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What level of automation is your RTO at?

April 17, 2019

Technology is one area where VET providers can step-up and carve a competitive advantage. Many RTOs still conduct administration or academic processes manually. When they do use digital systems, they often function as separate pieces rather than a well-integrated whole, causing all sorts of inconveniences, time delays and errors in getting a job done.

Whether it’s student communications, payment plan invoicing, or report generation, there’s an automation workflow tool to cut back manual tasking. So, what exactly does automation look like, right now, in VET? We’ve grouped RTOs into four progressive ‘stages’ of automation. Read on to find out how well your tech-enthusiasm shapes up.

Stages of RTO Automation

Stage 1 — Basic task automation:

The first stage that most training organisations will implement automation is for basic functions such as automated tasks or ‘event-triggered’ automations. An example of event-triggered automation is where someone completes an online form on a website, say, and clicks on the ‘Submit’ button. The action of the user submitting the form ‘triggers’ another action in the system to happen such as the sending of an email to another system user (usually a client service or business development user) to notify them of the new enquiry (‘event’). It is also usual for event-based task automations to also trigger other notifications or emails such as an email to the user who made an initial enquiry.

Basic task automations are usually ‘hard-coded’ into the website logic or database system that controls the automation so the configuration or tailoring of such an automation by a system user or administrator is limited. Another example of basic task automation is where a student submits an assessment task response or uploads evidence (usually a file with supporting information either related to their course of enrolment or their personal details) and notifications/alerts are sent to their nominated assessor or student support contact.

Stage 2 — Advanced task automation:

The second stage of ‘automation maturity’ incorporates the development of schedules and date-related course enrolment information with additional business rules (filter logic) to trigger automated tasks. In the case of schedules, the training organisation would typically create a series of schedules which can be used to trigger a range of different tasks based on the scheduled interval. Examples of scheduled automations would be the running and emailing of specific reports to specific users once a week on a Monday evening at 6pm or once a month on the first Monday of each new month with data from the previous month. Another example could be the sending of an end of course survey to all students with a status of ‘Completed’ once a month for course completions in the previous month.

In the case of date-related task automations, the ‘trigger’ for the automation to do something relies on a student’s (or other user’s) course or enrolment-related date data. An example of this type of task automation would be to send a ‘Welcome to the course’ email three days prior to the student’s course commencement date. The capability of the system to enable customisation of different ‘Welcome’ email templates for different student statuses, different course types and different date triggers determines the extent to which the end-user can tailor (program) the system to meet their specific business requirements.

Another example of how training organisations at this stage might use task automation is with marketing/CRM. Organisations at this level of automation will have implemented a structured and automated method for handling outbound communication with both prospects and clients using a series of ‘nurturing’ emails to encourage the prospect through the sales pipeline or with automated follow up emails for clients regarding updates and new features. This approach could loosely be called ‘sales automation’ but is not true sales automation. It would more accurately be called ‘automation of sales tasks’.

Stage 3 — Workflow Automation

At this next stage of maturity of embedding automation within a training organisation, workflow automation usually involves the incorporation of automation technology across a wide range of business functions, not simply for discrete business tasks within one or two business functions. The training organisation at this level would usually have workflow automations across the main business functions of marketing, sales, client service (which could include both student service as well as employer service), course management, trainer/assessor management, finance management (think automation of invoicing/payment plans, etc.) quality improvement, compliance management and reporting.

A key difference between advanced task automation (stage 2) and true workflow automation (stage 3) is usually in the configuration of the business rules (programming) that the user has at their disposal. Typically, with task automation, the automated task is set up to run and once it runs, that’s it. With workflow automation, a series of automated tasks or workflow ‘steps’ can be chained together so that the success/failure of one step can then pass control to the next along with workflow parameters (variables such as a student’s course start date or status of their enrolment). Using this type of automation, a training organisation could:

Step 1: Run a report of all students with invoices due to be sent this week.

Step 2: Send a customised email to each student (from the report) with their invoice attached.

Step 3: Send a ‘success’ email to a training organisation finance user (based on success of step 2).

Step 4: Send an ‘unsuccessful’ email to the finance user & system administrator (based on the failure of step 2).

With Stage 3 implementations, the level of sophistication is not just the breadth of business functions that automation touches but also the sophistication of automation tools and the business analysis involved in getting to this level. It is highly likely that the training organisation has invested a significant amount of time and resources to get to this point but is now reaping the rewards in terms of time savings, increased accuracy and client responsiveness.

Stage 4 — AI assisted Automation

This stage of automation involves the blending of complex workflow automation processes with machine learning (including deep learning, natural language processing and computer vision, or facial recognition). This is where the filters, triggers, and criteria powering workflows are in themselves dynamic — updated and adjusted on-the-fly by algorithms which seek to continually optimise both their accuracy and their relevance to goals (which in themselves may be dynamic). Many AI technologies are already mainstream - virtual assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri, chatbots that answer customer service queries, Google Translate which can read signs in a foreign language and even Hello Barbie which listens and responds to a child!

For businesses the “easy path” to gain insights and intelligence that streamline sales cycles, processes and workflows are to gain AI through enterprise software. With cloud-based service, training organisations can try cognitive technologies and even deploy them widely, with low initial cost and minimal risk. According to a recent Deloitte study, 63% of enterprises have adopted machine learning, 60% use enterprise software with AI “baked in” and 39% prefer to acquire advanced technologies such as AI through cloud-based services.

Training organisations cutting into this space will likely be working with Adaptive Learning Platforms — systems of learning content and delivery that monitor student progress and use data to modify instruction. Check out the latest exemplars and insights on adaptive learning in higher ed in the NMC Horizon Report: 2018 Higher Education Edition.

For more AI insights check out Deloitte’s State of AI in the Enterprise, 2nd Edition; Early adopters combine bullish enthusiasm with strategic investments.

From basic task automation to an advanced task, workflow automation and AI-assisted automation - most RTOs will find themselves somewhere on this continuum. In 2019 and the coming decade, automation of workflow and work processes will prove indispensable to managing workloads (and stress levels!), delivering responsive learner engagement and adaptive learning programs.