidence-Based Management'?," Academy of Management Review, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2006): 256–269.

Joseph Drasin, D.M., is director of University Process Innovation, Division of Information Technology, University of Maryland.

© 2017 Joseph Drasin. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.