Learn about accelerating market trends and achieving successful outcomes. This post includes the full transcript of the Higher Education Automation Webinar on September 23, 2020 and and the YouTube video of the entire educational webinar: Higher Education Automation Webinar about how technologies like RPA, OCR, and NLP are changing the game for leading institutions.


Kyle Kain: 

Well, thank you, everyone, for joining today’s webinar with a focus on higher education in the industry, we’re really going to be kind of talking about some of the market trends that we’ve seen really since the end of 2019, in the beginning of the year, and then circle back to kind of where we’re at now. And then we’re also going to talk about some specific use cases from the University of Notre Dame, and kind of focus on how we’ve overcome some of these trends and challenges and the forward looking piece. And I will say, I don’t know if I’m the only one on the line here who cannot believe it’s already in September, I’m a little shocked to see that date. So glad everyone could join us. I know I’m sure the webinar snuck up on most of us. So let me start with just introductions for our speakers today. So I’ll go and I’ll introduce myself first and then Rich, I’ll pass it to you. So my name is Kyle Kain, I’m a director within our business process transformation group at Ashling Partners. I’ve been in the industry for going on six or seven years now. Been working with Rich Forrester at Notre Dame on their automation journey since the beginning of this year. I do come from a background in higher ed, both in the public and the private side. So really excited to talk with you all today about the broader industry as well as how I feel and rich feels that hyper automation can help the industry going forward. Rich want to go ahead and introduce yourself.

Richard Forrester:

I’m Rich Forrester, I’m the assistant controller for accounting operations at the University of Notre Dame counting operations is a small department that handles a lot of the financial technology that university uses. And, you know, works with our MIT groups to you know, promote more technology or look to automate things I’ve been in higher ed most of my career, my career has spanned technology from when we used to have to switch floppy disk drives, you know, to, to use our spreadsheet programs to now where we’re talking about hyper automation. So I’ve kind of been on both ends of the world. And this end of the world is a lot easier when you’re dealing with the volumes and the complexity that our systems have.

Kyle Kain:

And I’ll give Rich some kudos here. In addition to kind of being our executive sponsor and leader, with this initiative, outcross Notre Dame, he’s also been in the weeds on a number of processes near and dear to his heart that he can put on a near daily basis, which we’ll be talking about later on. So definitely, you know, I want everyone to understand that you’re talking to someone who has broad higher ed experience, but also experienced now with hyper automation and the benefits. And also lessons learned of it, right, because no technology or project is perfect. So thank you Rich, and I didn’t neglect to include Adam from our team on this slide, who will be emceeing us today and kind of monitoring the q&a session. Adam, do you want to give a brief introduction of yourself, I apologize, I missed you on this.

the future of work

Adam Vole:

I’m Adam Vole. I am a solution architect at Ashling. I joined in early 2020. So converting in terms of 2020, I guess I’ve worked here for about 10 years. I’ve been in the RPA space for four or five years. And it’s just been great to work with Rich and Kyle, because they have a wealth of knowledge. And there’s a higher education topic and overcome a lot of unique challenges. So let me kick it off and educate us on what many of those have been and how we got around them.


Kyle Kain:

 So I want to talk through our agenda for today and a couple housekeeping items. So first and foremost, we’re going to try to leave five to 10ish minutes for q&a. At the end, if you do have questions, feel free to submit them into the zoom chat. And Adam is kind of tracking those on his side, and we’ll circle back to them at the end. First, we’re really going to start with higher end market trends. So where are we started, this is really going to be kind of a focus on 2019 and going into 2020. I want to start by start with this to kind of benchmark where we were at when we started the automation journey at Notre Dame. And then we’ll talk about where are we now and what has change and how is hyper automation helping us kind of overcome these shifting and accelerating challenges. And then Richard is going to talk us through kind of the Notre Dame specific perspective here, both around use cases, the outcomes and then also just lessons learned and our path forward at not just Notre Dame, but really any Intelligent Automation program within the higher education industry. 

So let me start with market trends, right where were we in the beginning of the year and really want to I want to drill into kind of two things that were shifting customer expectations and then cost versus value conundrum that most institutions are facing. So, customer expectations have been out kind of consistently shifting across higher ed, not just this year, but in previous years, right. So more and more anytime we’re interacting with, you know, getting a good of any kind, we expect a frictionless experience a high quality experience, that is, you know, less and less effort for us as customers, right? In this case, we’re talking about prospective students all the way to the point of them being a student at the University, and then being an engaged alumni, right. So when I’m getting recruited by an institution, Notre Dame wants to, you know, recruit me out of high school to come to the institution, you know, they’re supposed to be providing me and educated me on that value in a way that is technology friendly and, you know, understands what kind of my relationship is with other organizations and technology itself. 

That doesn’t stop once I choose the university, you know, both across the learning across the classroom engagement research, students want to be engaged with their university, but they want it to come and kind of a low effort. So they can focus on what’s important to them, which is getting a high quality education. And then of course, getting a high quality job post-graduation, right or moving on to graduate score their doctorate. And again, this now extends out to the alumni base. So a university like Notre Dame has a large, nationwide, you know, global wide alumni base, keeping engaged with those along is critical. It helps drive you know, student engagement, prospective student recruiting, you know, parents who are kind of passing down that Notre Dame experience, generation over generation, they stay engaged through, you know, athletics through academics, donations to the university. So if this really needs to cover the broad lifecycle, and I don’t have it noted here, but I would also call out that, you know, employees of the university faculty expect a high quality experience as well, right, professors want to focus on what their true job is, which is educating the students at Notre Dame, they don’t want to be focused on you know, a clunky technology that takes an hour for them each day to kind of get set up and running. 

