First Things First

Office of Planning, Assessment, Research and Quality at University of Wisconsin-Stout
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University of Wisconsin-Stout
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Doing more with less is the new normal in higher education. And as college and university administrators work to increase efficiencies, the areas of planning and assessment have grown in importance as strategic tools to manage resources.

Accompanying that growth are greater workloads and more complex duties for the offices tasked with handling such duties. For the Office of Planning, Assessment, Research and Quality (PARQ) at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, that has meant an ever-expanding to-do list that covers such knotty responsibilities as strategic and accountability planning, institutional research, quality assessment and improvement, and more.

In other words, for PARQ’s staff, sticky notes placed around the perimeter of their computer monitors weren’t cutting it as a viable project-management tool. Procedures governing timelines, due dates, and project organization and format needed overhauling so that the omnipresent more with less directive could be followed.

PARQ’s solution involved neither hardware nor software, but building a better process. Whereas, previously, the office’s work was handed off to project managers who handled tasks in whatever ways they deemed best, the new system utilizes a four-step process that standardizes how every project is completed.

First, with each new project, the team that will be responsible for completing it meets to compile a list of every single task associated with the project, rendered in the smallest increments possible. Those tasks are then logged in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that includes due dates and level of personnel required to complete each. Second, all tasks assigned to graduate students are placed in a separate log and prioritized daily by a staff member. Third, each day, both students and staff examine their respective logs and begin working on the highest-priority task that has yet to be started. Fourth, PARQ conducts biweekly log reviews to assess progress and plan ahead.

According to Meridith Wentz, assistant chancellor for PARQ, the real key has been assigning a priority level to each task so that more senior personnel aren’t wasting time on work that can be easily handled by lower levels.

Listing and prioritizing tasks gave staff a better roadmap to follow while managing projects.

“In the past, professional staff would have to do the majority of a project because of the way we organized it in our heads,” she explains. “With the log system, we can assign bits and pieces of projects to other people so there’s less workload on the higher-level professional staff people.”

The new system hasn’t reduced overall workload, but by spreading out tasks more evenly, it enables PARQ to be more efficient and productive. Additionally, to save time explaining and re-explaining how to manage projects that happen with regularity--such as conducting surveys--staff have developed templates and checklists that team members can consult when they are assigned such work.

The new approach allowed PARQ to complete 75 percent more regular projects in 2010 than it did in 2007, for an estimated cost savings of $75,000.

“It’s easy to spend your day consumed with smaller tasks,” Wentz says. “‘I have these 15 tasks, and maybe 10 of them can be done really easily, so I’m going to do those 10 first.’ By putting things on a log and prioritizing them, we can ensure that what needs to be done first gets done first.”