In April 2013 we facilitated a problem definition workshop, for staff involved in the administrative processes of the Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs). This was an area where many people had tried to fix problems, but there had been limited success, there was a great deal of frustration in the room. Outputs from the workshop defined seven main themes which needed to be addressed. Following on from the workshop we were asked to look at running a process improvement project focusing on some of the process problems identified at the workshop.
What was the problem? The DTCs provide a cohort approach to postgraduate research education, often industry focused and offering training options not available to traditional PhD students: each DTC was structured differently and the steer from the university was to grow this area of business.
The main process problem was around data, the courses were structured very differently on the student management system, and there was confusion where DTCs should sit in the hierarchy of both the university and within the data tables. Although our focus was on data, our project sponsor was very clear that the outcomes of the project should focus on student experience as well as process efficiency and effectiveness.
We were asked to run the project as a series of workshops, to ensure that staff were able to attend. We ran three full day workshops in November which focused on looking at the high level process, where the current data problems occur and where are the gaps and then agreeing how the data should be coded in the system. All very important, but how did this help the student experience? We found that every time the process required a manual intervention it delayed students from registering, receiving stipends, getting the correct comms from their department, progressing to the next year of study as well as physical access to rooms and resources. The doctoral training centre managers did not always know who was able to help, so they were spending a lot of time locating the right person to fix things for students on an individual basis.
The two main outputs of the project were a revised coding structure and we also found time to draft a manual for all doctoral training centre managers to use, which gives them a clear guide to a student’s administrative journey. The benefits of the project were:
- Student Experience - a smoother process, which is right first time, with less reliance on manual intervention. This will ensure that students are linked to the correct academic department, they will receive departmental communications, and have access to the correct labs, library and computing facilities. The improved process will ensure that stipends and bursaries are attributed quickly. Of equal importance it will free up the time of the doctoral training manager, so that they spend less time dealing with problems and have more time to focus on value added activities.
- Administrative efficiencies and effectiveness - It is estimated that the changes will save the university approximately 630 hours per annum in staff time, and perhaps more create an environment where increased student numbers can be accommodated.
Following the workshops there was still further work required: minor systems development work to amend the online application form and some of fields in the database. Each new DTC needed to be given a programme code, but also each of the existing DTC needed to be re-coded and it all needed to be tested to make sure that the assumptions of the team worked in practice. A task and finish group was set up to ensure that the work was completed by 31 July 2014, in time for HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) reporting to happen.
To date it’s our first project where one of the outputs enables students to receive the correct communications, and more importantly for them, they will now be invited to the departmental postgraduate ball.