In addition to that, universities face greater and greater pressure to provide clear value to their students and faculty as well, right. So when I’m selecting a university, as a prospective student, you know, I’m not just looking for a place to go that I’ll have a great time, I think I’ll get a good education, I also want to make sure I have an outstanding job in a field that I’m passionate about. So that job placement and readiness piece is becoming more and more important, is having access to the alumni network and recruiting pipelines. Right. You know, we’ve all heard about prestigious universities who have those recruiting days where, you know, large global si firms, financial services, firms, are there recruiting students, high quality engineering companies, that is becoming more and more important, especially as you’re weighing kind of cost versus value, which I’ll get to in the next slide. And then for those of you who are those who are involved in research, and you know, education, right, so many, many students go to get their undergraduate degree with an eye already looking towards going into graduate school or purely research or their doctor, right, or the PhD. So research is also becoming more and more important, and being able to be involved and have access to projects that you’re passionate about, but also help you further your career.

Finally, you know, this kind of fits into the first two pieces is that increasing competition and the kind of growth of options out there for students regarding their higher education options, right. So international students typically would always come to kind of the United States, because of the high quality institutions that we have, that has not changed. But what has changed is a broader breadth of availability internationally, right? A lot of countries now have very high quality institutions that might come at a lower cost than coming to the States. And international student recruiting is huge for prestigious universities, right, both from a just kind of prestige effect. But you’re also trying to get the best and brightest you want access to that talent pipeline across the world. And affordability considerations are also becoming more and more important, you know, given the current economic climate, but also just the fact that tuition across kind of the broader education space has gone higher and higher. And financial aid and scholarships are becoming harder and harder to come by. Right. So you’re getting into kind of a interesting situation where a lot of cheaper options that were typically considered less prestigious, prestigious are becoming more and more attractive to students, because the cost is so much lower. 

So how do we counterbalance that, right? In addition to the shifting customer expectations, universities are facing this really interesting problem of trying to provide more and more value to their students because of these higher expectations, while at the same time managing their expenses and their funding mechanisms. Right. So how do we give a world class classroom and academic experience? Well, you have to hire the best and brightest professors and faculty right? You need the best in class technology. To touch those students and those important touch points throughout their experience at the university, you need global CRM tools to access your alumni network and get donations to help fund cool initiatives and scholarships, right? You want that interactive and kind of customized experience, from the point of a student being a recruit all the way to them being an alum and graduating, right? Well, at the same time, you know, you’re expected to provide all that, but you’re trying to manage the expectations or decide the expenses and the funding mechanisms on the back end of this, right. So, you know, funding sources are shifting, you know, Notre Dame is not a great example of this, because it’s a private institution. But for those public schools out there, you are getting less and less money from state and local funding sources, right? This is kind of forced you to pivot to an increased reliance on tuition and managing those back office costs. And now, especially again, with the economic climate, you’re talking about predictable costs, right? You know, it’s one thing to manage your cost, but we don’t want to see is variability in that cost. Because you’re working on somewhat of a fixed revenue and cost model, you have certain expectations with enrollment and tuition, you don’t want to see an unexpected 20% hike and expenses is higher, it’s not really built for those types of, you know, peaks and valleys, right? To get that you want greater visibility into your data into your expenses and trend analysis, and you need accurate and timely data, you don’t want your employees to be focused on gathering and massaging that data, you want your employees to be focused on analyzing the data and actioning upon it. So these two kind of divergent trends are really putting a lot of pressure on higher education. And this has been, like I said, ongoing Well, before the covid-19 pandemic and the current economic climate.

Richard Forrester:

You know, Kyle, I’ll add one point to that slide. You know, talking about managing expenses and funding. I mean, you know, Notre Dame does have, you know, good resources, a good resource stream. But there’s still a continued pressure on managing, you know, staff headcount managing things that you’re doing, you know, making sure that the expenses you’re incurring are, you know, furthering the, you know, the business, the business reason, and, you know, with the shift toward more student financial aid, the resources need to shift in that direction. So, regardless of the institution, you are, whether you’re a private or public, there’s still a necessity to manage expenses. And I think when you one of the nice things we’ve seen in this, you know, using robotics as, as a tool for hyper automation, is that when we get into these processes, it’s actually a good thing to be looking at these processes, because you start thinking, How can I enhance this future state and make it more efficient or more effective. So this process kind of stimulates, you know, one reason to, you know, control costs.

Where are we now? What has changed?

Kyle Kain:

Yeah, and in one thing, to kind of add on to Rich’s point that we’ll get to in a few slides here is you’re thinking about business outcomes, and always looking back to some of these trends, right, so that the constant pressure that higher education faces to simultaneously increase value, while at the same time either maintain or even decrease expenses and introduce some kind of predictability to that, we’ll kind of talk about that in a later slide on the different types of processes you can automate and the different lens that you need to look through from an outcomes perspective, to try to tackle this, right, because it’s one thing to manage your expenses. But if you’re not also simultaneously increasing the value to your customers and meeting their expectations, you’re still, you know, playing a losing game here, right, you need to tackle both simultaneously, which is a very unique challenge, and not a certainly not an easy challenge to overcome. And for those of you who are on the line here to, you know, that are in the industry, you know, feel free to, we’re always curious about your thoughts, please add them to the chat on what you’re seeing whether it’s local private schools, just your personal experience. And when we can circle back to it during the q&a session, I definitely want this to be a collaborative discussion. So we’ve talked about, you know, what were the trends kind of coming into 2020 that have been ongoing over the last few years here. And now Where are we now? Right? There’s obviously the big elephant in the room of the pandemic and COVID-19 that the impacts on the student lifestyle, the unpredictable nature of what this means for enrollment going forward, at least for the foreseeable future. And so what has changed what hasn’t changed? We’ll talk through, you know, key questions we need to as an as a industry need to answer involving the pandemic. I’ll talk about kind of what I see is trend acceleration. And then business outcome impacts, right, talking about core versus differentiated. 

