Monday, September 04, 2006

Easy to sell...

Always Be Closing

I worked with this great salesguy once, a guy named Jeanne (je-nay). Think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but with a wicked sense for product marketing thrown into the bargain. The engineers in the company grew to have a grudging respect for this flawlessly tailored sales dude with the slicked back hair, because listening to him helped them move beyond cool technology to create products people would actually buy.

Among his many principles was one we called Jeanne's Law. According to the law, if you want to make a product that will sell, then you have to make sure that it's:

  • Easy to buy

  • Easy to install

  • Easy to maintain

Not many products of any kind satisfy the Law completely. Cars are hard to buy. Ceiling fans are hard to install. Pools are impossible to maintain. Making a run away product is no mean feat.

Now I realize that it borders on crass to think about higher education as a "product", but the other day, as I was watching our new provost, Dr. Betty Capaldi, outline her plan for improving student persistence at ASU, I couldn't help thinking that Betty's vision for improving ASU's online services has a lot to do with making it easier for students to make educational decisions.

As I listened to Betty discussing how:

  • welcoming freshmen into majors immediately,

  • improving the online tools that help a student measure their progress toward a degree,

  • and creating a more effective ways to browse among programs of study,

would have a dramatic impact on student success, I couldn't help but think about the intersection of Jeanne's Law and amazondotcomification. Because for me, Betty's plan translates to making ASU's brand of higher education easier to buy, easier to install, and easier to maintain; all by dramatically improving ASU's online environment.

And that's where IKEA comes in.

If ASU were IKEA, it would only have the first floor; you know, the warehouse part. IKEA furniture has to be put together, and on the warehouse floor all the individual pieces of bookcases, closet organizers, coffee tables, chairs, couches and every other component of IKEA's brand of Scandinavian interiors are arranged according to the warehouse rules. It's by no means apparent, from any of the information available down there, which of these individual parts might go together to make a Billy bookshelf or a Hopen wardrobe system. There's just a collection of loosely related parts, available for you to take in whatever combination you want.

Not unlike the way ASU presents its courses, arranged according to the departments that offer them. It's not all that easy down there on our warehouse floor to see how a given set of courses is going to fit together to create a career in nanobiology or law or something else that would ignite your passion. Sorting them by department makes all kinds of sense to the folks doing the teaching; but it's certainly not the most straightforward way to think about what's right for you as a student.

Of course at IKEA, you don't shop on the warehouse floor. You shop on the second floor, in the showroom. I like IKEA's showroom. The showroom is where all those slats and knobs and pieces of pressboard come together to make things people might want to buy. Without the showroom, you have to be either gifted, lucky or an insider to know how to make the individual bits and pieces come together to make anything. But in the showroom you can see whole living rooms or offices, building your desire for tables with names like Jokkmokk or BjorKudden. And right next to each item in the showroom you can find the list of the exact pieces you'll need to make one for yourself.

Betty's system will be like a showroom for ASU's higher ed products. Instead of wandering around the course warehouse, trying to figure out how the individual courses go together to make an education, Betty's system will help students browse through -- and ultimately choose -- courses of study related to their interests that prepare them for futures that excite their passions.

And if, after choosing several courses, a student changes her mind, Betty's system will help them choose a new path, and make the most of the courses they've already taken.

Of course my biggest gripe with IKEA is availability. You pick an item from the showroom, get the list of parts that you'll need to make it, and head for the warehouse. You grab one of those wheely carts and start hauling the pieces out when it happens. It never fails. After you've already hefted, dragged, and shoved 6 of the 8 parts you need onto the cart, you discover that one of the crucial pieces is out of stock. No Matteus Desk for you today.

This happens to our students too. Imagine how frustrating it must be to be a few courses from graduation and not be able to get into the courses you need. Or to be excited about investigating a new career option, only to find that all the introductory courses in your interest area are full. Hearing Betty's committment to enrollment planning as a vehicle to drastically reduce these occurances was music to my ears.

So Giddyup I say...I can't wait to get started on this. It's a revolutionary opportunity. Looking forward to working on it with you all.


Ben Allegretti,  September 7, 2006 at 10:24 AM  

Dr. Sannier,
Great concept and great Blog; written in a manner that very effectively communicates the vision. Your student-centric approach seems similar to the customer and citizen centric approaches of provisioning services that many businesses and government entities are working to put in place. It is certainly ambitious (and must be exciting) to undertake such a visionary, transformational project. While the proposed student-centric capability is enabled through and highly dependent upon information technology, its very nature is intertwined with the “business” of the University. The University Technology Office is obviously not “going it alone” on this project; other “functional areas” of the University will provide the valuable “Core” (borrowed from another of your Blogs) information and processes that will allow the capability to be implemented. You did not mention academic, research, counseling and advising, registrar, and other core university functions involvement in the process. Has a program management approach and governance process that effectively engages them been established? If so, it would be interesting to know how they are structured and how they works. Also, in most organizations though, there is a lifecycle to governance and participation of high quality business people (who, by the way, usually have a “day job,” that is core to running the organization). How will participation of the best business functional representatives be maintained over the long haul? The University President (who I believe you said is keenly interested in use of the web) and new Provost backing the project will go a long way I am sure. Even with executive leadership, in my organization, we struggle with the high operational tempo placed upon the best people as well as occasional loss of focus by the business leaders (they have a mission to accomplish as well). This is especially challenging in a dynamic and competitive environment. We are in the process of completely reengineering our web environment to better serve our customers and constituents. At the same time, we are reengineering our business processes and implementing them on a technology platform (no more workflow via email). All the while, we are in a peak period of demand from our customer base. To manage the workload we have rotated personnel through IPTs, established career broadening assignments, hired contractors to support, etc and it is still a struggle. In closing, thanks for the Blogs. They are informative and provide valuable lessons for many other organizations outside the .edu community. Best of luck in bringing your ambitious vision to fruition.

bdkahn September 22, 2006 at 7:48 AM  

As a student, I can definitely relate several aspects of ASU's academic services to shopping on IKEA's warehouse floor. If I do not know exactly what pieces I need to put together my academic plan, the task of finding them seems daunting. If I need help, there is one small service station on one side of the warehouse floor where may be able to find someone who works there that might be able to help me put together a short term or long term plan. At that point, the process becomes less about finding resources and more about who you know. In the context of academics, this would consist of people such as advisors and other students in a similar academic track. That is why I was very glad to read about Dr. Capaldi's vision for improving online academic services. I appreciate the opportunity that you are giving students to provide direct input on how this can be achieved by convening a Student Technology Council.

As someone who deals with ASURITE computer account questions daily at the UTO Help Desk, I hope in the future that Jeanné’s Law can also be taken advantage of in the area of computer accounts. While there are many different online resources that provide information and support for the vast number of computing services that someone at ASU can have, the process of activating and managing a computer account is currently not a one-stop shopping experience. I believe development of the ASURITE On-Demand application is an excellent step towards amazondotcomification by providing one place that accommodates the computer account activation needs for all different types of ASU affiliates. By creating a single online resource that provides ASURITE account management, service information, and support, whether through links or sheer information integration, an online product can be created that people at ASU can find easier to use and ultimately be more satisfied with.

As someone who both utilizes and provides support for many online academic services, I (as well as the Help Desk) look forward to finding even more ways to improve support for them and then seeing service opportunities materialize thanks to your leadership, Dr. Sannier.