Imagine a school in which technology enabled far greater efficiencies every day and administration errors were practically a thing of the past. Now picture your school as a place where parents and students alike wanted so badly to be a part of your community from the moment they first interacted with your website.
As the education sector learns and leaps forward, the concept of process automation is starting to really take shape in the education sector and the potential benefits are beginning to resonate with schools in a big way, particularly in the secondary and tertiary sectors.
Education Technology Solutions (ETS) Magazine engaged with Richard Ashley and Mike Dooner, the industry leaders at Konica Minolta who brought readers insight on turning documents into data, to uncover the thinking behind how schools can innovate and strategically transform the administrative and front-line components of their operation that will become hallmarks of the true 21st century school.
“I believe we are going to start seeing a big take-up of process automation technology now and with many schools, it may start in one key area – for example, with automatic enrolments or with accounts payable,” said Richard Ashley. “Through these first steps, schools will start seeing the benefits and be very likely to apply the same time-saving conveniences to other areas of their daily administration tasks.”
These days, every school has to do more with less. Whether it is time or budget, the bottom line is that schools, now more than ever, need to be more efficient.
“I agree; however, the only way you can become more efficient is by looking at your processes,” says Mike Dooner. “Some people are apprehensive when they hear this because they think this means a reduction of staff – but it does not mean that at all. Re-engineering your processes and automating them means you get to free up your staff from wasting time shuffling paper, which in turn enables them to do more cognitive ‘thinking’ things which will give them more job satisfaction and in turn provide the maximum benefit to the school by those staff members adding more value to the entire school community.”
Competitive Advantage for Schools
No one ever gets a second chance to make a first impression. From the prospective student’s point of view, the first interaction that he or she has with a school is the one that matters the most.
Websites for most schools are, at best, clunky and outdated online brochures. What if a school instead had a website designed to have an immersive experience, plus an interactive enrolment and application portal? Could the school not gain a huge competitive advantage in the education marketplace? This should make getting school websites ‘right’ a top priority.
“Yes, it definitely does,” says Richard Ashley. “Private schools and tertiary institutions in particular are constantly looking for a competitive edge in the education market. So getting your website and enrolment process right is an excellent example where process automation can have a positive impact straight away, especially if you are competing for the top students to enrol in your school.”
“It is true,” says Mike Dooner. “Put yourself in the shoes of the parent who is looking for the right school for their child. What you want would be a similar level of interactivity that you would get from a face-to-face interview where you have got a robust and relevant Q&A process. Once the parent is engaged and interested, qualifying that inquiry and simplifying the application process is totally possible right now.”
“Now suppose for a moment your school has a few hundred applications from students applying to your school and you have only five or ten positions available for the next school year. What is your current process for filtering all of those applications? Does someone really need to spend hours and hours looking through them all and referencing every piece of information or can you get software to filter and prioritise the applications through process automation? For example, answers to questions like ‘does the applicant have a parent that went to the school?’ or ‘does the applicant have a sibling who is studying with us this year?’ You can automatically rate each application against your criteria and not only save time but identify the top 20 percent of students that you will want to talk to. You can automate the interview scheduling and make simple what was once a laborious decision-making process.”
Schools are starting to discuss the same thing in their meetings. They know that innovating their stakeholder communication channels is important and they are questioning how are they interact with their community in the digital space. Schools know that how they interact digitally has an impact on their brand.
With a remarkable shift toward more content being delivered online, how should schools seek to enhance that sense of interactivity to develop and enrich the relationships they have with their community online?
“It is about making the experience more interactive by thinking about the user,” says Richard Ashley. “It is about making that experience easier, more immersive and completely engaging. Part of the reason for Konica Minolta acquiring Stonebridge Systems and Knowledge Partners is to provide that power of the online experience to the education sector.”
“It is also about the content and having a ‘single source of truth’,” Richard continues, “and what I mean by this is, if you are going to provide an enrolment system online, the form you get online should be the same form that you would get if you popped into the school and got it printed it out manually. It is the one source of truth you are after; because as soon as you have two (or more) versions of that document depending on the format you ask for, what you will get is the content and value in each of those document versions drifting further and further apart until you go back to needing a manual paper shuffling process again just to get the information collated in one place.”
Customer Experience Management
In the commercial space, the term ‘web content management’ is being replaced with ‘customer experience management’ which summarises where customer-facing websites are going. But what does this mean for the digital interaction that educational institutions are having with parents, students and the entire school community?
“It is about immersing the user in the experience because it is your first interaction and you want it to be happy experience,” says Mike Dooner. “You want it to be able to automate certain processes, absolutely, but it is not just about filling in a couple of forms, but again I cannot stress this enough, it is really about immersing the user in an experience that allows them to get the feeling of what it is like to interact with your school across the board and to be able to navigate and access content based on their needs.”
Revisiting the notion of competitive advantage for schools, it seems competition for the top students in some markets is very intense, especially when there are parents who are willing to spend big money or send their children great distances to attend those schools.
“Absolutely,” says Richard Ashley. “If you look at the convergence point between process automation and customer experience management there is a huge competitive advantage to be gained for private schools and tertiary because if you can speed up the process between a prospective student applying and then being made an offer, the evidence shows that the student will be more likely to accept that offer. If another school takes two or three times as long, the perception nowadays is that the interaction is not good; so schools that take too long to process and deliver that offer are finding that the best students are often not attending their schools because those students have already taken up an offer with another school.”
“The bottom line is, the more that you immerse that prospective student in a digital experience, the more likely it is that you will be able to capture his or her imagination and apply to the school on the back of that experience right then and there. Retaining that student and continuing to engage with parents through that positive online interaction and a single source of information is the key to this.”
An Alternative ‘Big Bang’ Theory
The lead-up time for implementing a huge new system in a school can take a long time to build, test and implement. Oftentimes, schools are loathe to undergo big projects because, in the past, they may have found that by the time it is ready to launch, the project has changed so much in its development phase that when it is delivered, it is either no longer what they want, or the benefit has already passed them, so they simply let it collect dust and move on to other things.
From an IT perspective, implementing a ‘big bang’ approach with a content management system or a process automation system seems similarly overwhelming. Is it rare these days for schools to do everything all in one go?
“It is easy for any organisation to get carried away and fall into the big bang trap,” says Richard Ashley. “It is much more helpful to find one specific pain point to start and address it directly. At the same time, you want to have some kind of enterprise view that says ‘if we applied this solution in one area, can it be used in other areas?’ and if the solution is extensible, then why would you not apply it to the area that will provide you with the most benefit first?”
“I agree,” says Mike Dooner. “You have got to pick the right thing, not the hardest thing. Picking the right thing to tackle with process automation will give you the best and fastest return on investment and demonstrate capability, which is why, especially in the education sector, enrolment is usually a great one to start with.”
Scott Patterson is the Assistant Editor of Education Technology Solutions Magazine. Scott brings his experience working at the forefront of creative design, web and application development, social interaction and engagement, and digital education platforms to the magazine and the ETS community. Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org