So first, I mean, again, the elephant in the room COVID-19 and the impact on higher ed, rather than really kind of talking about what we all know with that and the challenges it’s presenting, I want to talk through some of the key questions that I think the industry needs to ask itself in order to kind of understand the way forward. So first and foremost, you know, I’ve talked about customers, customers, customers, you know, whether it’s faculty, staff, students, prospective students, alumni, what are the impacts on those key stakeholders? Right, we need to understand what this means for them. Because it’s going to kind of change the equation with their expectations and their relationship and their interaction with the university. You know, just as an example, if I know I’m a prospective freshmen coming in, I expected to have a great academic experience on campus meeting, you know, lifelong friends. Also, simultaneously, outside of academics, you know, having fun with people, right, you’re in a great college town, you’re going to athletic events, when all of a sudden, due to the pandemic, a lot of that has changed, right? How is that changing my interaction, what I see is valuable, and what the university can provide for me, does this change my perception of what value is and what I consider value from a university?

Going back to, you know, the looking at this from kind of the university point of view is how does this affect the ability to execute our mission? Right, when Notre Dame had to take them as an example, when they brought students back on campus and kind of introduced all these mechanisms to help keep students safe. The president of the university really talked about that what the driver of this was, was, we want to continue to provide value to our students and execute our mission, which is to provide an outstanding education to them, we feel that this is the best way to do it. Keeping that as kind of your North Star your compass north is essential. So, you know, how can we still provide a quality education? How can we still provide that job readiness and Alumni Engagement that I talked about in previous slides, because that’s not that hasn’t gone away? But the vehicle to do it and might be changing? Given the circumstances right. Now, our faculty and staff in a position to succeed, what if they’re not what tools do they require that they may not have required before? And again, I don’t want to say this is just COVID-19. Specific, right? Like I’ve mentioned before, that that kind of frictionless experience that hasn’t gone away. And if anything, I’ll touch on this in the next slide is it’s been accelerated, right? These things haven’t really changed. But these are important questions to kind of level set where we’re at as an industry. And then finally, thinking about this kind of more through the back office process lens, you know, the back office, and the cost centers need to be efficient and effective. So how is the pandemic affected their ability to do so? Do the same challenges exist, you know, today is existed in March or, you know, pre-pandemic in January? And then once you have an understanding of these key pillars, what are the next steps, you know, I’m going to really drill into this in the next slide. But those trends that I’ve discussed previously, they’re just accelerating, I don’t see them as having really changed. It’s just kind of becoming larger pressure and higher education to address these trends head on. Providing that, you know, increased value, month over month, year over year while maintaining efficiency and a predictable cost structure is extremely important. And considering the tools at your disposal, right, so when Richard touched on this and the use cases, but Notre Dame, as an example, has an outstanding toolset already at their disposal from a technology stack perspective. They’ve added automation in to kind of partner with that it’s important understand what you already have, a lot of a lot of higher ed institutions already have a great technology stack, a wonderful approach. Now you’re trying to kind of augment and facilitate and support that you’re not trying to necessarily scrap everything you already have. 

So like I said, what has changed, right? I don’t see that the trends have really changed. Think of it like a flywheel, right, which I’ve got shown here as a graphic that I see this wheel almost spinning faster and faster with the pressure kind of increasing and increasing, right. So these underlying forces at play have not changed, they’ve accelerated. So increasing that value provided to your customers, right, meeting their expectations accurately, those expectations might shift a little bit but the kind of the, they’re still expecting value. And the mission of higher education has not changed, the vehicles might be tweaking a little bit. You’re trying to manage your costs with efficiency and effectiveness of your processes. And then differentiating yourself from the competition that obviously has not gone away even if the circumstances have changed a little bit right. You know, it might be a more importance might be placed now on kind of safety of students that may not have before right now it’s much more of a kind of externally facing thing and easy way to get very bad publicity for higher education. At a time like this where reputation is so important. differentiate yourself and how you treat your faculty and the tools you provide them in and giving the high quality education and what sometimes might be a very challenging environment. This wheel is just started to spin faster and faster, which I would argue it was going to over time Regardless of what had happened, the pandemic is essentially just accelerated these trends in my opinion. Rich, was there anything you wanted to add? Kind of based on your experience from a trend perspective and Notre Dame specifically, before I move on here?

