By Adam Mattis, Partner & Enterprise Advisor, Scaled Agile, Inc.
Note: This article is part of the SAFe Beyond IT series, and it offers real-world Business Agility experiences in Operational Value Streams written and contributed by SAFe professionals.
Higher education is one of the most traditional undertakings in the world of operations. Largely speaking, the process of developing degree programs and courses has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. In this context, how would you respond if your proven model was suddenly disrupted by the digital revolution? For one education consortium, SAFe proved to be the edge they needed to thrive in the digital age.
A global education consortium consisting of 86 universities and 200+ campuses embraced SAFe as a mechanism to streamline common operational functions throughout its network. Among the many traditional areas where SAFe is applied, the organization also recognized the value of embracing Lean and Agile principles in other areas of the business such as marketing and the development of college degree programs and courseware.
Having had a previous failed attempt at embracing six-sigma, management was initially resistant to pursing change rooted in Lean. By gaining an understanding of the context surrounding the failed attempt, the consulting team was able to overcome objections through the use of the SAFe Implementation Roadmap. Management agreed to proceed after reviewing a pattern that had been validated many times over.
Of the many interesting discoveries from this engagement, one of the most profound was the efficiency and competitive advantage gained through the rapid introduction of new degree programs that were distributed throughout the network of schools and supporting courses in traditional, online, and hybrid formats, as market demand emerged.
As a result of the experiment in curriculum management, the organization was able to improve initial degree program quality, assure compliance with post-secondary accreditation standards, vastly improve the learner experience, and reduce the time-to-market of new programs by 75%.
The education consortium grew over a period of 19 years to fulfill its vision of building a profitable global network of higher education institutions across five continents to include more than 86 universities and ~200 campuses. In 2015, the organization began to recognize the need to better integrate its universities to remain competitive in a contracting global higher-education market.
The tipping point conversation that led to the exploration of new ways of working was centered on the idea of “adapt or die.” The traditional model of developing courses and degree programs on an annual, or slower, cadence within each university proved to be too slow to keep pace with the market. Additionally, and in many cases, work was being duplicated throughout the network: the same degrees and courses were being created several times over.
The organization feared that if it were not able to better serve its learners with the most relevant programs that kept up with market demand for new skills with efficiency, it would lose its learners to other institutions.
The vision for change was focused on assuring a best-in-class learner experience, from enrollment to graduation, and the most relevant degree programs in the world.
Of the many areas of focus, was the launch of an ART focused on the rapid design, development, and deployment of new degree programs from a centralized entity to the network of schools. The ART would focus on building and marketing new degree programs as well as refactoring existing programs to assure relevance in an ever-changing marketplace for every university in the consortium’s portfolio.
Recognizing their unique market position, the consortium sought to leverage their economies of scale to deliver a better learner experience than any other university system in the world. This included offering the most relevant and innovative degree programs designed to prepare learners for a rapidly changing world.
Using SAFe, the organization launched an ART with the purpose of independently designing and launching new degree programs over a period of only a few PIs, versus the benchmark of more than a year.
Additionally, the ART was responsible for maintaining and modernizing existing degree programs that were common to all schools in the portfolio.
The ART was among the first to take a wholly cross-functional perspective on the development of a product other than technology. Though there were two IT teams on the ART, the train was primarily composed of teams focused on instructional design, marketing, localization, and academic certification.
The role of portfolio management was to provide the vision for new degree programs via the lean business case, product management defined features that served to define core-curriculum, elective, and sub-specialty opportunities for each program. The teams were responsible for designing and developing the content of the new programs and curating the best possible learner experience.
Product management was also responsible for defining features to maintain the relevance of existing degree programs, and the teams were responsible for maintaining existing courses.
The ART included a systems team staffed with accreditation compliance experts, security professionals, a staff attorney, a procurement manager, a data engineer, a platform integration engineer, and an infrastructure engineer.
The architecture team included a domain architect, who provided oversight for the portfolio of degree programs; a learning architect, an experience architect, a systems architect, an information architect, a security architect, and a change manager.
The ART was able to leverage the lessons learned from DevOps to continuously release patches and updates to existing courses while also planning the launch of new degree programs based on the rhythms of the higher education market.
Though at the time of the experiment SAFe was focused exclusively on technology, the supporting consultants and SPCs were able to help the non-technical audience understand how to apply the concepts to the launch of new degree programs and courses.
One of the biggest challenges to overcome early in the work was the repeated use of the word “software” throughout the manifesto and SAFe. One of the later challenges was in applying the concept of DevOps and CI/CD, where nearly all of the available material focused deeply on the technical aspects of DevOps.
Concerns of “Agile is an IT thing” were overcome through discussion of context. When the manifesto was drafted in 2001, traditional software companies were being disrupted by new market entrants who benefited from the distribution opportunities presented by the internet. If the software companies wanted to stay relevant, they needed to change.
This explanation helped the organization draw parallels between the state of software in 2001, and their own circumstances of the time. Additionally, they came to realize that even though software may be different than their own work, the solutions to their problems were largely the same.
In the realm of DevOps, the storytelling style of “The Phoenix Project” helped many leaders and team members to better understand the theory of DevOps. Their key takeaways from the reading and supporting “book club” helped them understand the power of automation, the need for a culture of shared ownership, and the potential that “flow” could bring to their work.
Though the first PI was largely a learning experience, the following PIs and years of continuous improvement yielded a mechanism that was able to assure continuous compliance, continuous quality, and maximize the relevance of existing degree programs. In addition, the ART also proved an ability to consistently deliver new traditional, online, and hybrid college courses in a single PI. Even more impressive, the ART was able to deliver new degree programs to the universities in as little as two PIs, giving them the ability to market new programs that better aligned with the rolling enrollment market rhythm of the schools. The organization came to trust the ART to deliver compliant, high-quality, and high-value learning solutions with little need for additional oversight. The new muscle provided to the organization by the ART proved to be a strong competitive advantage in an otherwise contracting market.
The consortium was focused on developing a network of schools that made higher education more accessible to more people in more parts of the world. With such a large network of schools and a rapidly changing global market for skills, the flexibility and speed to market that SAFe provided the organization put the organization’s universities in the best position possible to serve their students and communities.
Though the organization enjoyed tremendous success as a result of its SAFe implementation, the change was not without its challenges, including
- Cultural and geopolitical differences often came into play when prioritizing work to serve the needs of one particular region over another. This pattern was partly due to the natural competitiveness between cultures, and also due to the suboptimal integration methods that universities experienced when they joined the larger network of schools.
- Another challenge that presented itself was the sometimes-conflicting accreditation standards that emerged when launching a new degree program in several countries at the same time.
Challenges aside, the power of bringing people together with delivering a common solution, guided by a set of objectives, and delivery with a focus on quality, flow, and the customer proved very successful outside of what had previously been considered an “IT method.”
The education consortium saw similar successes through embracing SAFe practices in their marketing organization as well as systems development.
Through Lean principles and an Agile mindset, the organization was able to deliver on its mission to make the world a better place, by delivering the right degrees, at the right time, with a seamless learner experience, from enrollment to graduation.