Every year, the University of Alberta processes approximately 54,400 unique applications, of which around 16,000 are made acceptance offers. It requires a lot of paper, a great deal of time, and significant staffing from faculties and central units. After years of a labour-intensive process, and a concern that the current system would no longer meet the growing needs of the institution, the Registrar’s Office (RO) and Information Services and Technology (IST) embarked on a joint effort to find a long-term solution. Now three years later, the Undergraduate Admissions Solution Implementation (UASI) project has reached a successful and much anticipated milestone.
On October 1st, the University launched Slate, the solution chosen to address the need for a more agile and sustainable admissions solution. It will provide students, faculties and RO staff with a streamlined process and improved access to information. Students will know it as UAlberta Launchpad, but Slate was ultimately chosen because it looks at the admissions process differently, according to IST’s Portfolio Manager Terry Harris. It fulfills the institutional goal of implementing a self-sustaining solution, and as a cloud-based application, is less reliant on technical resources, making it easier to configure. Its flexibility and breadth of functionality will also allow for it to grow with the University.
While the solution will increase transparency, reduce the manual evaluation effort and time to decision, among other advantages, it’s the project’s collaborative approach that make it a game changer. UASI accomplished something that a University effort never has before. Recognizing that the end result would cause considerable impact across the entire institution, voices from the RO, all 17 faculties and other central business units were represented among the project team, steering committee and working groups. And ultimately, it was exactly what was needed to influence fundamental, transformational change.
“This project wasn’t something that I think either IST or the RO felt they could solely dictate and have it accepted,” Harris says. Granted, there was a fair amount of effort involved in understanding current processes, how each faculty executed admissions, and why differences existed, but that work was necessary for a successful outcome. “What we wanted to do was reduce the number of disparate processes, and the only way to do that was to involve the faculties and have those conversations,” Harris says. One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle was simply coming to a consensus as to what that end process would look like.
For Project Manager Gail Breum, having all hands on deck was always an intentional decision. “We need to talk with people when we’re going to change the work that they’re doing,” she says. Next to the importance of finding a solution, the project was equally about building relationships and the expectation that one group wasn’t going to make decisions that impacted everyone. “People don’t want to come into a session and have us send information at them,” Breum says. “They needed the chance to be involved and engaged in selecting and implementing a solution.” Indeed, a healthy amount of fear and hesitation existed knowing just how many voices would have to be taken into consideration. “Every business book you read talks about effective meetings,” Breum says, “and typically that doesn’t include 17 or more people. But everyone we’re working with has been engaged and wants this to be successful.”
The project set out to create a level playing field for all. Chris Brunelle, Director, Information Systems & Business Development with the RO, was a member of the Steering Committee and leads the team that is responsible for supporting the tool after implementation. “It didn’t matter the degree to which you would be impacted, we treated everybody the same as far as the level of engagement,” he says. It was a crucial benchmark to set, and one that improved communication and transparency while working to build trust between the central units and faculties. “I think the true value in it was that everyone heard other people’s perspectives,” Breum says.
For Brunelle, one of the largest benefits coming out of this approach was the emphasis placed on organizational change management. It’s something he notes previous enterprise initiatives have struggled with in the past, and was crucial it was practiced this time around. Admissions is a key driver for a good portion of the University’s revenue, “so we couldn’t afford things to go wrong,” he says. “So we focused on and put effort into the change management, and for this scale of a project, that means a lot of time goes into communicating with your stakeholders, providing them updates, and consulting with them at various points along the journey.”
The bar has been set for a different level of engagement, feedback Harris says the team has already received. “There will be a level of expectation from faculties that they’re going to be engaged in different ways than in the past,” he says. “We’ve learned a lot, and there’s a lot we can leverage for other projects going forward." Kristy Wuetherick, Senior Officer, Student Programs and Services, Faculty of Arts, was one of two faculty representatives on the Steering Committee. “We don’t have a lot of opportunities to have these larger types of conversations with all stakeholders in the same room,” she says. “I appreciated the ability to have a voice at the table and provide feedback on behalf of faculties.”
By engaging so many voices, the team knew a standard waterfall approach would not yield the results they needed. As such, a very agile and iterative plan was developed, which required those involved to readjust their mindsets. “We’ve been working on different modules almost simultaneously,” says Melissa Padfield, Interim Vice-Provost & University Registrar. “We learn, we check, we revise, and we’re developing while we’re testing so it's not the same linear progression that people are used to.” Padfield has played a number of roles on the project, including Chair of the Steering Committee and Co-Sponsor, and says the approach has allowed them to adapt more quickly to a changing set of expectations. “There’s been a willingness to learn quickly, to try and fail, and to challenge the way we do things at all levels of the institution,” she says.
"This is exactly the type of work that Harris says IST needs to continue to be a part of — projects that keep the end user and operations in mind. “It’s not just about putting in a new solution and looking at it from a technical perspective, it’s about looking at it from a business perspective,” he says. “A project has a defined start and end, but we always have to think about what it’s going to look like once it’s in production and people are using it on a daily basis.”
It’s been a rewarding albeit long road for all involved in the accomplishments surrounding UASI — but the work isn’t over yet. “We’ve needed a new admission system at this institution for a number of years,” Brunelle says. “The product we’ve chosen is a modern tool and I’m looking forward to implementing a community of practice.” With applications for Fall 2020 intake now open, Brunelle is managing the RO’s dedicated Slate team responsible for supporting the product’s operations. He is particularly looking forward to building a group of practitioners that in time will become experts on how individuals can leverage this technology to maximize business potential. “This particular project is one of the largest that we as an institution have done in quite some time,” he says. “It's been interesting to see how it has evolved since we started the journey, and where we're at today.”