Richard Forrester:

I think I would focus on the bottom piece of the PI, the cost management, the efficiency and effectiveness. I mean, Notre Dame has gone on a hiring freeze during the pandemic, not to say that we wouldn’t fill key positions if individuals left but I think it the pandemic has increased our sensitivity toward, okay, some revenue streams have been seriously affected? Do we replace those? Do you know, how do we contain cost when we don’t have the, you know, the stadium full every weekend, or we don’t have these, you know, overseas programs, being able to contain the cost has become even more important, especially as we’re incurring additional costs to, you know, treat the pandemic. So I think that’s become a huge area of awareness is how we do that, you know, obviously, the top two differentiation from competition, you know, is the fact that Notre Dame is in person versus other schools, that’s not going to make them more, you know, more promising in somebody’s eyes. Well, there’s a lot more that goes into that, or increasing the value provided. But I think the pandemic has really heightened our awareness or sensitivity toward cost control and management.

Kyle Kain:

Yeah, and, and one thing I would add to when you’re talking efficiency versus effectiveness are both are important. So it’s great to be efficient. And you know, if you’ve got more grants or more invoices to process doing that in a more efficient manner, and lowering that cost per transaction, and the time per transaction is important, but it needs to be done effectively as well. So you’re doing it accurately. So to Rich’s point, cost management becomes so important. And data accuracy is critical to that right knowing you have the right data in your hands. And there weren’t any errors, because, you know, error handling takes away time from everyone. But it also kind of undercuts some of that confidence in the data that someone like rich, you know, has that he’s looking at accurate, correct data to make the right critical and difficult decisions for the university getting accurate data through timely and correctly, is what I mean by that.

Richard Forrester:

Yeah, and I would add one, one item on the efficiency versus effectiveness. You know, spectrum is RPA can help you become more efficient, because it can process things automate, you know, by technology, rather than person. But if the process is still bad, you know, it’s just going to continue to promote that bad process where an effective process you kind of are joining the two worlds of, I can do it the quickest, and I’m doing the least amount of work that I need to the quickest.

Kyle Kain:

And I did actually neglect to mention here in the bottom right of this slide, the kind of process oriented discipline is what Rich’s referring to here, right, which I think Notre Dame has done an outstanding job of is, you know, don’t automate a bad process, right? automating and making inefficiencies go through quicker is just going to increase that inefficiency, right, it needs to be a good process, first and foremost. And that kind of is a nice transition and segue into the different types of outcomes. Right. So I would say that, you know, going back to the trend of where we were versus where we are now, most institutions even outside of higher ed like to start their automation journey with that far left column, which is your core business processes. 

These are your kind of keep the lights on batch process type things, right, your accounts payable department on the back end, accounts receivable record to report. These are the types of things that you know, institution isn’t picked by a student because they have an outstanding accounts payable department, but they can’t be an outstanding institution without a good accounts payable department. Right. So it’s not customer facing, but it’s essential. And when you get into kind of your differentiators, that’s something that is much more customer facing. Right. So that goes back to the frictionless customer experience and providing that value in meeting those expectations. You can certainly automate processes like that. And I would recommend that you do but they have, typically pre pandemic come a little bit later on in the journey. Most institutions like to start with those core processes first, which Notre Dame has done with us. But now I think we’re starting to shift to, you know, differentiators need to be pulled forward a little bit more, right because like I said, going back to the kind of cost versus value question. It’s not enough to just address one or the other. We need to start addressing both as soon as possible, but in a responsible manner. 

So I want to kind of talk about the differences here from an outcomes perspective, right. So if you’re thinking about that flywheel I showed previously, that kind of bottom section, cost management is your core processes. So managing costs, getting the right correct data into the right people’s hands, the record to report financial reporting type functions to help me you know, keep the lights on efficiency efficiently. Whereas the top two buckets are kind of falling in those differentiators. So, you know, how do we differentiate ourselves from the competition? outstanding academics do  we make it much, much easier for students to register for classes via an automation that’s touching them directly? Through our alumni feel extremely engaged. And it’s really easy to understand what’s going on and get involved in the university again, because of an outstanding CRM based automation? are we providing more value to our students via you know, a high quality education that’s facilitated with an automation, right? It’s important to understand the difference between these buckets. Because it You always need to view these with outcomes in mind. 

First and foremost, you don’t want to ever automate something for the sake of automating it, you want to understand what you’re trying to achieve. And then ask yourself, does automation help us achieve that more effectively? A few other things to consider as well is just how stable some of these processes are so rich, you know, hit it right on the nail on the head there, you don’t want to automate a bad process, those core processes tend to change far less right processing a supplier invoice processing FMA for grants, it’s very regulated, you usually have a core system in place to handle that whether it’s a banner or something else. That doesn’t change much over time. So it’s, it’s much easier to automate it. differentiators tend to change more frequently over time. So because of that, it might be a less stable process. And not to say you can’t automate it. But you do need to understand kind of that technology and future state roadmap before you go down the path of automating it, if something’s going to change in two months, it’s really not worth the effort to automate it. Now, again, if you’re just going to have to retool the whole thing a couple months down the road. So with that, I kind of want to transition now to you know, we’ve talked about market trends and themes, some of the unique challenges the higher education is facing, I want to transition to what Notre Dame has done, really, with which Richard leading the charge here, and we’re going to talk through a few use cases and the outcomes of those. 

