How to manage the challenge of "always on" in the education sector

Posted by  Andrew Garner

I’ve just returned from the Unit4 Connect conference in Manchester. We saw lots of presentations, lots of talk about the Future at Work, but for me the most useful session was the HE discussion panel on the second day. We had a real cross-representation in the room from a variety of Universities and a variety of job roles, which always makes for an interesting conversation.

We talked about all the usual stuff which impacts the sector; TEF, REF, NSS, Student Experience, the new Office for Students etc., but the one point that stuck with me was one raised by a customer about managing customer expectations. What did that mean?

The concern raised was that the customer expectation could have a negative impact of staff’s work/life balance. The expectation in the “always on” world is that every question can be answered immediately, and it’s just not realistic in the sector. Some questions take days to unpick and answer, and how would that be managed?

It’s a great question, and one I think we should all consider. We all know that Amazon is a slick retail machine. People expect goods the next day on the doorstep, but behind that smart shopping interface is an army of workers processing, picking and packing orders. Amazon have had some really negative press in recent years about their workers’ conditions, an area which was invisible until the likes of Panorama went undercover. They aren’t alone; Sports Direct are another high profile retail company who have been exposed in a similar way.

The fact is, to achieve the customer experience expected today a lot of unseen effort goes on behind the scenes. And if the expectation is that the answer should always be immediate, how are Universities going to meet that challenge? Are we going to have to set some expectation with the next generation around working days, times and acceptable response rates? And if that’s the answer, how do we do that whilst also keeping in mind the motto: “the customer [student] is always right”?

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and bots are part of the answer here. As AI and ML matures and becomes more intelligent, most queries will be answerable by bots who can be available 24/7. For those complex questions Universities often face, I think people are willing to wait a bit longer to get the answers they need. The perfect harmony would be: bots driven by AI and ML will be able to answer the majority of common and routine questions, whilst the human staff deal with the trickier and more complex queries. That way, we can keep the work/life balance whilst still delivering what the students need.

Andrew Garner

Andy has worked in the HE sector for the majority of his career, and joined Unit4 to specialise in Student Systems and Student Experience. During his career in HE, he has worked for several SI’s in different roles, giving him rich mixture of experience in the sector. He is passionate about making things better for students, and believes the power of higher education can transform lives. Andy has a unique perspective on how the sector works and he understands that success in the sector involves taking the time to build a strong relationship between parties, which can then be used to achieve great things together.

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