IT teams face many challenges in planning and implementing business process redesign, as well as in establishing a culture of continuous improvement in the higher education context. These case studies describe how teams at three institutions managed these challenges, found effective solutions, and learned lessons along the way.
This article is the fourth in a 2018 series that presents case studies related to the theme of next generation enterprise IT:
- Building a Technology Strategy to Enable Next Generation IT
- Connecting Enterprise IT Models to Institutional Missions and Goals
- Becoming Institutional Brokers and Partners: The New Role for IT
- Maintaining Business Process Redesign Efforts through Change Management
- Using Data from Multiple Systems for Personalized Study Experiences
Traditional enterprise IT is typically viewed as centralized, monolithic, and vendor-driven. In contrast, next generation enterprise IT is characterized by movement toward a multifaceted, interconnected ecosystem focused on advancing the institution's mission and effectiveness. Next generation enterprise IT is mission-driven and client-centric. It is enabled by both a variety of technology trends and the management of those trends, which include cloud computing, business process reengineering, social networks, mobile technologies, analytics, artificial intelligence, enterprise architecture, and service management methodologies. Further, it is driven by the migration of authority and responsibility closer to the edges of organizations and by expectations such as hyperpersonalization of services; a closer link between IT and the institutional mission and goals; and greater system agility, flexibility, and scalability. These trends and drivers are pushing us to rethink enterprise IT.
To take advantage of emerging trends and to meet expectations, IT faces several challenges; the EDUCAUSE Enterprise IT Program will consider those challenges throughout 2018. In this fourth set of case studies, IT leaders from Bridgewater State University (BSU), University of Wisconsin–Stout (UW–Stout), and University of Maryland discuss how they used enterprise system implementation efforts to set the stage for establishing a culture of continuous business process improvement. Each system implementation offers an organization the opportunity to improve the business processes it uses to get its work done. This is especially true for organizations transitioning from on-premise to cloud-based systems, which are more difficult to customize.
Bridgewater State University
Kelley Baran, Director of Administrative Systems
Founded in 1840, BSU is now the tenth largest four-year higher education institution in Massachusetts. Of its 11,000 students, 60 percent identify as students of color, the first generation in their families to pursue higher education, and/or members of low-income families. BSU offers more than ninety areas of study to both undergraduate and graduate students, and 97 percent of its full-time faculty members hold doctorates or terminal degrees in their field. BSU's main campus encompasses thirty-nine buildings situated on 278 acres; two additional satellite campuses are located in Attleboro and Cape Cod. BSU has made technology an integral component of teaching and learning on campus and is a regional center for the enhancement of teaching through technology for pre-K–12 teachers and university faculty. BSU is also known for its unparalleled opportunities for students to engage in undergraduate research and to present research and creative work at regional and national conferences.
In 2013, Raymond Lefebvre, then BSU associate VP (and now VP) of Information Technology and CIO, led the Division of Information Technology on a journey of self-discovery to align its strategic plan with that of the university, which resulted in our IT team rethinking the ways in which we could more efficiently serve our constituents. Institution-wide application upgrades to our enterprise IT system became an immediate area of focus. Prior to this comprehensive self-analysis, we had been experiencing critical disconnects with system upgrades. This disconnect was underscored in one key case in which lengthy work was invested to fix a problem that was already resolved by a vendor release that neither IT nor the business unit in question had implemented.
Disconnects such as this resulted in major losses of time and efficiencies in implementing upgrades across all impacted departments. Administrative offices often grappled with out-of-date software issues and missed opportunities for more-efficient processing. Business units that remained behind in release updates were eventually confronted—typically at inopportune times during their business cycle—with copious amounts of documentation to review and required testing to complete. In this case study, we describe how we addressed these challenges, forged strong partnerships, and reengineered our system-wide upgrade process.
New Upgrade Policy
BSU uses Ellucian's Banner ERP, and it is the university's primary source of student data, human resource information, financial aid, and finance operations, including accounts receivable.
Cognizant of the challenges inherent in its existing application upgrade process, IT adopted a new Banner Upgrade Policy and Process in the 2013–14 academic year. This policy established a model for future release evaluation and implementation; it also stressed the need, each academic year, to update at least the modules that were more than a one-point upgrade away from the current release.
The new policy's goal is to keep applications current and thereby take advantage of the improved functionality being released to assist business units with business processing. To achieve this efficiently and effectively, IT had to move from a siloed approach, which separately served each individual business unit, to a more inclusive approach, which established partnerships between and among IT and all business units impacted by any given upgrade. I was director of Administrative Systems and the project manager at that time. In 2015, when the Project Management Office was fully established, they assumed responsibility for yearly project oversight of the process. Kathy Flaherty became the project manager and oversees efforts to refine the institution-wide application update process.