The Notre Dame Perspective – Use Cases and Outcomes

Richard Forrester: 

So just to give everybody some background, we’ve actually been looking at RPA for about two years now, in that two year cycle, we’ve done kind of a business case for RPA, we’ve done vendor selections, we’ve done a proof of concept we’ve done, we’re actually in, we don’t call it pilot phase anymore, phase one, because we believe we’re going to continue this going forward. So over that time, you know, we we’ve kind of done our due diligence to make sure that this isn’t just the you know, next shiny tool that’s out there that you know it or us might like to, to help us to help us move forward. Whereas, you know, in a year, we’re going to drop it, that’s not what we’re looking for. In this our current phase, we’re looking at automating 12 processes of varying complexity across a couple different user groups. So that’s where we are right now, we’re probably about three quarters of the way through in, you know, at various points in the development cycle from process mapping all the way through to having a belief right now we have four automations in production. So that’s kind of where we are now. But I’ll talk about two of those use cases.

 One of them, I’m going to focus more on a shift that we had to make late in the process in order to get to have the automation up and running and the other one will just be the standard, we, you know, we’re going to automate this process, here’s what we hope to achieve by it. So the first case use case we have is a process that my department does every day of the business year, ie about 250 days a year, where we run about 15 processes, and it generates some accounting transactions. There is some you know, logic and thought that a person has to the operator has to do in some of the processes. But what we did is we were able to use, you know, automation tools to basically take that, you know, manual work and just make it so that the automation would do it all the way through. 

Now, one of the challenges that we that the pandemic brought on us is just the availability of resources, obviously when March came around, and we had to shut down The, you know, the basic the resources went to, okay, how can we, you know, do health checks? How can we do contact tracing? And how can we push online technology for classes. So our resources went down, we didn’t have the ability to seamlessly scale, a process, develop and scale a process to give user access to the various systems that the bot would need. So rather than just kind of banging our heads against the wall, we said, well, what if we change that automation from unattended to attended, meaning somebody still has to run it. But basically, all they have to do is log in and kick it off, as opposed to log in and run the 15 processes. So you know, we kind of pivoted midstream, we assess the effort that it would take to do that. There were, you know, a few changes that needed to be made by the developers to change it to an intended bot. But the nice thing was, we were far enough down the road, for an unattended bot, that once we decide to change that back to an unattended bot in the future, the workload won’t be that much. And you know, the  outcome and cost benefit, it’s still beneficial for us to do this. Because now instead of it taking 15 minutes for an individual to, you know, run the entire process, they’re taking about a minute upfront to log in and kick off the process, and then maybe a minute on the back end to review the results and, and, you know, do any mitigating work that might have to be done, depending on the success of the bots. So there’s still a good benefit to this. And in the end, we will turn it into an unattended bot, when we can get more resources. So you know, what the effect of that pivot was that the automation was delivered, it was actually our first automation that went into production, we were able, you know, we’re still saving hours, we’re not saving, but redeploying hours. We do every reusable code. We do know how attended bots work versus unintended. So there was a lot of value to kind of as hyper automation requires you to do assess where you are potentially pivot potentially make a change to the way you’re going to address a business situation. But like I said that automation is in production, it you know, it’s  running every day, just with a human actually kicking it off.

Kyle Kain:

And Rich, I want to add, you know, you mentioned reusable code. For those folks on the line here. I know, you know, every institution has their kind of core applications, right, whether it’s their financial applications, HR, you know, research other things, I’m doing an automation against those core applications upfront, is always a good move, because there is a lot of reusable code that you can leverage for future automations against that same application. And we’ve actually, since doing this first one against banner, we’ve done three or four more cents. And we’ve been able to really gain a lot of efficiency there and also apply a lot of lessons learns, because each application is unique in how it behaves. Now whether it’s web based, it’s more of a kind of standalone client, is it an old versus new things like that. So we this is really, really helped us as a project team and doing a banner automation right up front, as well as of course helping rich out.

Richard Forrester:

Okay, so we the next case that I’m going to talk about is in one of our accounting offices that monitors restricted funds that various departments utilize to, you know, develop or basically continue, you know, to, to basically do their job. So one of the processes that we have to do each year or throughout the year is, at one point the university decided there are, there are things we could do to restrict the deficit from ever happening to basically turn off that feature. But from a business case perspective, we decided that that wasn’t the best option. So occasionally, people overspend the funds that they have. So we wanted to design an automation that would basically evaluate restricted funds, determine which ones were in a deficit and then communicate those deficits to the appropriate people throughout the university on a timely basis and in a in an automated fashion. 

So the automation itself, the old process was basically you know, run a report, do a lot of extracting into Excel, do a lot of joining of data and then send out reminders via email, and just kind of focus on the problem not on a long term solution. So what we did with the automation is, we still want the automation to look at, you know, these funds that may go in a deficit position, we want the automation to communicate to the appropriate manager. But then we’re also going to use data that we’re seeing within the automation to actually not necessarily predict where things are going, but kind of do metrics around the types of deficits we’re seeing. So what we want to do is build up this process to give us more data so that we can evaluate that data and hopefully reduce deficits over time. challenges, you know, when we’re allowing people to spend into a deficit, the quicker we notify them of this the issues, the more timely we can resolve that. You know, it’s not just notifying them, hey, you have a deficit? Well, it’s also giving them the right data they can do to manage, you know, correcting that deficit. And then also, the challenge was to just give them visibility into what they’re seeing, spend analysis or, you know, are we going to be able to actually identify deficits we didn’t expect. 

