Blackpool and The Fylde’s found a digital way to end arguments

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood July 11, 2017
"It’s been a way to remove all the 'mist' we used to have in the College – now we know what’s really going on."

Normally, you’d expect to hear talk of business process automation and mapping of processes to fine efficiencies in car manufacturing, or some other detailed industrial process. How about Further Education?

There’s actually really  nothing to be surprised about, as it turns out the application of advanced process automation tools can help administrators of busy teaching institutions just as much as it can factory managers.

The institution in question is Blackpool and The Fylde College (B&FC). With impressive ratings from regulators like Ofsted, the Skills Funding and the Quality Assurance Agencies, B&FC saw just under 18,000 students pass through its doors in the 2015-16 academic year, and is a very active participant in local Apprenticeship training, too.

Why would such a successful environment need any tweaking, though? A clue is provided by its new CIO, Paul Dewhurst, who joined 18 months ago from a large global fast moving consumer goods company;

I was recruited to drive more efficiency, as well as help boost digital engagement across the College. But one of the first things I found was that there was a lot of discussion that seemed based more on perception than information.

What Dewhurst means by this is that some team members had negative impressions about service delivery from other parts of the institution that were based less on specific data and more on general impressions:

There was a bit too much disagreement about who had done, or not done, what. I felt we could progress a lot quicker if we had a better way of tracking what actually had been done, in a way everyone could see.

Part of the reason for this lack of internal clarity was an over-reliance on paper, but for Dewhurst it was the lack of a clear audit trail and clarification of workflow that was causing the confusion.

To help, Dewhurst turned to, as we noted, Business Process Automation (BPA). The essential promise of Business Process Automation itself: take a core process, model it graphically, use that abstract representation to spot ways to do it better – then, using drag and drop/low code approaches, generating an application based on the new workflow that the business can immediately start using.

Basically, Dewhurst couldn’t see why he couldn’t use this kind of tool to help improve the way Blackpool worked – so he did:

BPA is about simulating your process to test changes in a virtual world first. It’s a very effective way of working out how to introduce positive change.

Rejecting existing SharePoint processes as insufficient for what he wanted to achieve, Dewhurst instead evaluated tools in the much more formal Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) world. A flow chart method that models the steps of a planned business process from end to end, BPMN way of working is all about graphically capturing, in detail, a sequence of the business activities and information flows an organisation needs to complete a particular process.

But first, a test run to see if the concept could deliver seemed sensible. Dewhurst picked one of the biggest events in the B&FC calendar to test out the suitability of BPMN for what he wanted to do. The results were intriguing, to say the least:

Enrolment day is a huge piece of work for any college, and if you can improve that in any way for the students it’s going to have a lot of impact. We modelled the previous summer’s enrolment experience in the tool, down to the level of the 50 workstations that had been used, and by adjusting parameters we were quite surprised to realise we could shave off one and a half hour’s queueing time per applicant.

This useful piece of white boarding was done in the ‘freemium’ version of a tool called Bizagi, from the UK-headquartered software firm of the same name. After evaluating a number of suppliers and looking at analyst overviews of their strengths and weaknesses, including a number of conversations with another UK education sector user of the tool, Birkbeck College in London, Dewhurst picked Bizagi as both his preferred tool and implementation partner for the next step.

This was a project to see if a B&FC process at least as important as enrollment, course information creation and presentation, could also potentially be streamlined:

The website was being redesigned and the CMS was also being upgraded, both with an eye on delivering something as good as our digital presence warranted. It seemed a great time to also see if BPA could contribute to an even better outcome for our students and Apprentices.

Again, he was right. In just five weeks (September-October 2016) the team delivered a system that has been internally judged to be much superior to the previous way of working.

Since that breakthrough, B&FC is meticulously working through a series of other core processes, such as health and safety instant reporting and safeguarding, with a total of 20 in-flight improvement projects underway, he told diginomica/government:

Now we know what’s really going on.

Which brings us back to that lack of clarity and sense of poor service based on nothing really more than perceptions. For Dewhurst, the fact that that era is receding into the past is perhaps the biggest single deliverable for Blackpool out of the whole BPA journey:

If someone used to say that a process was ‘broken’, or there was a bottleneck somewhere holding everyone up, there was never any real evidence. Now, that’s changing. The same conversation can happen, only with facts and a clear audit trail; if there have been any return journeys, we can see where they happened and who was involved. Everything is mapped now, from start to finish. It’s been a way to remove all the ‘mist’ we used to have in the College – now we know what’s really going on.

In fact, so dramatic has the change been that in some ways, B&FC needs to catch up, he concludes:

IT used to be seen as a blocker of change, an impediment to it. That’s completely reversed; now, we can offer options for change almost quicker than the organisation can cope. But that’s a good problem to have, as change is the way we will deliver what we’re here for, which is the very best experience for our customers and stakeholders that we can.