Director of the School of Continuing Studies Discusses Destiny One

Transcript of a presentation given by Dr. Mary Cone Barrie, Director of the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies at the 2004 UPCEA conference.

About four years ago, I was dreaming of something that I didn’t know was possible in my own mind; which is not one that is a student of technology’s. All I wanted, I thought, was something every simple. I wanted an integrated computer system. I wanted some kind of technology that would streamline what I felt were our operations.

This streamlining was necessary in my view because in order to grow, we needed to shrink. I know that doesn’t make sense in some ways, doesn’t seem that obvious, but there are tremendous gains that can be gathered by the repositioning of staff positions in terms of knowledge work and away from some of the more mundane routine clerical functions that have always underwritten education and higher education. So in my mind, I had a master objective, which was to do more with fewer people, producing and being more productive, enjoying their work more and less stressed. Now how do you do that? It seems like some form of bizarre magic, but we certainly needed to do something.

I don’t know whether or not that particular cartoon reflects any operation other than my own before this journey began, but clearly what we had was a situation in which the culture had grown up over time with a dependency on every time we wanted to do something new or different, we needed new and different and more people to do it. And as an end result, we were getting too large, too complicated, wildly too expensive and not particularity efficient.

I think what has happened in the several years since this journey began is that I’ve gotten more than I bargained for. This particular integrated and open system has been built and it is now operating (in an enterprise fashion) the school’s operations; that means registration, curriculum management, workflow processes and financial affairs. Moreover, wonder of wonders, we’re doing all of this in a fashion that is integrated with the University of Toronto’s wider enterprise SAP system.

What I want to do with this case study is describe, if I can, briefly how this technology has changed the culture of the School of Continuing Studies. I should say a little bit about the entity. The University of Toronto created its division of extension in 1881, our name changed in 1975 to the School of Continuing Studies, but the mandate has never changed. We are the outreach enterprise of the University of Toronto and always have been. Our signature line is, “Open to learning, open to you”, which is expressing, we hope, the heart of the message. Meaning anyone 18 or older in our community and surrounding communities we welcome to study with us on a not-for-credit basis.

We’ve always operated on a fully costed, cost recovery model sine the 1880’s. We receive no public funds. If we have a good year, we keep our profits and reinvest it in ourselves. It is not, if you will, taxed by the larger university, it stays within our division. If we have a bad year, the university has to step in and play banker and we have to return the money owing at an interest rate of 8 percent. If we don’t operate as a business and very efficiently as a business—our only revenue coming through tuitions from our market—we don’t survive. We have to do this with a sense of being tremendously entrepreneurial, as all of us are in this particular field. If the courses, programs, certifications that we offer are not perceived as valuable by our students, our customers, we die a rapid sort of death progression and spiral. So we have to be entrepreneurial. But we have, as all of you do, the phenomenally important and at the heart of all of this, a necessity to reflect in our enterprise, in our programs and courses the standards of excellence which adheres to the University of Toronto. Which perhaps not all of you would know very much about but the U of T is Canada’s oldest, largest and preeminent research university.

In the beginning some cars—you’re going to wonder why I’ve gone off into an automotive metaphor—but in the early years of car manufacturing, cars were sometimes built with a tiller, like a boat, instead of a steering wheel. Sometimes the throttle was a lever, sometimes a crank, sometimes a pedal. When you get into a car back in those good old days, you really didn’t know how it worked. You’d push or pull something or you’d turn something and in one model of car you’d go right, in another one you’d go left when you had done exactly the same action. The car today, and its so called architecture, has settled down—this is always the progress with technology—if you can drive one car you can pretty well drive any car.

Before this integrated computer system, which is named OneCE*, arrived at the school and was put into operation, we had units at the school who operated in different architectures. We had units that were entering data into records that couldn’t be read by other units. We had units that were re-keying data that had been keyed by somebody else but into something that couldn’t be shared. We had staff who, with the best intentions in the world, were not all sharing the same information at the same real time and therefore we had students who were receiving different information about the same course by two different members of the staff—“It’s going to meet in Melarchin Hall at 9 o’clock.” “It’s going to meet in Syd Smith Hall at 8:30.”