Then, you know, last thing is giving, giving it to them in a format that actually makes sense. So the solution and this was a case where we took current state, and we really, we really enhanced it to come up with a future state that could give us more analytical tools. And, you know, more valuable information is to develop deliver. And this will be one of our, this will be an unattended automation, it will identify the deficit, send notifications, give us data that we can use, we have a reporting team that looks at information and tries to, you know, not necessarily predict, well, it helps  us predict where things are going in certain areas. And then we also want to standardize the process, we realized there are departments that may operate, you know, different than the norms or in different ways to manage deficits, but we kind of want to make sure that there’s kind of Central oversight so that deficits are addressed on a timely basis. One of the big things, if anything, it’s you know, we’re having a reallocation of hours, basically, the time that it took an individual to compile all this data and push it out to departments as being, you know, managed by the bot now. And so we’ll have kind of available resources to reallocate these people to more value added tasks like, you know, trying to analyze the data and develop solutions to this problem. And then, of course, with the bot, gathering and compiling data, we’re going to have better accuracy of the data. And of course, the big thing is timeliness. Because the longer you let people, you know, spend into a deficit, the heart, the bigger the numbers become, the harder it becomes to kind of address what we’re seeing.

Kyle Kain:

Yeah, and one of the things that was really, really great about this use case, I want to highlight going back to that outcomes discussion, and, and automating a good process or enhancing it where you need to the room team did a really good job here and understanding the existing challenges, and then working off of that to determine what the automation can do to help it right. So versus just a lift and shift of the existing process. And now we’re delivering on, you know, much better data much more easily, you know, readable and actionable data, and more visibility into the spend analysis. So that’s where I know I’ll continue to harp on it. And Notre Dame has done a fantastic job of this is starting from the point of business outcomes. And then Is this a good process? If not, what do we need to do to change it? Not even necessarily thinking about just automating it, right, being that process oriented organization is so important, regardless of the technology that you’re, you know, trying to leverage.

Lessons Learned and Introspective

Richard Forrester:

We’re going to talk a little bit about lessons learned. And this applies not only to the automations, I just referred to but also to, you know, our, our project as a whole. I think as we as we got into this the first bullet point, executive sponsorship and buying is critical. We basically, you know, basically having your executive vice president, your vice president of finance to your CIO, all sitting in on presentations to present this technology and getting them fired up about it, you know, there’s that’s going to go a long way in having this as a technology That’s, you know, a part of your toolbox. 

We partnered with our OIT almost from day one on this, talking about its value getting resources from them, they are on our, they’re one of our sponsors to this project, it’s just critical to have buy in from that level of leadership. As, as we’ve talked about a little bit, pulling forward and standardizing the application Access Request process. That’s really why we had to pivot in the first automation to an attended bot. Sometimes I think our systems are more complex than other places. But I’m sure that if I went to another institution, they would have the same layers of technology that mean that when you’re trying to give access to certain systems, it seems like you know, you’re pulling teeth. But the sooner you can do that, the sooner you can engage your infosec team, your applications, team, your identity management teams, those are the people you want to be talking with sooner than later, not only getting access, but showing them the process at a high level and the applications that it’s going to touch and getting their comfort that, you know, a robot should be accessing these things. 

leveraging a flexible project timeline be, you know, we talked about hyper automation, but when the pandemic comes, or when that next project comes, that’s going to pull people, you just need to be aware that how can I you know, does that mean? I’m going to do more project, process mapping and Project Discovery, as opposed to development. So you’ve got to be ready to be able to pivot toward, you know, reallocation of resources. And then I think, not last, you know, maybe this is the most important, as we’ve talked about, don’t automate a bad process. Focus on what you want from an outcome perspective, do you want to do something different? With the process that you’re automating? Do you want to do less? Do you want to do more, if you don’t do it upfront, you’re not going to, you’re either going to have to make significant changes down the road, or the process is going to be the same as it was, when you started, put the effort in from day one. Don’t, don’t think that it’s just going to automatically change itself down the road?

Kyle Kain:

Yeah, and I will say, you know, I’ve done EAP implementations in my career, I’ve done you know, RPA, AI, all different types of technology. And for whatever reason, reporting seems to be kind of the forgotten child, if you will, on those engaged on any engagement, where it’s always kind of addressed towards the end, I think our team at Notre Dame, in partnership with rich has done a great job of having the reporting discussions early on, because how can you measure on your outcomes if you don’t have the reporting, to actually get the data, right. And it may seem like an afterthought, but what you don’t want to have happen is you get to post you at and Rich’s extremely happy with everything he’s seen. And we go to production, and then we have no visibility into what we’re actually measuring against and why we did the project in the first place. Right? So reporting is so important to talk about early on in the project, because in my opinion, it’s part of design. Right, getting to the data needs to be part of the design consideration.

Richard Forrester

I guess I’d add one more point, one more bullet point to this. And that’s, you know, as we’ve looked at this tool as a as a means for automation, you know, RPA is one way to automate. But the university has other tools, we have ServiceNow, we have on base we have, you know, other applications that we use to automate processes we write, you know, we have many tools that are out there. We’ve even developed custom ones, what we’re hoping what our approach to this long term as business process automation, not just robotic process automation, looking and seeing what the right what the right tool is, as we automate things, and thinking about this from a system perspective, not just one tool.

What’s Next? How can we prepare for it?

Kyle Kain:

Thank you, rich. Let me get through that. So I do want to make sure I’m trying to be cognizant of time here and leave some time for q&a at the end. So I will go through these decently quickly here. So we’ve kind of talked about where we, where we were, where we are now and talked about the Notre Dame perspective. Now, it’s kind of more of a question on what’s next, right? How can we prepare for it? So I’ll highlight again, the kind of core versus differentiated discussion talking about scalable and reusable code And tools and technologies are kind of the common themes here. So what are your next steps are in this by no means is it catches everything, but this is just kind of based on our experience in the higher ed market and at Notre Dame specifically. So again, consider automating both your core and your differentiated, right consider addressing all of those market trends, you know, not just your expense side of the house, but also your differentiator and your value driven side. So having that efficiency and effectiveness to manage overhead costs and then in the differentiated side, you know, leveraging your automation to meet those changing customer expectations and always provide value. 

