Patricia Patria, Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Within higher education and corporate America, Digital Transformation has become the new buzz word for the last few years. In its simplest form, Digital Transformation is the use of technology to transform services or businesses, by replacing manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer, more agile systems. For some organizations it might mean reviewing all paper-based processes and moving digital; for others it means large scale transformations to nimbler, cloud-based ERP or Student Information Systems. Digital transformation is not easy; it requires different technical skills, change management skills and intestinal fortitude at the leadership level to really effect change.
Although Digital transformation is difficult, organizations that successfully engage in digital transformation see much better results for their students and employees. Although many universities were investigating or starting digital transformation initiatives prior to COVID-19, with the move to more frequent remote work and learning over the past year, it is even more important to offer streamlined, digital services to students and employees.
Seeing digital transformation up close
Having recently had the opportunity see the outcome of two significant Digital Transformation initiatives, the value it provides to both students and an institution is significant. The first initiative involved moving from an outdated Student Information System to a new cloud-based ERP for finance and human resources. Prior to this deployment, which was a multi-year initiative, there were many paper-based manual processes for both human resources and finance functions. Financial transitions, like purchase orders or expense reports, often required multiple levels of physical signatures, were sent via inter-office mail, and if any of the required individuals involved in the process were not in the office, the process could not be complete. It could often take weeks or months to process information from start to finish, making the process both inefficient and time consuming.
However, when moving to a new cloud-based ERP system, it is critical to review all existing business process, and convert all of those process to digital processes. Although this is never easy, and requires significant amounts of change management and communication, when COVID hit last year and all employees moved remote, institutions that had migrated to digitized process were able to perform all functions remotely without missing a beat. From a finance perspective, this can include processing expense reports, invoices, purchase orders and closing the year end remotely. From a human resources perspective, this couldinclude entering time and running payroll fully remotely. For institutions that had not started Digital Transformations prior to COVID, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage operations fully remotely.
Supporting project-based learning ecosystems
In addition to ERP transformations, you can also achieve great value through digital transition on smaller endeavors.For institutions that leverage project-based learning ecosystems, by automating the advertising, selection and matching projects for projects, you can improve student and faculty experience, and reduce stress associated with critical events. For institutions that have students who attend formal projects are part of their education, you may see more than 1,000 students select one of 70+ remote project centers to travel to for a 7-week project experience across a variety of topics and locations. Prior to transformation, students would request access to a project center and/or topic via forms. They would rank their top 5 centers and projects and hope for the best. Staff would manually catalog these requests, try to prioritize needs as best as possible, and then manually tell students which project they received, which always resulted in wait lists for approximately 15% of students that applied.
To improve both student experience and staff time, I have seen institutions create a web-based tool that advertises projects and project centers and allows students to register and request projects within one system.
Leveraging specialized algorithms, you can match students based on skills, desires, and other attributes. Within hours or days, instead of weeks or months, the algorithm combined input from both students and project center directors to evaluate the mutual compatibility, and then used optimal matching techniques to create the match outcomes. The end result was preferred matching for all students without any waiting lists. Both the students and faculty involved with this transformation were thrilled with the new results, reducing time spent on matching students to projects, and improving the overall usability for students and reducing the stress associated with waiting lists.
Although digital transformations are never easy, and generally require new skills as well change management expertise, to thrive in this new post-COVID world, it will become increasingly more important to not only streamline and digitize all processes but improve the end user experience for both students and employees.