An Evolving Cultural Change
Like any plan that requires the action of other people, the shift from IT as the driver of the upgrade process to business unit partners as accountable members of the upgrade team was a major culture change. However, with time and positive results, all stakeholders came to value not only the importance of staying up to date, which is obvious, but also the less-apparent interdependency of all business units. As the newly established Project Management Office has matured and more partnerships with business units have been forged and strengthened, today's key end users have become increasingly familiar with baseline and upgrade testing, as well as with self-assessing implementation for accuracy; they are also more willing to invest the time needed to ensure success across the board.
Annual Upgrade Process
In creating the Project Management Office and implementing a formal, annualized approach to application upgrades, IT moved from providing siloed support to being a service-centric organization. The new approach is founded on an interconnected system wherein partnerships with key end users are the critical component of successful implementation.
The IT strategy is based on the following:
- A focused approach to change from an IT-driven upgrade process, in which an emergency dictates a "need it yesterday" implementation, to a planned process of upgrading prior to a crisis using a "staying ahead of the curve" approach that engages all stakeholders.
- The recognition that implementing application upgrades does not require using new functionality unless the business unit desires it.
- A comprehensive, cohesive approach to application updates, including an analysis of how an update to one business unit impacts other business units.
- In addition to developing test plans, and with an eye toward continuous improvement, the addition of performance statistics to IT's after-implementation analysis, not only to measure functionality but also to ascertain whether a given upgrade is meeting expectations.
Financial Aid Upgrade
In 2014, the federal government issued new guidelines for loan processing. Ellucian, in turn, released a Banner patch that gave users the ability to process and disburse direct loans for the 2015–16 aid year.
To manage the upgrade, IT first analyzed the situation holistically, researched current financial aid functionalities and all dependencies, identified available upgrades, and formulated an appropriate, well-rounded strategy. This approach involved looking at how many applications or modules were affected; investigating exactly what would be involved in meeting our new Banner Update Policy's mandate of at most a one-point upgrade away from current release; reviewing release manual guides to learn what new functionality was available; and evaluating what was currently being done, including all existing security measures.
Next, we understood that the financial aid software patch/upgrade impacted the workflow in two other business units—Accounts Receivables and the Registrar's Office—that each required upgrades of their own to keep pace. This intense investigative process was then applied to each dependency to determine feasibilities and develop overall strategies.
Finally, after we had fully explored all aspects of the upgrade and their effect on other business units, we partnered with Financial Aid and representatives from each impacted dependency. Together, we then decided what the turnaround time should be, how to execute the test plans, and how best to review the release notes.
- Scheduling human resources is key to successfully implementing an upgrade and should be addressed at the start of each IT upgrade project. IT must consider not only the resources in the IT Administrative Systems office but also those available in the target business unit. Further, IT should thoroughly analyze the resources available in each dependency impacted by the upgrade.
- A cultural shift takes time. IT initiated its new Banner Upgrade Policy and Process five years ago. Since then, the application upgrade process has evolved into a true partnership rather than a singular IT push, resulting in fully engaged interdepartmental teams wholly vested in each upgrade's successful implementation. Key end users now alert IT of critical upgrade needs, which then are communicated to key stakeholders across the university and queued up for implementation, ensuring that IT and its business unit partners stay well ahead of the curve.
- A holistic approach is critical. Application upgrades to one system are not made in isolation; they must respect the interconnectedness of all dependencies. It is therefore critically important to ensure that all applications that tie into the enterprise system mesh and communicate effectively with each other, which often means that they, too, must be upgraded.
- Leverage partnerships. Forging business unit partnerships to implement application updates lets IT take advantage of new technologies and utilize new functionalities, which in turn allows it to continuously improve its service to faculty, staff, and students. In our case, doing so also enhances BSU's mission "to use its intellectual, scientific, and technological resources to support and advance the economic and cultural life of the region and the state."
University of Wisconsin–Stout
Meridith Wentz, Assistant Chancellor, Planning, Assessment, Research, and Quality
Amanda Brown, Professor, Communication Studies, Global Languages, and Performance Arts
Founded in 1891, UW–Stout has forty-eight undergraduate and twenty-three graduate programs and an official enrollment of approximately 9,400. As Wisconsin's polytechnic university, UW–Stout focuses on applied learning to prepare students for careers in industry, commerce, education, and human services through the study of technology, applied mathematics and science, art, business, industrial management, human behavior, family and consumer sciences, and manufacturing-related engineering and technologies. In 2001, UW–Stout became the first—and to date, the only—four-year institution of higher education to receive the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for demonstrating excellence in collecting and utilizing institutional data.