On this Kilburn usable code front a I’ve talked about this briefly already with banner is an example, getting the process design and development standards established up front and done the right way, Richard, I can’t emphasize that enough, and how much that’s helped our success at Notre Dame to this point, and automating the right way, you know, putting in a lot of those fail safes and try catch usages in your code, especially a UI driven automation. And leveraging the kind of intricacies of an application. And dealing with them upfront allows you to then leverage that code or pieces of that code on future automations, which you will inevitably do, because it’s your core application, right? Most business processes touch it. And that leads you to lower develop deployment costs, and, you know, shorter timelines. And leveraging your existing technology stack. You know, obviously, I’m a big believer in automation, hyper automation, but you also need to consider what you already have in place, and how you can augment that and partner with it. This helps you unlock the power of what we call end to end automation, right? So not just automating a task, but automating, you know, procure to pay truly end to end or record report or your grants processing. 

So you can consider, you know, we really talked about RPA To start with, which is what most companies begin with as well, and organizations. But you also want to consider process mining and intelligent data capture. And what those can do, depending on the use case, because RPA is not a one size fits all solution, right? It’s important to go through this kind of exercise and decision making upfront. And don’t forget those tools already at your disposal. So existing systems, existing workflow, CRM systems, you know, partnering with those in your organization is critical, and help set you up for success. So with that, let me pause. That was all of our materials for today. I did want to make sure I left five to 10 minutes for kind of a q&a. If there are any questions out there. Adam will help facilitate this via the chat. 


Adam Vole:

There is one question and it is one of my all-time favorites. Because I get asked this all the time. Why don’t you work for us the RPA. And we’ll just say in this case, automation, Friend or Foe? 

Richard Forrester:

Sure, I can give a little perspective on that I, the department that I work in has a very, I don’t want to say elderly workforce, because that, you know, it’s not the right way to say it, it hasn’t worked. Yes, long tenured workforce. And, and some of the people are, you know, processors, they, they come they do the same thing day after day. And that was the group, you know, there’s one or two people in my group that I was very concerned with, as we started down this road. But, and whether it’s the mindset of these individuals, you know, they looked at it and said, you know, doing some of these processes are boring. I’d like to do something else. If I could automate the fact you know, that I run checks every day. And it’s a very manual process. If I could automate that, then I could do other things. I think the key is, as you have those discussions, we’ve, we’ve framed it within the, you know, if we’re able to automate these processes, we’re going to reallocate your time, we haven’t looked at it as Okay, we’re going to automate all these processes, and you’re going to be out of a job. 

So it’s, I think we’ve done a good job in framing it in a certain way that that shows why we’re doing this. We’re doing this so that we can reallocate people to more value added tasks. I do think I do think it’s an issue. I think it’s, you know, you can control how people react to it, by the way that you talk about this technology. When you do intake sessions. When you start going out across your campuses to promote this technology. You know, you  can help control how it’s viewed by others, by the way that you talk about how it can be used and the benefits that it can show.

Kyle Kain:

Yeah, I’ll add something onto that, too. So Richard, spot on, you want to, you want to message it. Right, right. There’s some educational pieces to this with as there is with any technology, I think when you’re thinking about what department or part of the organization to go to, you do need to factor in kind of their receptiveness to change. You know, if there’s a part like your accounts payable team, as an example, is very dead set on their ways. You know, they don’t, they think that the only thing they’re there to do is process invoices, you know, you’re going to have some additional challenges if one of the business outcomes is reducing the cost per invoice. My experience with most organizations is that there’s very few resources who are just trying to desperately fill the for that eight hour workday, it’s, there’s always more work to do, and they just don’t get to it. And most of the time, it’s more value add work that they’re not getting into. 

So framing it as an efficiency versus an effectiveness discussion has always been very helpful for me, in my experience, and always, you know, first and foremost starting the conversation with a new department around what are your pain points? What would you like to achieve? Because then you’re on the same team, right? You’re not coming to them with kind of a top down? No, we’re trying to reduce headcount. It’s all about managing that cost versus revenue question. You’re not necessarily trying to decrease costs. At the very least you’re just trying to increase your revenue and your processing power as you grow without increasing your cost anymore. That’s been very helpful for me when kind of framing these conversations.

Adam Vole: 

And I always say that the day that I simply automate and replace somebody whose job is the day that I will quit automating it all, and I’ll never do it again. It’s never, ever come up and it never will. Because it just takes the stuff that you hate, and takes care of it for you. So that you can, instead of focusing on how you can more focus on why users become super users, super users can become developers and process changes. And you just hear the nature of this whole conversation here. Focusing on kind of a macro aspects of it all getting in executive buying at the beginning, and seeing it from a from a business process perspective, rather than just an RPA, even automation process, and I found it so interesting that, you know, obviously the pendulum is going to swing back, once, if ever life is back to normal. I mean, obviously, students are going to be back on campus, but a lot of people had to jump into realms that they weren’t previously planning on it, they were hesitant to tackle, but all of a sudden, we had to increase our remote workforce capabilities. People are taking zoom lectures and in a reactive way, people are saying, oh, we need these animations now. And what’s interesting is that while the pendulum will definitely swing back, you know, people will be doing less business travel, because we know we can do this remotely. 

