The Radical University – email is the enemy

ping! ping! ping!

I’m not a political scientist – when I think about radical, I think about how we smash and reconfigure the basic building blocks of the University.

The last year has thrown up all sorts of questions about where Higher Education is going and what post-pandemic education will look like. When we were forced to go online, the reaction of most Universities was to create new channels of communication – Microsoft teams, chat bots etc. However absolutely no consideration was given to shutting down or removing old channels of communications.

Therefore the end result is that Universities (and students) are suffering from increased information overload and the asymmetrical ratio of communications from staff to students has increased. Simply put – there is one of you and hundreds of students and the more you increase the channels of communication , the more you increase the complexity. The switching costs keep going up and the level of performance has to suffer.

Last week a few different conversations I had clicked together – email is such a performance and service drag on Universities that likely the quickest way to improve performance is to turn it off for most people in most contexts. Now you are thinking “but Charles this is just silly!” But is it? Let me relate two conversations I’ve had in the last few months:

  • Conversation 1: This was with a friend who works in the customer services division of a large well know retail organisation – I asked him what level of traffic he gets from customers in email – his response was “what via email? That’s madness! – impossible to scale, impossible to provide a reasonable Service Level!”
  • Conversation 2: This was with a organisation that provides online degree level courses – they were showing me the platform. By design, there is no way for students to email staff outside the learning environment. Every single request and action is taken on the Virtual Learning Environment which has a customer relationship management system sitting behind it. Module questions end up on module sites, support requests end up elsewhere but the organisation has a single view of the student.

Conversation 2 is important because the level of information they have about what their students are actually doing and actually need is beyond what I’ve seen in a traditional university.

In the context of business data, “dark” describes something that is hidden or undigested. Dark analytics focuses primarily on raw text-based data that has not been analysed—with an emphasis on unstructured data, which may include things such as text messages, documents, email, video and audio files, and still images.

Dark Analytics (Illuminating opportunities within unstructured data) – Deloitte University Press – 2017.

Underpinning both of these conversation was the fact that the organisations are effective because most text based interactions with their customers/students are not dark and therefore they have a very accurate and real-time understanding of where they are busy, where the problems are and emerging themes.

The more I have thought about these conversations and this, the more I’m convinced that although it’s likely impossible in an existing University to shift the culture entirely away from email to a proper customer relationship management system – it’s still a battle worth having.

Universities want to provide an integrated linked up experience for a student but think of this very simple scenario – if I help a student with a complex problem over two years and then I leave the University – most of the data (email) disappears as soon as I leave and my email account is turned off!

Scaling up from that – we spend a lot of time trying to work out the behaviour of students and why they react in certain ways to certain events and yet most of our communications with them is via email and thus not available to relational databases. Thus we tend to stumble in the dark working backwards from module and exam results rather than a true sense of our students digital lives when they are with us and at points where we can make a difference.

I’m realistic that email is unshiftable but that does not mean all email traffic is unshiftable.

Therefore from a competitive advantage point of view – The Universities that spend time and money on thinking about the following are likely to see performance gains beyond their peer groups:

  • What are the right questions for students to be capable of asking via email and what should forced via a CRM? (should a student be able to ask a module or course question is an email?)
  • If we shift more and more interactions to a CRM, what are the existing data sources we want to link this up to? (Is there a benefit in linking up to government data or even existing data in the organisation on say the past performance of a module at the same point in time?)
  • What is the existing data talent in the organisation and what can build or what do we need to buy in? (Could we actually build a system to take advance of this change?)
  • How would we use this data once structured and what business processes would we change to support this change? (Who actually would lead interventions lead on data and how is data used for performance management?)

Anyway excuse me while I check my emails…

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