About the Episode
When in-person work is no longer an option, you have to overhaul your processes and completely rethink how you get work done. Dr. Mark Walcott, Executive Director Advancement Systems at University of Houston, provides expert advice on how to simplify business processes in the digital age. But don’t think simplicity limits innovation; it actually enables it. Listen now to learn how to break down complexity, improve communication, and spark new ideas that can help you reimagine work.
Meet Our Guest
Dr. Mark Walcott has nearly two decades of experience running technology across universities. Thanks to this, he has a deep understanding of how to improve processes, break down complexity, and support innovation. He has a passion for technology, people, and business that is evident when speaking with him. His ability to reimagine work inspires his team to continually iterate and innovate, sparking new processes that help the university become more productive and efficient.
Chris Byers: Welcome to Ripple Effect. I am Chris Byers of Formstack. Today we have Dr. Mark Wolcott of University of Houston. He is joining us today to talk about simplifying business processes. But this isn't the dry technical way that we're going to talk about it. It'll be an enlightening conversation. And so Mark has been in higher ed for over a decade, ranging from IT, alumni relations, but I bet he's never seen a year quite like this, even with all his experience. And so let's dove in and hear how Mark has pivoted over these past couple of months and how he's really reimagining his work today. So before we get into the discussion, Mark, could you give us a quick overview of University of Houston, how big it is, how big your team is, and give us a perspective there.
Mark Walcott: So the University of Houston is a university centered in Houston, we have a number of system campuses. University of Clearlake University downtown and University of Houston, along with University of Houston, Victoria. So we form a system that serves a broad section of the Gulf Coast of Texas. And we are happy to serve over two hundred thousand alumni. Within our division, we have well over 200 employees that are focused on enhancing the relationship between the institution and how we manage alumni, donors, friends, and our community. We are here to make sure that we enhance and provide a mechanism for our alumni, donors and friends to either serve philanthropic or other types of ways they want to interface, so attending events and so on and so forth.
Chris Byers: OK, so tell us, you know, what a day in your life looks like, what it was like to be an executive director of advancement.
Mark Walcott: So from the IT side, it's certainly always changing. One of the fun things about being in technology is that there's just so many different mechanisms and so many different opportunities to actually shake, manage, and connect with different people. And obviously connecting different systems. So on any given day, I could be looking at just general general reports, I could be writing software. My team, we have software developers. We have report writers. We have people that are focused on some of the business processes. And all of those hats have some component of AI teams. As I like to tell people, everyone's in IT now. So from programing to research to looking at the analytics, construction, and predictive modeling, that goes on as we try to identify different segments of our population for different needs and making sure that at the end of the day, when people want to interface with us in their technological space, we make that process as easy as possible.
Chris Byers: And how have you, kind of this land of pandemic, how have you had to pivot in your role and adjust kind of some of the things that you're doing?
Mark Walcott: You know, I think one of the things for us has definitely been bringing our current business practices a little closer to the technological opportunities that exist today. I think that prior to the pandemic, it wasn't necessity to ensure that people could sign or fill forms out or do any of these other types of everyday business things remotely. But now, with the pandemic, that shift has been crucial to the success and ability for people to do their jobs. So I think what we have seen and the biggest adjustment is making sure that this new normal really kind of aligns with the technological opportunities that are currently available and that we've kind of been removing some of the longstanding, more traditional ways of doing business. And that extends to simply whether you have to be in the office or not. The opportunity to, as I mentioned before, digital signing and filling out forms, looking at the different spaces that our constituencies are in and finding different mechanisms to provide some interoperability between those systems and then most importantly, ensuring that we provide as secure a technological secure solution that we can't.
Chris Byers: And can you give us an example of a process or something that you kind of in the past were doing maybe in paper or something that was a little bit easier when everybody was in person and you knew what to expect, but you've converted to something that people can get done just about anywhere.
Mark Walcott: Yeah, I think one of our best examples has been something that we call the gift transmittal form. So when we have individuals who would like to make a philanthropic gift to the institution, sometimes they call in and we take that information. And that was written on paper and routed and handed off manually to different people. And we've been able to completely digitize that process such that we can collect the signature digitally and ensure that that process is as sound as possible. What that has allowed us to do is remove a lot of the barriers. It's provided a little more of the reporting mechanisms, the fluidity in which this process happens. It's much easier now for people to fill things out and provide error checking along the way. So with that gift transmittal form process, that has really been a good example for us, how we can take a legacy process and not make it Legacy 2.0, but actually take that to a technological place where we are now using a lot of the available platforms to create a much more synergistic environment and opportunity for not only growth, but the user experience and improving that as well.
Chris Byers: So you have been in higher education for quite a while. What is it that drives you? What keeps you interested in that space and staying committed there?
