Automation in action by Phil Simon

Automation in action by Phil Simon

The first post in this series made the case that we were only scratching the surface of internal collaboration hubs and enterprise technology in general. The second post covered the specific benefits of adopting no- and low-code tools. Today, we’ll put a bow on the series by examining an industry that far too often relies on manual processes — higher education.

The Problem

By way of background, I spent four years as a full-time faculty member at a large public university in the United States. I taught a bunch of technology- and analytics-related courses in the school’s Department of Information Systems (IS). Brass tacks: if there was any department within the university that should have embraced automation, it was mine.

Sadly, however, the IS department — and the entire university, for that matter — largely relied on manual processes when automated ones existed. Here are a couple examples to illustrate my point.

Inefficient Process #1

First, every professor had to fill out mid-semester student academic status reports (ASRs). The rationale here was straightforward: to formally document the progress of students and allow for corrective action. That way, a student couldn’t say, “Professor! I had absolutely no idea that I was failing your class.”

To call the process inefficient would be the epitome of an understatement. Professors needed to do the following:

  • Download all student grades from the Canvas — the school’s learning-management system (LMS).
  • Launch a separate website where they needed to manually input students’ ASRs and recommended corrective actions. 
  • Routinely hit the save and next buttons because the web app only displayed 30 students.

Professors with hundreds of students could expect to spend a minimum of three hours completing this manual process. If you think that this process was prone to error, trust your judgment.

The easier, faster, and safer way would have involved automation via a simple bot. After all, students with A’s could stay the course. Those with D’s and F’s, however, needed to meet with the professor.

Brass tacks: a simple if-then statement meant that professors could spend less time completing low-value manual tasks and more time teaching.

Inefficient Process #2

The second example demonstrates that the first wasn’t unique. Some professors used Slack in lieu of email or Canvas’ messaging functionality. (I was one of them and even wrote Slack For Dummies, but I digress.) Canvas remained the system of record. That is, students didn’t submit their assignments via Slack. Professors didn’t store student grades there. Talk about channel conflict.

Every semester, hundreds of professors created their project teams in Canvas. Although Canvas-to-Slack integrations existed, the school opted not to deploy them. As a result, professors would have to manually create their groups in both systems, unless they wanted to play with Python scripts. (Few professors wanted to invest the time, though.)

Beyond the initial stage of creating a group, a related problem stemmed from group maintenance. That is, when a student dropped a class or transferred into a different section, Canvas would automatically reflect the change — but Slack would not. Again, this forced the professor to manually alter Slack groups. (To be fair, my ex-employer was hardly unique; plenty of other universities face similar problems.)

Simon Says: retire manual business processes once and for all

If you think that a single employee wasting time every week doesn’t matter, allow me to politely disagree. Over the course of the semester, it adds up.

Every minute spent copying and pasting means one fewer minute instructing students. #automation #education @philsimon Share on X

Beyond that drawback, think about the overall effect on worker morale. Organizations that persist in using traditionally manual processes implicitly minimize the value of their employees’ time. By way of contrast, progressive institutions identify inefficient business processes and automate them with simple low- and no-code tools. It’s not hard.

About the author

industry regulations with compliance automation

Phil Simon is a recognized technology and collaboration authority. He is the award-winning author of eleven books, most recently Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work. He consults organizations on analytics, communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, The New York Times, and many other prominent media outlets. He also hosts the podcast Conversations About Collaboration.