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Challenges of Implementing Workflow Automation in Higher Ed

March 19, 2021

We often read stories of how automation can help higher education. However, it seems we don’t often discuss the difficulties of that technology. 

Yes, automation technology can create efficiencies and big returns on investment, but there are also obstacles to overcome before you’re able to reap the rewards. Many of those challenges occur before you’ve even seen the software during the purchasing and implementing phases.

In this post, we’ll dive into the top five challenges of purchasing and implementing workflow automation software for higher education and share a few recommendations along the way. 

What is Workflow Automation Software?

To set the stage, let’s define what we mean by workflow automation software. Simply put, it is a tool that allows institutions to take an approval process that typically occurs on paper or via email and convert it to an automated format. This includes features such as automated notifications when an approval is ready to be reviewed by a new individual, and integrations with campus systems. 

Now that we’re on the same page, let’s dive in.

Workflow Automation Software

Selecting the Right Automation Software

Selecting the correct solution may be the most difficult task when it comes to automation software. It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what staff, faculty, and students need. 

The best way to find out? Hit the pavement. Hold discovery conversations with your constituents. 

Davidson College, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, launched a digital transformation effort on their campus in 2018. The goal was to improve processes on campus through automation efforts. By 2020, it was clear what the initiative was and would continue to be successful. When asked what advice the IT folks would give to other institutions with similar endeavors, a discovery period was among the top suggestions. 

The IT specialists on Davidson’s digital transformation team, including JD Mills, Manager, Digital Transformation; Luke Aeschleman, Digital Transformation Analyst; Tessa Jones, Digital Transformation Analyst, suggested the following:

“Make time for a discovery period. IT should be user-centric, which only comes after spending time with the users to understand their needs. The discovery period should be one of the longest phases of the project. After completing user consultations for a recent project, Davidson was able to put off a pricey purchase after understanding what users needed.” 

Throughout the discovery period, you'll not only uncover pain points, but you should have a very clear understanding of what process you should automate, and what priority the automation should take. You may be surprised to learn the core problems are different than you imagined. 

Check out Davidson College’s additional recommendations for digital transformation and process automation. 

After the discovery period with your constituents, hold meetings with vendors to find out what is available in the market. From these conversations, you will be able to learn what vendors can meet your needs. 

Once you understand the problem and the solution that can best solve the problem, seek buy-in.

Preparing to Scale the Platform

Before purchasing a new automation technology, you have to be aware of how well it can scale to serve your institution. There are many elements that make a software automation platform scalable. Some of these elements include:

  • Security and Compliance Standards
  • Role-based Routing
  • Ability to Integrate with Multiple Campus Systems
  • Ease of Use

Security and Compliance

The proper security and compliance standards must be met to make software scalable across an entire institution. Some of those measures include Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 compliance, data encryption, audit logs, and proper multi-tenancy architecture.

Role-based Routing

With role-based routing, a user can route an approval using a role, such as “Dean, History,” without knowing a name or an email address. This is vital when you consider how many individuals will use the software across an institution. 

Integration with Campus Systems

The ability to integrate a software automation platform with multiple campus systems takes the solution to the next level. Imagine for a moment if checking a box in a software automation platform automatically updated a field in the Student Information System and Learning Management System. Cool, huh? And so convenient. 

Ease of Use

It’s not uncommon to hear that faculty and staff won’t adopt a solution because it’s just plain hard to use. Selecting software that is known to have a good user experience will help adoption, which we’ll cover later in this post.

Buy-in Approval

Getting Buy-In

The difficulty of getting buy-in for a new purchase is not a new conversation. Changing the status quo is difficult in higher education, especially when changes must be approved by multiple tiers of leadership.

When it comes to getting buy-in, make your case with your supervisor’s responsibilities in mind. Anticipate their questions about the advantages of workflow automation, and consider how your proposal might affect them. What is the return on investment and how might you track and prove your proposal is the best course of action?

Some software solutions offer a free trial period. This may be a helpful piece of the buy-in equation.

Implementation and Change Management

Another hurdle of workflow automation is implementing the software. Implementation can prove to be a significant challenge. Implementation timelines can stretch on, and can sometimes add to the cost of a solution. 

Luckily, not all software automation platforms come with lengthy implementations and unexpected fees. Mitigate implementation difficulties by discussing implementation well before you’ve purchased the software. Ask about timelines, services, and any associated costs.

Once you’ve implemented, then comes the task of getting administrators and faculty to use the automation platform. 

Mastering new technology is complicated, especially for staff who are not familiar with automation software or modern technology in general. They might become overwhelmed with the complexities of the new system and instead turn to familiar paper and PDF processes. A study by IDG supports this; 51% of organizations stall or abandon their digital transformation because the change proves too challenging.

Though we can’t be sure yet, anecdotal experiences suggest the pandemic may help encourage long-term software adoption.

In the 12 months since the pandemic hit, higher education faculty and staff have been exposed to new technologies. Many who were once resistant to new tools have gained experience and confidence with digital tools.

Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause, suspects the pandemic will help everyone be more accepting of new technology.

“We’re making a lot of changes very, very rapidly at colleges and universities across the country...Maybe some of those learning curves will now be flattened, and faculty and students and the staff will be more comfortable with some of the tools and technology,” Grajek said.

Implementing Workflow Automation

Training Business Analysts

One element we often see as we help institutions automate processes and workflows is that administrators are unfamiliar with thinking like business analysts. Administrators may not recognize opportunities to streamline the experience for users right away. 

For example, let’s say your institution selected an automation solution that can be integrated with other campus systems and automatically update data when an approval process is complete. For a process such as requesting Pass/Fail status, this means that when the necessary approvals are given, the automation software could signal a change in the student information system, and the particular student’s grade status would change to Pass/Fail. However, when an administrator is creating the workflow in this new technology, they might neglect this type of integration step and decide to do it manually. 

This is just one example of the many ways administrators can streamline the workflow but it takes time for them to learn how to do so. 

There are many ways you can combat this issue at your institution. Here are three suggestions to consider.

  1. Train Administrators on Technology. Hold thorough training sessions when you implement the workflow automation software to ensure administrators know how to use it. 
  2. Train Administrators on Business Analysis. Hold training sessions at a regular cadence, say monthly for the first six months, to help administrators learn how to optimize experiences using the new software. Record the training sessions for future employees.
  3. Encourage Optimization Through Gamification. Consider gamification of thinking like a business analyst. For example, this could look like giving a monthly award or badge for the most creative solution to a problem. 
Overcoming Workflow Challenges

Overcoming Challenges

We’ve discussed some of the most common challenges higher education faces with workflow automation software; how can institutions overcome those challenges?

Selecting the right solution upfront will help you get off on the right foot. 

Kuali Build is a no-code workflow automation software that sits in the sweet spot between easy, but simple and powerful, but complex. Kuali Build provides institutions with enterprise-level power in an easy-to-use interface that users will be drawn to. 

Get Started with Kuali Build

Ready to learn more about Kuali Build? Take a look at our beginner’s guide to forms and workflow automation to learn more.

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