As learning-centered organizations, change is constant in higher education. Each year new standards, best practices, research, technology, and strategies drive us to improve as educators. We do this to improve our practices to better serve students and support their learning. Yet making these changes can be a challenge (and a ton of work!). Many educators and whole organizations suffer from change fatigue, feeling overburdened when another new initiative or project is introduced. We need a better process for change, one that takes into account the current situation, emerging issues, the desired future state. Most importantly, we need a process that centers the needs of the people served by the institution.
Process mapping is a collaborative, visual approach for incremental change that incorporates all these elements. Process mapping creates visual workflow diagrams to clarify understanding of a process. It allows a team to redesign the user experience by analyzing the current process and determining points to improve.
Improving a process via process mapping involves three steps:
- CREATE an “as is” process map to understand the current process.
- ANALYZE the current process to identify and pinpoint issues.
- REDESIGN the current process to address the identified issues, creating an improved process.
These three steps can be done as an individual but are more effective with a team that includes representatives from each campus unit or stakeholder group involved. Sticky notes, markers, and a blank wall or whiteboard are the only tools needed. For virtual collaboration, Google Jamboard, Google Slides, Miro, and Mural are good substitutes.
Process mapping can help higher education to adapt to change. For example, merging two units in a reorganization or adjusting practices to follow COVID-19 public health guidelines. It is also useful for revisiting the reasoning behind processes that “we’ve always done that way.” The approach is a great fit for higher education since institutions often have long-standing practices that could use exploration and improvement. The improved processes might use new technology or better serve the needs of specific student groups. Higher education institutions are complex organizations with many siloed divisions and units. Since students interact across these silos, their experiences can become disjointed with varied processes across the institution (or varied understandings of a common process). Simplifying and standardizing processes supports student success by making the institution easier to navigate. First-generation students, international students, and others who experience barriers navigating the institution especially benefit.
Walking through an example illustrates the practical and visual nature of process mapping. In this case, using a common process in higher education: a student registering for the next term of courses. Starting off, it is helpful to define the scope of the process and who is involved. Here, the process starts when the student decides to enroll in courses next term and stops when the student is registered. The student, their academic advisor, and a department staff person are the people involved.
In the first phase, create an as-is map of the current process. Of the many different types of process maps, a top-down flowchart is a good first map as an overview. Here a top-down flowchart illustrates major steps in the registration process (initiation, advising appointment, approval, and scheduling) with more specific sub-steps within that major step written on sticky notes underneath. As indicated by the key on the right side, different colors of sticky notes signal actions taken by different people (student blue, advisor yellow, and department staff purple). This color-coding provides an at-a-glance view of who is involved where in the process. When more than one person or unit is involved in a single action, a second sticky note of that color is placed under the first. The as-is map should show what currently happens in the process, not what should happen. Common issues or complications are included, such as the student obtaining department approval in this example
In the second phase, analyze the as-is map to identify issues and pinpoint where they occur. Goals of the process improvement project provide the lens for this analysis. If the goal of the example project was to make the process simpler for students to navigate, the analysis might note that finding a time to meet for the advising appointment requires several back-and-forth emails (non-value-added steps) or that the both the advisor and the department staff review the student’s record (duplication of effort). Both result in extra steps for the student. Indicated by orange sticky notes, these issues are placed next to the process step where they occur (#1 and #2).
Another potential focus is to improve the process for a specific population of students. If the goal of the example project was to improve the registration experience for students with children who work in addition to attending college, then the as-is map would be analyzed by considering how student parents might navigate the process. Such an analysis might note that planning course times may be more complex due to work and childcare schedules (#3) and busy student parents might not be available at the same times as advisors (#4).
Lastly, the goal of a process improvement project may be to respond to change in the environment, such as a new technology platform, the merger of two departments, or in this case reopening after closures due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. An analysis focused on that goal might note potential financial, health, and travel concerns that pose barriers to students re-enrolling (#5) as well as additional complexities in course planning for advisors and students to discuss (#6). These three different types of analyses illustrate the variety of ways process mapping can be applied depending on the current needs of the institution.
In the third and final phase, build on the identified issues to redesign the as-is process. Changes most often remove steps from a process to streamline it, but they can also add steps to resolve an identified issue. Here a redesign streamlines the registration process to make it simpler for students to navigate. To address inefficient appointment booking via email (issue #1 from Step 2: Analyze), an online calendar system is utilized in the initiation step. This reduces emails and effort for both the student and advisor. It also frees up time for the advisor, removing a less valuable activity (appointment scheduling) so that additional time is available for more valuable activities like providing guidance to students. To reduce run-around for the student and duplication with both the advisor and department staff reviewing the student’s record (#2), the advisor could send the approval request directly to the department staff. Then only the department staff is involved in the approval step, with the help of an automated workflow. This assumes the department does not want to delegate approval authority to advisors, which is another even more streamlined redesign option.
Redesigns may also include changes that extend beyond the scope of the mapped process, involving steps earlier or later in the process or units other than those included on the original as-is map. The student parent and reopening focused analyses lead to redesign ideas outside the scope of the as-is map but that fix issues identified in the registration experience. As shown here, redesign plans for student parents focus on providing more flexible options for course schedules and advising appointments. Redesign plans for the reopening scenario include addressing key items in communications with students and creating a feedback loop with advisors to better understand student needs.
As illustrated through this example, process mapping is a simple but powerful approach teams in higher education can use to lead and adapt to change. Process mapping collaboration brings people together working toward a common goal. Process mapping visuals allow groups to more clearly see both the issues in the current process and possibilities for future solutions.
Consider: What changes does your institution or unit need to adapt to? Which changes are you looking to make? What processes at your institution do students find difficult to navigate? Working through the three steps of process mapping – create, analyze, and redesign – can aid in improving these areas to the benefit of students, educators, and the institution. Grab some sticky notes and try it out!
Ready to learn more? Alex is presenting on this topic July 22nd at the 2020 Inland Northwest Student Affairs Colloquium (INSAC). Learn more here about this free, virtual event.
Alex Aljets is the Student Success Portfolio Manager focused on information technology at Oregon State University. She assists other organizations with process improvement on a project basis. Alex is a former University Innovation Alliance Fellow and started off her career in higher education as an academic advisor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as on LinkedIn and Twitter.
A text-only version of the process mapping images in this post as available from Alex Aljets upon request.