In 2014, UW–Stout began the multiyear process of implementing data visualization software to replace static reporting with interactive dashboards. These dashboards let the campus community and decision makers drill down to specific data based on organizational structure and demographic variables to better understand data trends, best practices, and opportunities for improvement. For example, the dashboards let users drill down to information about the student population by demographic characteristics such as sex or ethnicity or by subgroups such as enrollment in a specific academic program. Although the transition to interactive dashboards is not new, the fact that UW–Stout has integrated these dashboards into many of our processes is unique in higher education.
The Challenge: Data Growth
Given the increased pressure to document progress on performance metrics to both internal and external stakeholders, higher education institutions tend to collect significant amounts of data. Growth in software tools such as data warehousing, data visualization, and statistical packages and spreadsheets is making data more accessible to a wider audience. However, this growth is also making it more difficult to identify what is important and how to use the data for decision-making; institutions also might lack the resources to analyze or communicate those data properly.
For example, at one time, UW–Stout collected data on more than 250 performance metrics, which was not feasible or sustainable. After streamlining to twenty-five performance metrics, we were able to better focus our data collection and our strategic planning process, as well as how we communicate progress on performance metrics to stakeholders.
At UW–Stout, our approach to addressing these data-related challenges includes a two-part solution:
- Upgrade the software we use to share data.
- Modify our processes to ensure that we reviewed the data and used them for continuous improvement.
We used Tableau software to create a dashboard—or cascading scorecard system—for our key performance indicators. This dashboard lets us drill down on data based on both organizational structure (university, college, and unit/department) and demographic variables (including sex, race/ethnicity, class level, and distance learners). The cascading scorecard integrates information drawn from multiple sources including performance indicators, program facts, survey data, and other studies and reports related to university goals. The scorecard uses the Tableau data analytics and visualization software platform to provide a user-friendly interface to access the vast array of available performance-related data. The scorecard includes three components: students, faculty/staff, and other (for example, financial and environmental metrics).
Further, we modified our processes to integrate a review of these data into processes at all organizational levels. Examples of processes that use the dashboards are the strategic planning process, program review process, assessment processes, and educational support unit review processes. This project was a campus-wide effort involving stakeholders such as the committees responsible for managing each of these processes, IT staff, institutional research staff, and senior administrators.
Modifying these processes keeps UW–Stout focused on continuous improvement, and the dashboard with Tableau data analytics is integral to that effort. Specifically, data collected from academic program assessment and review of educational support units (nonacademic units) can be easily compiled and communicated to internal stakeholders—such as academic program faculty—to help identify areas for growth and improvement. Further, the data housed in the dashboard are vital to the strategic planning process. Those data, such as retention rates or staff salaries, provide a starting point to identify problems and discuss data-driven solutions to address them. The dashboard increases participation and engagement across campus, and the data collected from academic and nonacademic unit reviews are available to everyone at the institution. To suit the varied visual preferences of diverse stakeholders, Tableau presents data in many different visual formats (including tables, graphs, and maps).
Based on these data, UW–Stout identifies several major initiatives each year to help achieve strategic planning goals. For example, demographic data indicate a decline in the number of potential students, and a decline in students of traditional university age led to initiatives focused on retaining existing students and recruiting new ones. Our data also revealed challenges in retaining faculty and staff. Much like our efforts to recruit and retain students, engagement sessions have been launched (large-scale focus groups) to explore how to improve the campus climate for faculty and staff to increase employee retention.
To make change more feasible and avoid overwhelm, UW–Stout focuses on continuous and incremental improvement. In our academic program review process, we examine a subset of performance indicators every four years; examining every performance indicator annually would be overwhelming. Academic programs submit assessment reports, and the data are compiled using Tableau data analytics. We ask the academic programs to address areas in which performance may fall below the target and to assess how they can make data-driven decisions to grow and improve. Similarly, all educational support units (nonacademic units) are reviewed on a four-year cycle. This process also includes reviewing the scorecard's standard set of metrics.
The resource required for this effort has primarily been in the form of the time needed to review and revise all of these processes. Once processes are revised, maintaining them and the dashboards has required relatively minimal effort. Financially, the only cost has been in purchasing Tableau licenses. Declining financial support is a reality for higher education institutions, and justifying any software purchase can be challenging.
