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Efficiency efforts aim to free up time for more important tasks

April 21, 2021

Heading into Fiscal Year 2021, the task of finding ways to make the workflow at NIU more efficient was added to the list of university goals.

Specifically targeted were paper-based processes that have been executed through manually and have the potential to be automated and executed digitally. The need for such efforts was amplified when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted dramatic changes in how campus operated. While nearly all teaching, learning and working at the university moved online, routine tasks, such as filling out time sheets and processing grade changes, struggled to adapt because the processes had relied on paperwork that must be physically routed around campus.

Leading the effort to identify more such opportunities have been Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Sarah Chinniah and Vice President and General Counsel Bryan Perry. Assisting them in that effort is former NIU Provost Chris McCord, who now serves as a senior adviser to Chinniah.

Over the course of the past year, McCord has consulted with groups across campus and interviewed more than 80 individuals, discussing how to harness technology to remove the paper-based stumbling blocks that consume time that could be better spent. Chinniah and Provost Beth Ingram also gathered ideas for projects during a listening tour with faculty from across campus.

Those efforts resulted in a list of more than 70 potential projects. That number came as no surprise,  said McCord, who acknowledges that the list is not exhaustive.

“The reality is that we have been short-staffed and under-resourced for a long time,” McCord said. “We have known for a long time that many of these things needed to be done, but we simply didn’t have the time or the money to address them. This is an attempt to change that.”

Realizing that there were simply not enough resources to address all of the issues surfaced, it was clear to the leaders of the effort that the projects needed to be prioritized. They created criteria to judge each project: the volume and breadth of impact it might have; how it contributes to the mission of the university; and how changes would contribute to operational efficiency. From those efforts emerged a more manageable list of 21 projects that were ready for implementation.

Those projects were divided into three priority tiers:

Tier ITier IITier III
  • Time and benefit reporting (interim)
  • Registrar/student transactions
  • PeopleAdmin upgrades
  • Inventory
  • Grant management financial tracking
  • Sensitive student financial aid doc.
  • Data for compensation analysis
  • Electronic signatures
  • Curricular approval process
  • Vendor Invoice/Voucher Interface
  • Encumbering salaries on grants
  • Purchase order and contract e-signatures
  • Student financial aid forms
  • Retroactive changes to grant salaries
  • Performance evaluation
  • Graduate Student forms
  • User testing
  • Check requests
  • Research joint appointment coding
  • Job data modernization

A thumbnail overview of each project can be found on the website of the Office of the President.

Tier I projects, which are considered highest value), and many of which are underway, include:

  • Automating the time and benefits reporting process, which is still largely done by hand.
  • Automating many of the registrar/student forms and simplifying the approval chain for those forms.
  • Simplifying and automating the inventory process to remove steps and eliminate manual tasks that introduce opportunities for error.
  • Automating the submission of student financial aid forms to improve efficiency and security.
  • Streamlining the processes required for tracking federal grant money.
  • Simplifying the gathering and sharing of data required compensation analysis.
  • Reviewing the university’s use of human resources software to identify opportunities for better workflow.

Some of those projects, such as improving time and benefits reporting, might save any given individual just a couple of minutes a month. However, when multiplied throughout campus and across the entire workflow, McCord said, they could add up to significant savings in time and money. Others, such as improvements to the software systems used by Human Resource Services and Affirmative Action office, could significantly improve how the university serves employees. Employees throughout campus will gain time that can be put toward more worthwhile activities.

Even the pared-down list of 21 projects will require a significant amount time to address, McCord said, and no timeline has been established, but every effort is being made to move quickly.

“Things will be done as quickly as possible, but it is going to take a while,” he said. “We have tried to prioritize things so that those projects with opportunities for significant, or more immediate, impact are first in the queue, and as resources open up, they will be directed to other projects so that we keep making progress.”