People before Systems: What UniForum tells us about successful technology transformation

Across North America, the UK, and Australia, many institutions are exploring the need to renew their technology infrastructure. In fact, Nous/NousCubane’s recent global VPFA and COO study indicated that 79% of respondents have increased their investments in digital.

These investments can span from a need to replace specific point solutions (e.g. expense management) to large ERP overhauls spanning finance, human resources, and student information systems. Regardless of how broad the scope of your system investment, the same fundamental learnings apply to getting the greatest return on investment.

Case Study: How Monash University has focused on laying the foundations before a new Student Administration system.

For many years Monash has been running a legacy student information system (SIS) recognizing that it will eventually reach end of life. While it was tempting to go to market, the university realized that the current state of fragmentation would prevent successful automation and modernization. A lack of standardized ways of working was a roadblock to realizing the benefits of modernization.

Where the university focused:

  • Harmonizing 22 common processes to reduce handovers
  • Consolidating common service offerings to create a one-stop shop and improved knowledge management
  • Developing new service charters to re-baseline operations
  • Digitizing and creating straight through processing where possible with existing systems

Benefits achieved:

  • Reduced UniForum benchmark spend by nearly 15%
  • Improved staff satisfaction by 8%
  • Transparency of data across the organization for consistent service delivery

… all before a major systems uplift. When new systems do come it will be focused on the requirements needed for future modernization.

The allure of starting with tech

Consider a common university environment with many stand-alone academic departments which over the years have built up their own tools and approaches to service local needs, and their own “tricks” to navigate “central” processes. As this behaviour replicates itself across a large organization you end up with hundreds of process permutations, many tools (excel spreadsheets), and no real ability to collect and analyze institutional data to improve the effectiveness of your systems.

This likely applies to wide range of scenarios:

  • Accounts payable where there are many people along the chain with different ways of determining how to approve and pay for purchases.
  • Student requests for accommodations where different academic areas apply different rules.
  • Faculty hiring where the road to final approval to send out a contract and onboard a new professor seems to be invented for the first time, every time.

Then along comes an IT vendor with the seemingly perfect tool. A set of pre-packaged processes that appear to show transactions flowing in a sensible and consistent manner. A beautiful user interface that looks like anyone can use it and achieve the holy grail of “self-service”. A well-thought-out reporting system to finally provide management with access to data and workflow configuration options that allow business users to customize processes without being caught up in IT ticketing line-ups.

Where system implementations (often) fall down

Let’s now take the procure to pay process as an example. The vendor has proposed a standard process workflow that is sensible: A user puts in a requisition, a budget owner approves it, a buyer does the purchasing, goods arrive, the buyer acknowledges receipt, and finance receives and pays the invoice. All good so far.

So now we need to ask who in the university plays each of these roles. Who can enter a requisition? Who has budget approval authority? At what levels? Who is a buyer? Is it at a discipline, faculty, or institutional level?

The reality in most universities is that these roles are not clearly designated. UniForum data shows us that in many institutions the responsibility for “purchasing goods and services” can be spread across more than 400 different positions.

Without acknowledging this reality, many institutions design a workflow, start the new tech implementation, and then realize half-way through that requests for access to the AP module start ballooning, and many never stop to ask why so many people require this access. The answer of course is that the university never had upfront conversations on who should have access.

The second reality is that many individuals involved in the process only do it for a very small part of their job. Again, UniForum data shows that people in generalist roles can sometimes make up to 60-70% of the capacity involved in the procure to pay process.  If someone only enters the system once every few months it’s as if they are learning it new every time. They are probably better off still using the old spreadsheet that was designed with just the input fields they needed for their department and their types of purchasing!

After all this what do we get?

Simply put, these types of implementations end up costing an institution more, not less. How? Because any automation gains are simply thrown away by generalist users making too many errors on the front end. Then, academic units start bolting on people and processes to interact with central systems and processes to ‘protect’ professors and other staff from the tyranny of central processes that never took the time to understand them.

Taking the time upfront can save you bundles in implementation (you might even discover you don’t need one!)

What UniForum tells us is that simplifying and harmonizing processes and roles needs to come before an implementation, not during or after. The reasons are plentiful.

  1. Taking the time to re-assess how processes flow “end to end” across an institution and then designing that future state will better inform the requirements you need from your future system. Why go to market with business requirements mirroring your current state when you know it’s the process and role design change that will create most of the uplift?
  2. Simplified requirements, should in turn mean a simplified and therefore cheaper implementation.
  3. Change is hard, and too much of it at once is even harder. Your teams should adopt to new ways of working using current tools, before layering on new technology. The staged change will increase adoption and “stickiness”.
  4. You might discover that you need a lot fewer users accessing the system than originally thought, and you can review the licensing budget.
  5. You might discover that existing systems really can do the trick! Or you realize it’s a case of tinkering around the edges and adding a robotic process automation layer rather than overhauling the core ERP at significant expense.

So how do we get this right?

  1. Understand who is doing what and where in your organization. UniForum data provides transparent and powerful insight into which activities each position at your institution is dedicating time to (whether centrally or in the academic units).
    1. Is there a general administrator in the department of chemistry responsible for both IT helpdesk, and accounts payable?
  2. Ask yourself if the way systems are designed now are meeting the needs of your users. The UniForum Service Effectiveness Assessment survey provides a clear sector benchmark on whether services today are meeting the expectations of both professional and academic staff.
  3. Consider the benefits of relocating work and re-designing roles for greater focus.
    1. Which activities should be done at a local academic level closest to faculty and students?
    2. Which activities benefit more from consolidation and increased volume within one unit on campus?
    3. Which activities benefit from staff who can be focused on the work, receive regular training, and find ways to continuously improve outcomes?

Answering these questions will start to lay a radically different and better foundation for IT transformation that leads to real sustainable change.

If you would like to discuss this case study in more detail or learn more about our global benchmarking membership and service effectiveness solutions, please contact us.