Now, one thing that isn’t going away is the automations that we’ve implemented during this crazy time. So I’ll kick off just one quick question of how do you see those changes, and or not changes impacting your business process decisions going forward? And kind of, you know, outside of RPA, even other technologies, because even RPA, is it’s going to look completely different three years from now? How does that kind of impact the direction that Notre Dame is heading with their processes? They’re coming up with some new ideas for automations.

Kyle Kain:

So that’s a it’s a great point that Adam brings up that the technology, you know, across all of hyper automation, whether it’s RPA, AI, IDC, they they’re all changing rapidly and almost always in a good way, right? It’s, I look at it as almost kind of a crawl walk run approach. A lot of times the crawl has been RPA based automations have your back office processes and sometimes, you know, intelligent data capture OCR involved as well and really focused on kind of reducing or managing your cost. Where I see it going is organizations becoming more process oriented and driven and leveraging things like process mining to understand what processes they have that are inefficient And then also pairing, you know, attended automations, chatbots, things like that to help provide value directly to their customers that that’s when you start to get into your walk and your run approach. That’s where I see this going for really all organizations, some move faster than others. And there’s always valid reasons for that. There’s no kind of one size fits all. But that kind of it from a general themes perspective, that’s where I see it going.

Richard Forrester:

You know, as I mentioned, business process automation, we want to use the right tool for the automation, we may use more than one tool for an automation. So it’s just kind of understanding what you want to do and how you want to accomplish that and not restricting yourself to one method. As you do that. I was just, I was just looking at sorry, to Adam to jump onto it was there was a, there were a couple of in the chat box talking about what other business units are looking at automation outside of finance, we did partner with our procurement group to help automate one of their processes, that’s, that’s going to be automated down the road. And then we worked with our investments group, which is outside of finance, to actually this one, it started off potentially using OCR, but now it’s using kind of the text layer underneath the scan to, to grab and scrape data. So those two groups are the areas outside of finance, we we’ve talked that when we start ramping up our center of excellence, and actually promoting this to campus, we’ve talked that we have a couple areas that have kind of our service center in our human resources. And in our student area, we’ve talked about reaching out to them to do intake sessions, and to promote the technology. We really think there’s opportunities there.

Adam Vole:

How do you see using automation in recruiting and enrollment functions?

Richard Forrester:

You know, I have to admit those areas are outside of my, you know, kind of area of expertise. But I think anything, you know, we when we put together our business case, we looked at other potential uses across campus. And, you know, we had within admissions, we you know, are there opportunities in your enrollment process in the way that you, you know, send out academic letters or review admissions requirements, post interview support? Are there opportunities in student transcripts area, those were some of the kind of the broad areas that that came up. But like I said, I think the key is to go out to these units, you know, and have intake sessions, talk about what RPA is, what it isn’t, and then let them brainstorm. Because like I said, anytime there’s a service center or a processing area within a unit, I think there’s huge opportunities for RPA.

Kyle Kain:

Yeah, and I would add, you know, on my experience, it’s somewhat relates to how you would handle like HR functions with automation. So onboarding of a new employee, or in the finance side, onboarding of a new vendor, I think one of the problems at least, you know, in my experience when I was looking at colleges. Now granted, this was a while ago now was it was very hard to find the information in one place that you needed and the actionable items, it was a little bit overwhelming. I think that’s, you know, part of, again, providing that value to your customer, which in this case, is a prospective student and making their life as easy as possible to get all their questions answered, execute all their tasks. And then I think what we’re, we’re Adam and I have seen a lot of cool things being done. And more of this machine learning area is kind of recruiting and talent pipeline management. 

So, you know, universities like Notre Dame that are very prestigious and popular for applicants. I mean, I don’t know the number of time I have, but I imagine you guys get a lot of applications every year and applying some kind of a machine learning model to identify quality applicants and make sure those are filtered to the top in an unbiased and consistent way is something that could be leveraged. And then once that student decides to attend, how do you onboard them in the quickest and most efficient way possible, right, because that goes back to where I was mentioning how painful it was, in my experience, and many people I’ve talked to, because there’s just so many things to sign up for in your, you know, 18 year old kid, right, a lot of it you’ve never done before. Making that as easy as possible is another area I think where automation can benefit where you’re essentially directly touching the customer. 

So I do want to be cognizant of time here. I know we’re four minutes over, I wanted to thank you Rich Forrester from Notre Dame. Rich, you’ve been an outstanding partner. Thus far in the automation journey, your heat, the man does have a wealth of knowledge. I would strongly encourage that if anyone does have questions, feel free to reach out to me to Rich to Adam, or anyone at Ashling, or Notre Dame about the automation journey to this point. And I really appreciate everyone’s time who did attend here. And I’m glad we got time for some discussion and q&a. And Adam, thank you for kind of facilitating our discussion here as well. I really appreciate everyone’s time and we will distribute the recording link to this out a little bit later in the day here to the broader group. So thanks again, everyone. I really appreciate your time.

Thanks again to Rich and Adam for helping and I hope everyone has a great rest of the day and a great rest of the week.

This blog post includes the full transcript of the Higher Education Automation Webinar on September 23, 2020 and and the YouTube video of the entire educational webinar: Higher Education Automation Webinar.

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