Although UW–Stout faces similar financial challenges as other institutions, the advantages of Tableau data analytics justify the cost. Stakeholders such as students, legislatures, and institution employees are no longer content to let higher education institutions function without demonstrating their effectiveness on performance metrics. Although UW–Stout could collect and communicate data without Tableau data analytics, doing so would be significantly more challenging for the institution and its external stakeholders.
Following are some of our key lessons learned:
- The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award framework helped us create a systematic framework for aligning data, strategic planning, and decision-making. It also helped us ensure that the Tableau software implementation had a positive, ongoing impact on our business practices.
- Focusing on a few metrics and streamlining our processes to ensure that reviewing these metrics was standard practice was a key to our success.
- Another key to success was engaging a broad group of campus stakeholders, including those responsible for implementing key processes. Specifically, we worked closely with several committees, including those responsible for strategic planning, academic program review, educational support program review, senior administration, information technology staff, enrollment services staff, and institutional research staff.
- Not only does UW–Stout use data to improve academic and nonacademic units, we also look for ways to improve the collection and communication of data. As we began moving forward with Tableau data analytics, we found that some stakeholders may not know where to access institutional data.
As an example of the final lesson, prior to Tableau, institutional data were housed in the UW–Stout website for Planning, Assessment, Research, and Quality (PARQ). However, faculty, staff, and students who were not focused on institutional research were not necessarily familiar with those data or with PARQ. We therefore moved the dashboards to a more central location on the UW–Stout website. Further, although the data are primarily quantitative, some stakeholders will not understand statistical terminology, while others might find that numerical data do not provide enough context for a complete understanding. As a result, we have been working on adding more qualitative metrics, including a metric related to intercultural competence.
Where to Learn More
- UW–Stout Fact Book.
- Information about how UW–Stout infuses data campus-wide to drive institutional change will also be also discussed in an article in the Midwest Higher Educational Research journal in late 2018 (Wentz, Brown, and Sweat, 2018).
University of Maryland, College Park
Joseph Drasin, Director, Division of Information Technology
Michael Graham-Cornell, Associate Director, University Relations
The University of Maryland, College Park, is the flagship public research university in the state of Maryland. Founded in 1856, it enrolls more than 39,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
In the Spring of 2015, the University of Maryland's University Relationships (UR) division wanted to enhance its system for processing and tracking financial gifts. UR was in the enviable position of having incoming gifts increase substantially year-over-year. This increased volume strained existing processes, however, causing many to slow down; this, in turn, led to high administrative costs and concerns about future efficient operations. Although UR had made some investments in human resources, the volume continued to increase, and scaling was becoming difficult. To determine how new technology could support an increased activity level and the business processes that needed to change, a holistic view was essential.
Research and Analysis
The UR group partnered with the Processes Improvement and Innovations group within the Division of Information Technology (IT) to take a closer look at the process by which gifts were accepted. Their goal was to improve process efficiency and gain insights into the pipeline. Their approach used two closely aligned paths: a rigorous process improvement effort and a new technology platform developed by UR.
To ground the effort, the groups developed three guiding principles:
- Ensure that donors receive appropriate and complete gift stewardship
- Create a faster process for everyone involved
- Ensure that gifts are in compliance and auditable
The groups assessed each effort to determine how it was aligning with these three principles and, at times, how they might balance conflicts between them. The process innovations team started by meeting with the sponsor and his leadership team to 1) better understand the project objectives and 2) identify the various groups involved in the gifting process. Next, the team conducted twenty interviews with faculty and staff from more than ten departments; the goal was to document the existing process and identify challenge areas.
The team put together a comprehensive swimlane diagram showing the process. The diagram began with the discussion of a possible donation, then showed the gift receipt, and then the money being deposited in the bank and the donor being acknowledged. To process a single donation, forty steps and fifteen people were needed. These forty steps assumed that there were no complications in the process, though complications were quite common. The team highlighted many challenges along the way, but ultimately, the biggest problem was the growing volume of activity. The increased fundraising could not be sustained with existing processes, as they were not scalable; UR had a backlog of work, not enough people to do it, and very limited use of technology to automate its manual, labor-intensive actions. Further, a few gifts were not deposited or acknowledged in a timely fashion, which negatively affected everyone involved. Delays increased during heavy gift-giving periods, such as end of calendar year, end of fiscal year, and the university's annual "giving day." Additionally, there was no universal understanding of the end-to-end process or how each of the subprocesses impacted one another. As a result, previous efforts at continuous improvement were isolated and, while they may have improved one area, it was at the detriment of another. A key realization here was that to truly see process improvement, they had to consider the concept of a "single unit of work." Many subprocesses relied on processing groups of gifts together, which caused backups when one of the gifts ran into a snag.
