Is higher education a product students acquire or a service colleges deliver – or some other sort of hard to define life or growth experience? Perhaps approaching it as a service will help its transformation.
If you want to rile up faculty and academic librarians, just refer to higher education as a business. It can be incredibly off putting to many higher education personnel to suggest their work is in any way connected to profit making or any form of consumer-oriented exploitation that comes along with commerce. A new report is recommending that higher education might achieve transformative improvements by finally admitting the need to focus on functioning like any other business by shifting to a more customer-oriented operation. Suggestions that higher education should be run as a business are always controversial, but there is value in exploring how business and management trends may be leveraged to improve higher education.
Our valued customers
The other thing you can do to agitate your colleagues is to consistently refer to students as customers. They dislike this because it suggests we are salespeople who now operate under the principle that the customer is always right. It also cheapens the noble causes and lofty values of the delivery of higher education. Customer service representatives and enlightenment don’t mix. What if that thinking is plain wrong? What if colleges and universities can get better results by treating students like customers, and analyzing the way higher education is delivered in much the same way a retail store analyzes what happens at every step in the customer’s journey? Though that sounds like some sort of heresy, it’s actually the recommendation of a new report titled “Leveraging Service Blueprinting to Rethink Higher Education: When Students Become ‘Valued Customers’ Everybody Wins”. While that sub-title is guaranteed to put off many potential readers, the authors may be on to something. If students drop out because their college experience is frustratingly poor, it makes sense to develop solutions that eliminate bureaucracy, simplify tasks, and help students succeed. That’s the kind of experience all of us in higher education should want our students to have.
Adopting a service lens
After a rundown of the litany of current higher education challenges (low retention and graduation rates, student debt, poor workplace preparation, high costs, etc.), the authors say it is time for new approaches and that technology can accomplish only so much. They write:
We believe a key to the solution to many of the issues lies in designing and delivering student-focused educational experiences that meet their needs and desired outcomes while concurrently considering the needs of other stakeholders such as employers, government, and society more broadly.
They go on to summarize the focus of the project, in which they advocate for viewing the challenges of higher education through a “service lens”:
In this paper we take the position that higher education is a service, or a service system, and that transformative initiatives aiming to address the types of problems noted earlier will benefit from viewing them through a service lens. A service lens puts the customer at the center of improvement and innovation initiatives, considers the customer experience to be a foundation for analyzing and making enhancements, and assumes the customer is a co-creator of value. In the context of higher education, this means that the student is the center, the student’s experience is the foundation for analysis, and the student is a co-creator of his or her educational experience and ultimately the value received.
That language may sound somewhat familiar to many librarians and academic support professions who will claim their operations are already student-centered. The problem is that many academic organizations only pay lip service when it comes to being student-centered, or there is no systematic approach to achieving student centeredness. Instead, it is little more than a phrase in a rarely remembered mission statement. How can an academic institution or library go beyond just saying it’s student-centered, and instead create an organizational culture that is dedicated to analyzing and improving the student’s experience? Two words: service blueprinting.
Create the blueprint
In the world of user experience design, studying the path along which a customer travels to accomplish a task or series of tasks might be called customer journey mapping, touch-point mapping, or even service mapping. For example, imagine the journey required at a library for a community member to borrow a book. It may begin at a physical service point in the library building or a virtual interaction with the library website. You can imagine all the steps involved in actually getting to the desired book – and what if it’s not there. What happens at each point along the journey? Where are the “pain points” or those places where the consumer’s journey is unsatisfactory or blocked by a broken process, needless confusion, or pointless policy? In this report the authors call it service blueprinting. They describe it as “an easy-to-use yet powerful technique that has the ability to help examine, improve, innovate, and transform higher education.” While you might think service blueprinting would primarily apply to student services such as advising or financial aid, one of the case studies in the report describes how the process was used to redesign a computer science course. The new design resulted in a higher completion rate, better grades and lower costs per student.
It’s all about the outcome
The report does a good job of providing explanatory materials, some visual, to help readers get first hand-access to a service blueprint. Just as an academic librarian might use a service blueprint to pinpoint where a community member is most likely to just give up on using the library, the report suggests colleges and universities can do the same to determine where students leave for good, what was the root cause of the departure, and what can be done to improve any touch point where the customer journey fails. Once those root causes are understood, steps can be taken to improve the customer journey, all with the focus on keeping college students enrolled until they graduate. Where the report disappoints a bit is with the lack of practical “how-to” information on conducting the service blueprint process. I suspect it is more challenging than the report suggests.
Building a better library experience
I can already hear the negative reactions. “Looks like another business fad is being sold to us as the way to save higher education.” “Let’s see how quickly the administrators can lose interest in this waste of time.” Unlike the naysayers, this report strongly resonates with me because I’ve been arguing for years that academic librarians need to pay closer attention to the library experience received by every community member. Designing a good experience is not an easy task, and it requires the full support and involvement of the library staff. Service blueprints strike me as a way to make the conversation about user experience—nebulous at times—more concrete and achievable by creating the blueprint. Library staff would need to think through and document how a particular service is delivered and where improvements are needed. Academic librarians may like to claim their library is user-centered or student-driven. It’s quite another thing to accomplish it. Service blueprints, customer journey mapping, or touchpoint analysis, whatever you want to call it, may be our opportunity to move from talk to action.
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