Why process mapping in universities isn’t working

A few years ago I was involved in a business process mapping initiative at one of the larger UK universities. It was an ambitious programme and ultimately unsuccessful, but I’m grateful for the opportunity because it taught me a lot about how universities function, and even more about what’s wrong with many of them today.

Sometimes we all feel like the small cog.

Although the endeavour was effectively sponsored by the registrar, it was never properly resourced and largely powered by goodwill. There was no ongoing budget after the initial investment in software and training, and no full-time staff were assigned, with much of the work having to be done out of hours.

Unsurprisingly, the programme was also met with considerable opposition, but we achieved a lot that I’m genuinely very proud of — until the UK financial crisis in 2008 threw the college into turmoil.

From acorns

The programme originated from the need to chart key institutional processes to build a transparent picture of business activity across organisational silos, set against time — academic, financial, and calendar years (all of which begin and end at different times).

A working group was set up to explore how to do this, eventually arriving at an approach which used process mapping techniques and models to compile an digital process library and business planner. The idea was that we would start mapping at a detailed operational level, and gradually bring these maps together to create a strategic overview of the workings of the entire institution.

It was an entirely reasonable vision and it should have been a fully achievable one too. We mapped thousands of processes covering scores of business areas, working with the people actually managing and carrying out those processes. Then we published them in a process library composed of interactive HTML charts, linked policy documents, forms, and even some simple workflows. But in spite of all that, the project never realised its real potential.

Why do it: Process mapping for efficiency and cost savings

Business process mapping, and the related areas of process management and improvement, promise potentially huge returns for a complex institution like a university. Do you have three different finance teams? (I know, I know, but it does happen.) You do? Process mapping can help you find out why — what they’re doing, and how they can be aligned for greater efficiency.

So how does it work?

  • Process mapping explores and documents what these departments do, and then helps inform business decisions by identifying activities and deliverables which are unnecessary, duplicated, or manual when they could be automated.
  • Then you can overlay the technology layer to see if the systems you employ are being used for maximum value, or if you have a technology stack that doesn’t meet organisational needs.
  • Finally you work out if you really need all those three finance departments. The answer is almost certainly that you don’t — but you’ll be able to understand why, and have a roadmap for efficiency and improvement past the inevitable pain of change management.

The technology

It’s all too easy to be distracted by the lure of the technology. There are a couple of really strong solutions out there, some more collaborative than others, but they’re ultimately tools — and some, like Triaster, also offer methodologies. It’s easy to believe that they will do the work for you and it will all just magically happen, but ultimately mapping is about careful thought, an enquiring mind, and a consistent approach, whether you’re using a Visio-based tool or pen and paper.

One of my all-time favourite process maps, courtesy of Triaster.

So what went wrong?

Rather than bring in external consultants to tease out the detail of current processes we engaged with the people actually living the processes as part of their working routine, and to get them to honestly document things.

However, this grass-roots process mapping necessitated training the mappers in the use of the tools; seeking the support of their managers; carving out some of their time for extra tasks that they generally didn’t consider to be core business; and building trust. The latter was very difficult — some people REALLY don’t like to be asked what they’re doing, especially when there’s the unavoidable inference that they might later be asked to do it differently. Or that they don’t need to do it at all.

The financial crisis in higher education resulted in the withdrawal of support at a key time, and the project became caught up in power struggles and political friction. Ultimately I didn’t have the seniority to allocate resources or overcome feuds at a leadership level, and enthusiasm and commitment weren’t enough.

I don’t know exactly what happened to the programme after I left, probably not much, but I do know that the process library was eventually abandoned.

So can it actually work at an institutional level?

Just because no one has done it yet doesn’t mean that the answer is no, and I firmly believe that it can. My recipe for successful process improvement in higher education would include:

  1. Top-down support from senior management, empowering those managing the initiative to overcome resistance.
  2. Engagement from those actually doing the work of the processes — whether or not they actually end up mapping them themselves.
  3. Clear goals and honest objectives. Is it an institutional initiative or focused on a specific business area?
  4. Resourcing. Things cost money, sorry about that. Also time. Or money AND time. Resource it, or don’t do it at all.
  5. Agility. Map processes on paper if you have to. Sometimes paper is better.
  6. Commitment. See it through — you won’t see quantitative rewards overnight.
  7. Quality content. Garbage in = garbage out.

Have I lost hope?

No. Universities like Cambridge and Bristol have small teams of dedicated process improvement specialists who chip away around the edges, and with the increased pressure on higher education there has never been a greater opportunity to make use of their skills.

Hardly anyone who worked in the administration of my institution still has a job there. Partly because of the passage of time, but also because the place seems locked in a never-ending cycle of cuts and convulsive blood-letting. Is it any better or worse than any other university? I don’t know. There are certainly similar things going on elsewhere, especially as competition becomes increasingly fierce. Money is tight in higher education, or at least tighter than it was.

Sooner or later someone might actually go the whole way with a process mapping initiative — they won’t just give it some of the seven elements above, but they’ll do all of it at an institutional level. Then we’ll see what can really be achieved with that level of commitment.

Perhaps the examples of efficiency-driven organisations in the private sector really can be applied to higher education, as we keep being told, but in a way that improves service, academic freedom, research quality, and student satisfaction — not just downsizing and ‘strategic disinvestment’.

Worth a look

About me

I specialise in navigating the challenges faced by complex institutions in this digital age, driven by a restless desire to see them wield technology to achieve their true potential.

Formerly the Chief Digital Officer at one of the world’s leading business schools, I have over a decade of experience in high profile roles at the University of Cambridge and King’s College London. With a background spanning digital strategy, corporate communications, and the management of technology projects, I now consult widely across a range of sectors.

Connect with me on LinkedIn

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