Some of the course proposals that were being generated would come forward without necessarily a complete and fully costed budget, others would. There would be confusion sometimes about whether or not overhead costs were properly being accounted for. I don’t want to go on and paint a picture of total disarray, because I think that would be unfair, but certainly there were ways in which I believe our operations were not streamlined and quite ineffectual. We functioned, though, and we were functioning pretty well. We were surviving as a business, but in a sense we were paying a high price. We couldn’t grow. As I said in my introductory comment, somehow we couldn’t grow without adding more staff and even the staff we had weren’t very resilient. If Tom called in sick, Eddy couldn’t stand up at the plate and do Tom’s job on that particular day. There was too much Eddy didn’t know about how Tom did Tom’s job. We had only anecdotal corporate memory. I don’t know if you think about the value and importance of memory within your unit or operation and how important it is to be able to access it—we really couldn’t. We had story tellers, but we didn’t have very much in the way of a history that we could turn to in a crisis and necessarily learn from. Heaven forbid, if a department head left us, we really, really had to hope that that department head’s assistant knew what was going on in that department, or else we were going to have to discover it with the next new hire who would have to put it in place.

Obviously, we were working within policies and practices and procedures, but this was a highly individualized type of work in terms of the way it was actually being carried out. I have a remarkably wonderful staff but before this new computer system, everyone—including me—had a certain opportunity to hide. One of the key responsibilities in my role is signing off on a proposal for a course or program. In order to do that in the old days I used to work with tremendous stacks of paper. The School of Continuing Studies offers roughly 600 different courses per year, across perhaps 1,800 sections to a student population of roughly 14,000. Now with this system my approval consisted of a check box by my name on my computer screen and when I do that, what happens next is this incredible ripple trigger effect takes place automatically.

Once I’ve approved that course there’s an automatic message that goes back to the person that sent me that proposal saying that’s happened. If I haven’t approved it the message says I haven’t and explains why I haven’t and explains what the next step in the process is going to be for resubmission. If I’ve approved it, the check also automatically fires up the information to the financial, accounting and budgetary system that says, “Alright, all the budgetary info behind that course proposal is entered efficiently and correctly into our budget model.” The same check means that as soon as I do it, this is live on the web in real time. It may be a course that isn’t going to be offered for three years, but if there’s somebody on the Internet who sees it and wants it, they can register for it right then.

We’re no longer living in a world of semesters. We are no longer living in a world in which everybody has to sign up at a certain period of time for something. This is allowing individualized education whereby we actually do run programs that start at various times depending on the number of people we receive who want to take it, right down to an individual. One of the ways I can’t hide, and I’m trying to be very honest with you—let me put it this way—one of the requirements of a course proposal is that there is a text description of that course which, when I check is going to go ‘bang’ right into the right place to be fed into Quark Express to produce our calendar as well as our website. From time to time, I’ve approved course proposals that didn’t have course descriptions. I’ve done it because I know who the instructor is, I know their kind of work, I know that probably the department head just simply couldn’t get them to meet the deadline and write the description, it will come later. I used to be able to do things like that, I can’t now because if I do, somebody who reports to me will meet me in the hall and say, “You signed an approval and there was no course description” and they’re absolutely right.

So really, we’re all accountable to one another in a very, very finely tuned network of interrelationships that are being transmitted through an enterprise system. We work now as a team of 35 instead of the 50 we were four years ago. The 35 are getting more important work done. They’re not dealing with the run of the mill routine clerical stuff nearly as much as they used to. I now have staff who are finding spots on task forces, on committees, on strategic planning teams that in the past, simply, there wouldn’t have been time and there wouldn’t have been opportunity.

There’s a lot more expanded intelligence in the place, with fewer people, who actually during the stressful times of the year are a lot less stressed. At Christmas the University of Toronto traditionally closes for two weeks, and I mean closes—no one’s there, the heat turns way down, we all vanish. This past Christmas, Christmas of 2003, while we weren’t there 261 actual registrations came in in that two week period over the web. No one later had to be transferred or withdrawn. In other words, those 261 students found what they needed to know, registered in the course they wanted starting January, and stuck it out because they had the info they needed to make the right choice. The school took in $166,000 Canadian, and nobody was there. Moreover when we go back, I don’t know if any of you are like us, but think of the start up September/January registration periods—the lines, the chaos, and all the rest—we didn’t have any of that. There was no backlog of registrations.

This inspires the virtual reality CEO picture. I said we were able to shrink and then grow. How have we done the growth? What we have done in the same time period as the system OneCE has been put in place is opened new centers in five communities outside of the downtown core of Toronto itself where our university resides. I thought what I wishing for was an integrated computer system. What I in fact now have in operational mode is a matrix model, a vastly more sophisticated centralized entity, running six different continuing education centers (from our downtown campus to the five other towns) and I think what we’re finally achieving is something far closer to the outreach mandate that is the heart of why we exist.

*Note: OneCE was the name of DestinyOne prior to 2011.