Work smarter, not harder

  • 9th July 2024

Paul Sypko describeshow to develop an improvement in business processes in schools


By its very nature, the education sector is full of people who thrive on intellectual challenges and solving problems. It’s also full of people who appreciate the importance of the administrative side of their roles, but who would generally rather spend their time delivering education and improving educational outcomes. Yet, however elegant the day-to-day running of the school might seem to the outside world (parents/guardians, pupils, the public at large), the metaphor of the swan gliding elegantly on the surface while flapping its feet vigorously underwater comes to mind; the reality is that, in most schools, there’s a lot of hidden work, struggle and effort that’s not visible to observers, but which is vitally important to ‘keep things ticking along’.

Schools are complex organisations

On the face of it, schools have a seemingly straightforward purpose: definitions may vary, but generally they will include objectives along the lines of educating pupils, fostering critical thinking, helping them to develop social skills, and preparing them for responsible citizenship and future careers. No reasonable person would argue that schools exist for the sole purpose of having people manage paperwork, carry out administrative procedures, generate reports, participate in meetings or other similar activities for their own sake. These activities are all a means to an end, of themselves they may not deliver an output of value that directly contributes to the main objective of educating students – but they are necessary steps to get to that point.

Or, to be more precise, they are tasks and activities that are often carried out with the expectation that they help the school progress towards or deliver its end objectives. Whether or not they are – in the strictest sense of the word – actually necessary, might be a matter for debate. We all know that complex organisations like schools require a lot of organisation. They are difficult to manage, and there’s a lot that needs to be done. Day-to-day priorities can change regularly, things come up and there’s a lot to cope with. Admissions and enrolment, curriculum development and approval, accreditation and compliance, teacher recruitment and retention, financial management and budgeting, student assessment and reporting – the list of tasks and processes is substantial. But are we doing them in the best way possible?

Efficiency and effectiveness

Many independent schools are, of course, highly effective in what they achieve. They produce great outcomes and that’s why they have world-class reputations, people who are willing to pay considerable fees for their children to be educated there, and – in many cases – long waiting lists. But are they efficient – or is the work (particularly on the administrative side) sometimes a little more time-consuming, energy-consuming, complex, ambiguous, or even more stressful than it needs to be?

In a process improvement context, efficiency refers to the ability to accomplish a task or produce a desired outcome with the minimum amount of wasted resources, such as time, effort and materials. It involves optimising processes to maximise productivity and reduce unnecessary steps, costs and delays. Achieving efficiency in process improvement means streamlining workflows, eliminating redundant steps, and ensuring that each component of the process contributes effectively to the overall goal. The ultimate aim is to enhance the performance of the process, thereby delivering better-quality outputs more quickly and cost-effectively. How many schools can truthfully say that, in doing the vast array of things that they do, they do it all in the most streamlined and low-stress way possible?

But we deal with people, not machines

The concept of business process improvement has been around for over a century. It can be tracked back to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management principles in the early 1900s. Taylor focused on improving labour productivity in factories and industrial settings through systematic observation and analysis of work processes. Concepts such as time and motion studies helped to deliver measurable results, and precipitated a long series of improvements in management methods.

‘Total quality management’ came about in the 1950s, led by principles from Japan which emphasised continuous improvement and customer satisfaction. The 1980s brought us Lean and Six Sigma, derived from the Toyota Production System, which focused on eliminating waste and improving flow while also reducing variability of outputs and defects.

As the economy grew further and became faster-paced, the 1990s brought us business process re-engineering, led by management consultants such as Michael Hammer and James Champy, which involved radically redesigning business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in performance.

But what now? We’re talking about schools here, not factories. Dealing with people and knowledge is different to optimising a production line in a factory – isn’t it?

Management consultants often don’t have a great reputation; they’re often critiqued for not understanding their clients’ businesses properly (and, in fairness, it’s probably true to say that they usually don’t know the intricacies of the business as well as the staff who actually work in those organisations). But they do bring useful critical insights and a way of challenging the ‘status quo’.

While the exact origin of the phrase may be difficult to pinpoint, some consultants (such as Morgenstern, in the latter half of the 20th century) had a massive influence in the field of productivity, and the phrase “work smarter, not harder” has become widely attributed to their work. There’s a lot to be said for periodically reviewing how work is carried out (and how people work together towards a shared objective) – and, indeed, the opportunities for adopting it in a school environment are now greater than ever.

Using technology effectively

The 21st century has seen the integration of technology into business process improvement practices, with the advent of data analytics, automation, workflow, collaboration and digital transformation playing key roles in modern process improvement efforts. The opportunities for a school to use technology as a means of improving collaboration and cutting back on routine administrative effort are considerable. A well-implemented school management information system (MIS), for example, can be the difference between late nights doing admin versus having well-motivated staff who feel like they’re on top of their work.

There are many, many examples of how effective use of technology can improve processes in an independent school, enhancing efficiency, communication and educational outcomes.

For instance, some schools might decide they could benefit from:

  • Implementing an easy-to-use MIS and digital front-ends for tasks such as admissions, enrolment, billing, communications and pupil records management in order to streamline administrative processes, reduce paperwork and reduce manual data entry errors.
  • Learning management system platforms which complement classroom teaching and allow for online submission of work, grading, and communication between teachers and pupils.
  • Using data analytics tools to track pupil performance, identify trends, and make data-driven decisions to improve teaching strategies and pupil outcomes.
  • Rolling out mobile apps for school activities, such as event notifications, homework tracking, and parent-teacher communication, such as in relation to extracurricular activity registrations.
  • Implementing systems for managing facilities, equipment and resources to optimise scheduling, reduce conflicts, and ensure efficient use of the school’s assets.
  • Introducing an online appointment scheduling system for parent-teacher meetings.
  • Where appropriate, making use of online assessment platforms and virtual learning environments to help streamline the assessment process, allowing teachers to create, administer and grade assessments efficiently while providing immediate feedback to pupils.
  • Using cloud-based collaboration tools for real-time document editing and project management among staff.

By using technology effectively, and by drawing on techniques for improving processes and ways of working, independent schools can improve their operational efficiency, enhance teaching and learning experiences, and better meet the needs of their pupils, teachers and parents. It does take a little time and energy to do that, but it can yield significant benefits.

So, is it time that your school took some time out to get people together, have them ‘step back’ for a short while, and give some concerted thought, not just what’s done in the school, but also how it’s done?

Paul Sypko is a partner at technology management consultants Adapta Consulting.

Paul Sypko

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