A new world of virtual operations:
simplifying, standardising, and transforming the work of professional services

AUA Annual Conference 2021 Exhibitor Blog
Ron Yanosky | EAB

COVID-19 has transformed higher education into a virtualised industry. While online learning is the most conspicuous part of this new reality, the shift from campus-bound to remote professional services operations is a quieter but equally noteworthy achievement. Our workforce has remained flexible in adopting new modes of work. But these crisis conditions shouldn’t obscure the fact that higher education’s work practices remain highly traditional. Leaders have a lot to learn about how to translate our legacy work regime into a virtual environment.

To help institutions understand how they can successfully realise the benefits of a virtualised professional services workforce, we at EAB have been exploring remote work policies and practices both inside and outside the higher education sector. Join our AUA session, ‘Untethering the Administrative Workforce: Preparing the Campus and the Workforce for a New Era of Flexibility,’ scheduled for 13:05 on Monday, 29 March, where we’ll share case studies and implementable tools to further explore the benefits of expanding higher education’s remote work opportunities post-pandemic.

One major opportunity for a post-pandemic remote environment is in improving and virtualising processes and workflows. The dispersion of staff has forced institutions to recognise what process improvement advocates have long known: digitised processes can be much faster and smoother than manual ones. Among the overdue reforms are the replacement of physical signatures with digital ones, digitising of paper forms, and increased uptake of conferencing and messaging tools. But digitisation alone is not the answer, as virtualising a bad process just hardwires the inefficiencies that were there all along.

Not surprisingly, then, institutions have been returning to time-tested process improvement tactics as they look to redesign their workflows with a virtual operating environment in mind. EAB has long advocated a simple, jargon-free approach to process improvement. Below, I describe five critical steps that organisations must take as part of their process improvement journey. You can also download our infographic on the topic to learn more.

1. Assemble the right people

In carrying out process improvement work, the most successful institutions bring together cross-functional teams made up of people with different perspectives and approaches—but all committed to making a process simpler, more standardised, and beneficial to the customer. A process improvement team should ideally be made up of 5 to 8 people, who understand the process under consideration. Essential team members include a process improvement coordinator, process customers, and unit-based and central office individual contributors to the process. You should also leave room around the table for other candidates if the process or solution under consideration would benefit from their input and expertise (e.g., technology experts or academic staff members).

2. Map the current state

Mapping the current state of the process under review requires the expertise of your process improvement team. Together, you will articulate what actually happens on your campus today along every step of the process. You may discover that some units do steps differently or that off-the-books work-arounds, shortcuts, and shadow systems are involved. Note these instances as areas for improvement. Keep an eye out for overtly manual operations as automation opportunities.

3. Collect current-state data

Upon mapping the current-state process, opportunities for improvements will likely become apparent. Before rushing toward solutions, though, you must collect baseline data on the process, whether articulated as a measurement of throughput, customer service quality, error rate, or another metric.

Establishing baseline metrics is critical for understanding where you are now and how you can improve. It’s impossible to prove later successes without this step. Focus on just a handful of metrics that are important to stakeholders and customer, such as productivity, savings, number of steps, or response time.

4. Design the future state

At last, the fun part. Designing and mapping the future-state process seeks to generate an ideal scenario for the who, what, where, when, and why of a process. This is the time to think creatively about what the process should look like in terms of meeting the goals you established in the previous step. You’ll want to look for opportunities to eliminate waste and maximise efficiency while maintaining high customer satisfaction. Whether you are removing, reordering, reassigning, or even adding steps, the goal is to create a better way to get the job done.

Some campuses may pursue a “greenfield” approach, in which a team designs a process from scratch. Another way is to assess the current process for reengineering opportunities. In that case, teams should walk through each step of the process, considering the perspective of customers and end-users.

5. Develop an implementation plan

After you have designed the future state, you need to create a plan for how to get there. The scope of this plan will depend on the complexity of the process you have improved and how many teams across the university are involved. In developing the action plan, continue to communicate with executive sponsors, who can offer guidance, approve resource needs, and clear roadblocks. Your plan should focus on how realising your future state will impact policy, staffing, technology, and communication.

Ultimately, process improvement and virtualisation are just a few of the many opportunities for greater efficiency now within reach for the sector. COVID-19 has set the stage for a radical reappraisal of how we mix on- and off-campus work. Leaders need to exploit remote work for what it is—a unique, previously untapped asset that can help us with the financial and strategic challenges that await even after the pandemic is over. Come to our session to learn more.

EAB is kindly sponsoring the AUA Annual Conference 2021.

At EAB, our mission is to make education smarter and our communities stronger. We harness the power of more than 1,700 institutions to uncover and apply proven practices and transformative insights. From kindergarten to college and beyond, EAB partners with education leaders to accelerate progress and drive results in three key areas: enrolment, student success and institutional strategy.

You can find more information about the organisation on the EAB website.