From education to employment

Undercover boss

If you’ve ever watched the TV series Undercover Boss you’ll know it is about bosses that go, in incognito, into their business to see how it could be improved. In most cases the heavily disguised bosses are able to visit branches where they are unrecognised and get some real insights into their business.

A few weeks ago I watched Simon Kossof, CEO of restaurant chain Carluccios, visit his chain and make some incredible discoveries and subsequent improvements. This particular programme interested me as I’d previously interviewed Simon and Antonio Carluccio for a magazine when they opened a new restaurant in Stratford upon Avon. It was interesting to compare Simon’s perception before and after being an undercover boss for a week.

Of course most FE bosses couldn’t undertake an undercover boss project; they are too well known and easily recognised in their work environment. But a version of undercover boss still takes place in providers.

Shocking findings lead to improvement

Over the last few years I’ve frequently been asked to delve deeply into the day to day workings of FE organisations. My findings have often been quite shocking and have led to significant changes.

Often however the most revealing findings have come from areas that the bosses thought worked well. In these cases what I often find is that the area achieves what it sets out to do but, because it seems to function well, no one ever looks at how it might be improved.

Recent undercover boss findings

At FE provider A I found that admissions figures looked excellent but that all online applications were printed and subsequently retyped into the college systems. The result was delay and an extra salary in a cash-strapped organisation. Our cure was to download the applications electronically and upload them into the internal admissions system. This operation takes 5 minutes a day and saves information bottlenecks and an admin salary plus on costs.

At FE provider B the HR system was at fault. Advertised vacancies didn’t get the response they might due to “technical problems” and this resulted in fewer applicants. Essentially it was due to the provider being wedded to using their combined HR recruitment and payroll software. This hid all job details on a secure server and meant that potential applicants had to click 6-7 website links before being able to access job details and make an application. Many that looked at page one, which only provided a link to further pages, never bothered to complete the process. Of course even if all the details were easily accessible not every reader would have applied; but the results here were much lower than need be.

The solution to this HR fiasco is simple. It is to break the link between recruitment and payroll and just put the job details on the website in the same way we’d display course details! The application process can then be kept secure in this way and application numbers could take their natural course. The problem of course is to convince staff to make this simple change and not do it this way because “we’ve always done it this way”.

FE provider C spent far too much on marketing. They recognised that young people spent hours each day on social media but persisted in spending a fortune on advertising in local papers. Research indicated a six figure sum was being wasted each year as the number of applicants that resulted from these ads was incredibly small. College C hadn’t realised it was possible to accurately measure response rates from virtually anywhere and hadn’t realised the magnitude and cost of the problem.

FE provider D produced a new website that was going to recruit hundreds of students. The only problem was the website was about them as a provider and how good they were but paid scant attention to the needs or interests of the students. Links to videos didn’t work and there was no obvious way in which a potential student could apply or ask for more information. There wasn’t even a telephone number on the site and the only enquiry form insisted you add your Twitter handle – if you didn’t have a Twitter handle you couldn’t send an enquiry.

The above website example may appear to be an extreme case but when I ask bosses when they last checked their websites they usually tell me they never do.

It’s not simple: It’s essential

Although going undercover is not possible for many FE bosses it doesn’t mean that checking systems that don’t work, and even those that do, isn’t worthwhile. The quality of findings are much higher when the “boss”, or their substitute, are undercover and I encourage FE providers to look at how they might go undercover and improve the quality of their systems. It can save significant sums as well as improve staff morale.

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US – visit:

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