Rethinking institutional processes is boring – but the results are liberating


The venue for my first vaccination was Nottingham’s old Central TV studios. Waiting in the queue, two metres from the person in front and two from the person behind, I had a few moments to survey the scene.

Dotted around this vast hall were dozens and dozens of desks and a team of countless volunteers and practitioners, all of whom had a particular role to play. Some were injecting, some were triaging, some simply telling us where to stand. You entered the room and shuffled along the wall until it was your turn to be sent to a station somewhere in the hubbub. The whole scene was magnificent in its mundanity.

I began to reflect on one of the key elements of this success. Throughput. You have to get each person vaccinated quickly, and to do that you need to ensure that the things that are done, from arrival to departure, are limited to the things that really have to be done. Put in a few unnecessary steps, or cause people to duplicate effort, and you might add, say, five minutes to the time it takes to process each vaccinee. When you’re vaccinating an entire population, that adds up to millions of additional hours that have to be resourced.

Universities are no strangers to duplicated effort, in my experience – and I’m confident that anyone who works in one would agree. They tend to achieve success through sheer weight of will and skill. My vaccination experience has prompted me to wonder how much benefit we might get, as a sector, from analysing the everyday actions of university employees, with a view to stripping out some of the more obvious extra steps and duplications.

It turns out that it’s not difficult. Take assessment practices. In a department of, say, 150 academics, there might be 70 module leaders in charge of, perhaps, 140 modules. The number of assessment tasks per module tends to vary between one and two, which gives us roughly 200 for the whole department across all its courses.

Module descriptions are needed to tell students what this chunk of learning is about. Module reports are an important mechanism for critical reflection, accountability and enhancement. A written specification is needed for every task to tell students what they have to do, by when, and against what criteria their performance will be judged. And, for sound pedagogical reasons, the moderation of all those judgements must be documented.

If we add all these together, the basic yearly assessment infrastructure for this department requires a minimum of 800 documents. Traditionally, each module leader has to locate the correct template, fill it in and put it in a folder on their computer before sending it somewhere. What if we could shave just two minutes off the completion time of each of those documents? That would be a saving of nearly 27 hours. That’s 27 hours of expensive teaching and research expertise that can immediately be employed elsewhere.

We make this saving by using a departmental database of modules; such a system must already exist for all sorts of other reasons. The database generates all the required documents in a shared location, prefilled with standard information such as the module leaders’ names and email address, the module name, the module code (what is it again?), the courses on which the module runs (what are they again?), the weighting of the assessment task (did this one change to 70 per cent this year?). That saves the module leader manually entering all that several times in 800 documents.

Furthermore, in editing and archiving the documentation in the central location, the 800 parallel actions of downloading templates, renaming, saving, re-uploading (where is this one meant to go?), forgetting and finding again, are no longer required. All this is quite apart from the benefits of everyone – including peer reviewers, course teams and external examiners – being able to view the single, most up-to-date, definitive copy of every item whenever needed. For all this, I am going to make a conservative estimate of five minutes saved per document.

There isn’t the space here to track these savings deeper into the system, once we include time saved on marking procedures, grade entry and the reduction of error. Neither is there space to comment on the enhancements that result, in terms of the collective ownership of assessment across a large team and the provision of individual written feedback to students on every one of more than 2,000 separate examination scripts, at zero cost, by means of the same mechanisms. Let’s just leave the argument here, with just short of 100 hours of academic time saved by doing little more than preventing colleagues having to write their name numerous times.

The problem is that such re-engineering of institutional processes is so mundane that it is rarely the focus of anyone’s concern. After all, this really isn’t rocket science. But my assertion is that we stand to make bigger “wins” (in the vernacular of 2021) by tackling this small stuff, at comparatively low cost, than via some of the bigger, pricier initiatives that grab everyone’s attention.

Admittedly, 100 hours is not quite millions of hours. Lives don’t exactly depend on it. But it’s 100 extra hours of support to our students. It’s 100 extra hours of feedback on their work. And those things matter.

Author Bio: Andy Grayson is Associate Professor of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.