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The University of Staffordshire is using software robots to automate processes across the organisation as part of its digital transformation.
After horizon scanning and fact finding, the university is a few months into the roll-out of a project which is using Blue Prism Cloud to access robotic process automation (RPA) software.
Andrew Proctor, chief digital officer (CDO) at Staffordshire University, who graduated in software engineering at the university 20 years ago, said the first set of automated processes were in the finance department. Proctor’s team now plan to take automation much further. “We have a long roadmap of how we are going to develop automation over the next couple of years. It is going to cover many aspects of the university,” he said.
Proctor had previous experience analysing the market and the capabilities of RPA from his previous job at West Midlands Police, the UK’s second largest police force, where he held a similar role for five years. The force had done RPA market scoping and analysis, and began setting up an automation centre of excellence before Proctor left to join the University of Staffordshire three years ago.
But the automation projects at the two organisations had very different aims from the start. At West Midlands Police, where years of austerity had seen thousands of jobs cut, it was about retaining service levels with fewer people, whereas at the university it is about freeing up staff to be creative and doing things robots can’t.
“When I was at West Midlands Police, we went through years of severe austerity,” said Proctor. “The workforce was just under 15,000 when I joined and closer to 10,000 when I left. Automation was very much about trying to deliver the same level of service to the public with less people.
“Here we have a digital strategy focused on how we can become much more efficient, agile and responsive to a changing environment, and responsive in terms of student expectations,” he said, adding that students today expect products and services tailored to their needs. The university has 15,000 students on campus as well as international students.
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Automation was initially seen as a way to free up people’s time from transactional administrative activity and let them focus more time on improving the university, spending more time with students and spending more time creating services that benefit students.
“It’s important that we are highly responsive to the unprecedented level of digital change we are witnessing in society to create a student experience that meets their expectations and sets them up for future success,” said Proctor. “At the same time, we need to create efficiencies wherever we can to remain competitive and relevant in the market. Automation can help us to achieve both of these objectives.”
He said after a staff engagement survey was completed that “one of the challenges that came out loudly is that people felt overwhelmed by administrative work and bureaucracy”.
“We knew we had to do something differently as a university, and staff were saying they wanted to be able to be more creative, using their skills rather than getting bogged down with business as usual.”
The digital team began automating processes in the finance department – according to Proctor, although it is seen as a back-office function, the department’s services are very impacting. This includes handling tuition fees of students that have to withdraw or delay. “This takes about two hours a day for a member of the finance team,” said Proctor. “It is a fairly complex process because we wanted to prove what the technology could do, but it also freed up time for our finance team to respond to student queries.
“We fixed something and allowed a team seen as back-office become more customer-facing,” he added.
On the subject of fixing things, universities were left to clear up the mess left by the government’s disastrous A-level results algorithm, when the government performed a U-turn and decided to award grades based on teacher predictions rather than its algorithm after places had been awarded.
Automation project “too risky”
Proctor said automation would have made coping easier for the university had it been in place at the time. “If we had started this automation project a year ago it absolutely would have helped, but we took the decision that introducing this technology during this time in that specific area was too risky.”
The university decided to focus on human tasks by listening and talking to students. “It underlines the fact that being able to free up people time from managing files and processes is going to be very useful.” he added.
Automation is just part of a wide digital strategy at Staffordshire University, one which offers an experience for digital teams with a diversity few other organisations can offer.
“It’s almost like running a small village in terms of the IT because we have accommodation here,” said Proctor. “For example, we have a cinema, shops, sports halls, teaching facilities, office space and more, which all need Wi-Fi and tech support.”
The university also has operations outside Staffordshire, including in London.
One project at Staffordshire University, which will be underpinned by automation technology, is the development of a digital assistant and coach for students, known as Beacon. It harnesses artificial intelligence technology and Microsoft Azure, and is delivered to students via a mobile app and desktop software. “Beacon is designed to maximise the students’ experience by helping them with day-to-day activity and supporting their academic and social activities as well,” said Proctor.
The university also wants its digital experiences and services to be used to support local communities.