The Only Constant is Change
In 2015, Lubbock Christian University took on a five-year institutional strategic planning process that our president named Vision 2020. It was a broad look across the university to identify improvement opportunities. Every university employee was involved, and at the conclusion, the overarching theme of the document became “a transformational student experience.” There were many parts to this plan, but the primary focus became to “conduct a strategic alignment review of our institutional processes and technology systems to transform the operating environment into a thriving student experience.”
The strategic planning process led to many observations about the life cycle of an institution of higher education, including our own. A higher education climate in which students demand increasingly more services at low prices challenges all sides. There are now more universities available to a wider group of students across the United States. Administrators wrestle with offering discount rates to attract a broader share of students while meeting overall budget concerns.
The environment is ripe for engaging technology tools that enhance the ability to tell the university story, to listen to the prospective student’s story and dreams, and for both to see how there might be a mutual relationship. Technology within the control of the university has a potential reach like no other time in our history—getting a brand and a story out in front of students in increasingly compelling ways to better empower recruiting efforts. Not only at our school, but at other schools too.
Many know the terms ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and their significant effect on the ability to develop and foster a relationship with a prospect that can turn that prospect into student, graduate, alumni, supporter, donor, and parent. Over time the process increasingly comes to include data points and the ability to help identify attributes or predictors of success. Conversely, data can help identify attributes about those who do not succeed, so actions can be taken in advance to improve opportunities for success.
A consulting partner helped us develop our plan. We found our strengths to be engaged and committed leadership, excellent working relationships, willingness to change, and a talented and dedicated staff. We found our weaknesses to be lack of documentation and project experience, numerous shadow systems, lack of depth in personnel, and to expect a large budget impact. And, just to make things more exciting, we were preparing for our 10-year accreditation site visit.
We developed a change management team that included all key areas of stakeholders, allowing for voices from all key areas. We started with a dream of having every possible area tied up nicely with one bow in one product and with one set of management tools and interface. We saw many slide decks and heard many presentations from numerous vendors in the higher education market place. The summary for us is when we cut through the salesmanship and storytelling it became a matter of who best fit us for our current situation and intended future.
We brought in three potential candidates for more in-depth review on the campus. We went through an instrument to help us determine strengths and weaknesses based on our goals. Next, our Executive VP wanted an analysis based on culture, or that thing we all call our “gut feeling,” and who would be our best fit as a partner. Third, we considered cost as one potential factor to be added into the mix, although that was not intended to be the determining factor by the stakeholders. In fact they were not shown cost comparisons until after other steps were completed. Each of the stakeholders representing all the campus areas cast their votes and their opinions to the Executive VP. His office compiled both the quantitative and qualitative information.
LCU’s new student system has been live for a few weeks, and here are some lessons we’ve learned up to this point in our journey.
- Involve leadership early and make sure they are on board for a higher goal than just a software change. It has to be a strategic project in support of overall student success.
- Get all your stakeholders engaged early. You have to work extra hard to address those areas with deep silos.
- You cannot do too much preparation or review of processes. Even with great preparation, your best people will work long, hard hours.
- Trying to make the new system fit old processes with which staff are familiar will be the first approach.
- In some cases, integrations between your new system and some parts of your legacy systems cannot be avoided.
- Expect the unexpected. O’Tooles Law rules ERP projects, especially surrounding data integrity.
- Personnel turnover will happen at an accelerated pace.
- Project management benefits from outside help; looking at your organization to either validate what you know or show you things you take for granted or have overlooked.
- The new software will likely not match all your current structure or processes. Some of that is good and some of it is not. It will further expose your weaknesses in personnel and processes.
- Sometimes your vendor will surprise you on what they know and can do. Other times they will surprise you on what they don’t know and what they tell you they can’t do.
- Expect days, weeks, and months, with wide swings of emotions and changes of status on various project components.
- There will be times when it is necessary to make difficult decisions that have conflicting effects on different areas of the university.
- There will be days where you cannot see how this will ever all come together.
- Some of the people you will need the very most in the most critical moments will not be on your payroll.
- You cannot please everyone, and occasionally you will wonder if you can please anyone.
- You will find some spectacularly underutilized people on your campus that you never suspected were so talented until you were looking for people to help you work toward solutions.
- You will have a significantly higher appreciation for the complexity of the jobs of stakeholders once you see all the intricacies that go behind the deliverables from their jobs.
- Some of what you hear from other schools will be helpful, and some you will learn is not as helpful due to a school’s unique structure or personality.
- During the process, if the effort is for student experience, not all the support areas will find some of the new systems are instant gains in efficiency.
- This project will significantly test the project managers, administration, and stakeholders over a long amount of time. Students will adapt better than parents and employees.
In closing, LCU’s experience demonstrates that strategic planning is eye opening, and the end result is well worth working through the challenges.