At the conclusion of the analysis, the team conducted a facilitated workshop with all process participants and fully documented every aspect of the process. This documentation was eye-opening; it immediately triggered suggestions for process improvements, leading to key insights for policy adjustments and a software development effort. The entire group left the workshop with a much better understanding of the end-to-end process and the challenges they needed to overcome.
Recommendations for a Solution
The team delivered its recommendations to the primary stakeholders. Those recommendations included the following:
- Standardize many of the existing documents
- Ensure that staff members with the most knowledge of a gift conduct front-end validation of the gift's submitter
- Provide more training and self-help materials
- Use electronic signatures and routing
- Develop software to track, route, and process future gifts
We began developing a new system within weeks of completing the process analysis. The team focused on creating an end-to-end solution that supported the documented workflows and business rules. It also emphasized front-end validation of data by the gift submitter and pushing tasks to the groups best suited to complete them. For example, the research office would be responsible for all complicated donor searches and donor creations, a task it previously shared with the gift acceptance office. The team also created a data and programmatic framework that could be extended for continuous process improvement into the future.
The Development Process
Development progressed in three major phases. The first phase started with the initial part of the donation process, which affects the largest groups of users—that is, the gift submitters from the departments in which gifts were received. The gift submitters were the first group to receive the application. The benefit of targeting this group first was that the majority of data validation is completed during the submission process. So, when gifts are moved into the existing paper-based workflow (see phase two), the gift acceptance staff has much less confirmation work to do. This phase is 100 percent complete, and we have retired the previous gift-submission system.
The second phase, which currently has an approximately 40 percent adoption rate, involves the gift acceptance office, which processes the gifts and is now on its way to a completely paperless process. The second phase also includes importing batches of gifts defined in spreadsheets or downloaded from credit card submissions.
The third phase of development is nearly complete. This phase includes reconciliation with the finance office, feeding gifts to the finance record system, and receiving feeds of gifts from online gift platforms.
We also have several future phases planned, including
- integration with a third-party scan/OCR solution for annual gifts and pledge payments received by mail,
- automatic receipt generation, and
- acknowledgment tracking.
The scan/OCR phase will allow the gift acceptance office to scan stacks of incoming mail and checks, build electronic deposit files for processed gifts, and transfer the giving information into the new system. Although automatic receipts are already generated for online gifts, receipts for hand-processed gifts and acknowledgments are still created via after-the-fact reporting and mail merge. This project will serve as a platform to track acknowledgments, a function that the primary database does not support.
The continuous improvement and software development efforts have taught the groups a lot about the tight interdependence between the people, processes, and technologies that make the overall system operate. Following are five of their key lessons learned:
- Continuous process improvement requires a long-term commitment from management, which often expects very quick returns.
- Continuous improvement requires looking at the broad end-to-end process. Focusing on improving one area without looking at the overall context can cause problems in other areas. In a continuous improvement environment with ongoing improvement efforts, this can lead to a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole.
- Identifying areas with high administrative costs is a good way to target candidates for continuous improvement. Increased load is a good test of process scalability. These systems tend to be distributed and nonintegrated.
- Without looking at the people and processes behind the technology, it is easy to implement new systems that don't substantially improve processes.
- Involving all stakeholders and educating them on the entire end-to-end process is a great way to improve engagement. When stakeholders become more familiar with the intimate details and understand the roles and challenges in other areas, they begin to suggest new ideas and adapt to changes more quickly.
Where to Learn More
Additional case studies as well as process improvement tools can be found at University Process Innovation.
As these case studies and their lessons learned describe, implementing enterprise systems involves various challenges and provides opportunities for cultural change across the institution. Such efforts allow IT teams to help their organizations understand that improving business processes must be a continuous rather than one-time effort; further, this ongoing approach must become "the way we do things around here."
This is one of a collection of resources related to how colleges and universities can take advantage of business process redesign efforts to become more agile. For the full set of resources and tools on this topic, go to Continually Improving Business Process Redesign Efforts.
Kelley Baran is Director of Administrative Systems at Bridgewater State University.
Meridith Wentz is Assistant Chancellor of Planning, Assessment Research, and Quality at University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Amanda Brown is a Professor in the Communication Studies, Global Languages, and Performance Arts Department at University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Joseph Drasin is Director of University Process Innovation at University of Maryland.
Michael Graham-Cornell is Associate Director of University Relations at University of Maryland.
© 2018 Kelley Baran, Meridith Wentz, Amanda Brown, Joseph Drasin, and Michael Graham-Cornell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.