Improving How Higher Ed Does Business

Using technology to overcome common operational challenges
By: | Issue: August, 2017
July 17, 2017

Higher education is in the midst of significant change. Institutions are under pressure to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of operations while providing responsive, quality services to students. Many college and university leaders are turning to transformative technologies such as electronic forms, workflow automation and enterprise content management (ECM) to help them overcome these challenges.

This web seminar presented the results of a new survey conducted by University Business of over 500 higher ed leaders, which explored some of the common challenges these leaders are facing when it comes to business processes, as well as the potential for technologies such as ECM to help overcome many of the challenges facing institutions, and significantly improve how higher ed does business.  

JD Solomon

Editorial Director

University Business

Linda Ding

Director of Strategic Marketing


JD Solomon: University Business developed this survey in conjunction with Laserfiche to explore business process challenges in higher ed. Over 500 higher ed leaders responded, representing more than 25 different job titles in executive leadership and a variety of institution sizes.

The first question we asked: How important is it that your institution improves the efficiency of its business processes? Over 95 percent said it was important or very important or urgent. Linda, how did you interpret this?

Linda Ding: Efficiency is often associated with cost savings with continued budget constraints. It is very common that process efficiency improvement is at the forefront of institutional concerns. At the same time, many of the efficiency initiatives are driven by tech-savvy students. They expect their learning experiences to be as intuitive and efficient as their experiences as digital consumers. Also, state funding is increasingly based on student success performance. Therefore, improving overall service delivery to students is also becoming important.

JD Solomon: We asked how important it is that your institution improves efficiency, and then we asked how actively your institution is working to improve the efficiency of business processes. Forty-seven percent said they are currently implementing new or improved processes, 26 percent said they’re researching and considering options, 19 percent said it’s a regular topic of discussion but they’re not yet taking practical steps, and six percent said it’s important but they’re not actively working toward a solution.

Linda Ding: There’s definitely a big gap between what’s considered a priority and what gets done. The reality is that change is hard, and change is especially hard for an established industry like higher education.

JD Solomon: Which areas are you working on or considering improving the efficiency of? The biggest response was enrollment management.

Linda Ding: That’s expected because that often directly impacts students’ ability to achieve academic success, and it also generates great impact on the bottom line. However, many respondents also indicated financial services, human resources, research administration, facilities management, housing, IT and advancement. That reflects a greater awareness that there is a need for a large scale of process improvement across campus.

JD Solomon: What are the most common barriers to improving the efficiency of business processes at your institution? Sixty-four percent said it’s budgetary constraints, but 57 percent said it’s just resistance to change, 44 percent cited a lack of compatibility or interoperability between systems or applications, 35 percent cited lack of knowledge or leadership in change management, and 14 percent said it was just too difficult to re-engineer processes.

Linda Ding: This list of common challenges faced by institutions is very indicative of today’s reality. It reflects the fact that for effective change management, it’s not just about whether you have the financial resources in place, but that the people, technology, leadership and cultural environment are all critical factors for success.

JD Solomon: How many business applications, platforms or solutions are used at your institution? Thirty-nine percent said four to six platforms, 30 percent said one to three, 21 percent said 10 or more, 1 out of 5 said 10 or more, and 10 percent said seven to nine.

Linda Ding: Higher education is the most notorious for system complexities. It’s reflective of the current situation that many are not moving forward with the trends of consolidating and making resources more efficient. System complexity like this creates a high cost for IT maintenance and support, and also increases risks due to duplicated data and broken communication between departments.

JD Solomon: Does your institution still rely on paper forms? A significant majority, almost 70 percent, said that paper is a pretty significant part of their institution’s processes.

Linda Ding: You still see large amounts of real estate taken over by filing cabinets or rows and rows of paper folders. Paper-based operations are very costly. According to a Wall Street Journal study, paper-related operational costs could exceed $1 million per year for some research universities. A paper-based operation is simply not on par with the baseline expectations of you or your tech-savvy students, and certainly doesn’t promote innovation and creativity.

JD Solomon: Do you believe outdated business processes will be a barrier to the future growth and success of your institution? A significant majority are concerned.

Linda Ding: I’m somewhat surprised by the fact that more than one-quarter of the respondents think that they can keep the status quo. It’s this very mentality that contributes to the barriers for change that we saw earlier. There are many wonderful traditions in higher education, but we ought to rethink how to create a modernized campus that can better prepare for the higher learning of the future.

JD Solomon: Are you using or would you consider using an enterprise content management platform to digitize paper forms and streamline processes and workflow between departments at your institution? About one-third said they’re already using a platform like that, another third said they’re interested but have limited knowledge of
the options.

Linda Ding: Enterprise content management is a collection of tools and methodology to manage the lifecycle of any information that is generated by or comes through your organization. Because of the nature of ECM, it’s increasingly becoming an important technology platform for university operations today. Unlike specialized applications—such as ERPs, student information systems, or human resources capital management—ECM is designed to manage documents and processes across systems and departments, not just specific functions or a type of process. That’s one of the key reasons many institutions incorporate ECM technology as a campuswide shared service.

The business objectives here are to cut paper costs and, more importantly, to facilitate key data exchange and increase transparency through automated process management.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, visit