Mark Walcott: Aside from the technological components, I think that it's just one of those things, higher education, where you can really see the benefits of your work. We don't have to go far to see who we're impacting and who we're affecting with the work that we do every day. To be on campus and see our students further their education and grow as individuals, to see that dissemination of knowledge and how our students, faculty, and staff turn these different opportunities into these grandiose visions, these grandiose projects.
It's just an exciting place to be where you can see the innovative and idea side of things really meet the opportunity and the practical side, obviously. And most institutions of higher education, there's a litany of research that takes place. But to be able to pull from such a different variety of groups, you know, you have medical researchers, you could have engineers, you could have business students all in one spot being able to look at these problems from specific lenses and then grow a solution organically. That draw from these different disciplines. It's really that type of atmosphere that keeps me in higher education and allows me to constantly be fed new ideas and not grow too stale, as I always have a generation older and younger interfacing and providing this fresh arena of ideas. That growth that allows me to continue to innovate in a way that I don't think I'd be able to do in other settings.
Chris Byers: And so you're talking about this idea of growth, which really reflects a phrase that we're using a lot and I'm thinking about a lot, which is reimagining your world of work. And so we'd love to hear from you, what are some things that you're doing to reimagine how you work?
Mark Walcott: You know, lately, what I've been trying to do is think about the things that I do most often in my free time and how that would benefit us here as an organization. One of the things that we do here is there's things called naming opportunities. This is a chance for various external entities to leave their mark in an institution. So whether they want to put their name on a stadium or whether or not they're going to name a space, it would be very interesting to see how in the future we can provide a more interactive experience with that because we do it in other spaces. So when we consider augmented reality, when we consider these opportunities to create these virtual spaces, that people can navigate and create a blend of both the real world and the digital space so that they can envision what their name or what the building would look like prior to it ever being built, how their name may be presented in the future. I see these opportunities where we continue to enhance our physical space with these digital components. And that's just one example of opportunity, as I see things growing and changing into the future. Not that we can't do those things now, but I think we are getting closer and closer to being more easily accessible to the masses and not requiring as much specialty equipment to make it all happen.
Mark Walcott: You know, I love that idea that really what you're doing by using those visual kind of experiences is casting vision and really growing somebody's attachment to that vision. You know, I think we talk in our company at Formstack about how I think if you can, especially when you're going for big vision, things that don't exist and you can't look around and say, oh, yeah, I get where, you know, I'm going go build that. And it already exists in the world where you can draw it. And whether sometimes even that's on paper. But I think in this case, where you can visualize that, which to your point with technology today is so much easier. All of a sudden somebody's mind is like, oh, totally got it. You know, I know what I'm both getting into and what this opportunity looks like. And so love, love the way you're thinking about that.
Chris Byers: You talked a little bit about how you think about how you spend your time sometimes outside of work, driving what you do in work. Dig into that a little bit more.
Mark Walcott: IT is just one of those domains where it's very easy to segment them all and forget the golden thread that binds us all together. And that golden thread to me is just the fact that at the end of the day, we are connecting different components together. You know, whether we're coding, whether we're building something. At the end of it all, we are connecting different things together. And as I experience IT in different ways, whether I'm playing a game or whether I'm filling out a form or whether I'm engaged in it, Zoom conference or any type of communications platform, we're still just connecting different pieces together. And I think sometimes we forget that just because it's connected in one way doesn't mean we can't assemble it and recreate it in another. So when I say things like that, you know how we look at gamification and the opportunities that abound. If we look at a particular problem from a gamification lens as we provide opportunities for achievements, that we provide these little pointers to where that next element in the road is. So to kind of make that into a practical sense, training and development is in an arena where gamification makes all the sense, where we have achievements, where you can see the next thing you can get, where you have these rewards, if they're certifications or these other principal matters, things that we can put in to our signature block as a result of completing these things. It's those types of opportunities in IT that I'm constantly thinking about because it's such a rich arena to easily disassemble and reassemble as needed and really provide these unexpected solutions to problems for which people may not have known had this type of potential to resolve it. And that is kind of the genesis for me in how I look at the external things I do if I see to the business applications that I have here at work.
Chris Byers: And could you share some examples of the innovation that you've seen actually come out of having to think about things differently?
Mark Walcott: I have seen some phenomenal uses of how people have now used these digital gathering places differently as people have become more accepting of maybe the backgrounds that they're using and that dynamic use of backgrounds, how people are hosting events online and what that entails and the changes there. So I've seen alumni events online that have just been absolutely phenomenal. And the way that the constituencies have responded to that has been something that I hadn't seen before the pandemic. People used to meet online, but it was more of a presentation. But to see this dynamic growth, these rich conversations, the types of dialog that's happening in these spaces now and how they're bringing in these different components to enhance that, whether it would be actually hosting bingos online, I've seen all these different games that are now dynamic, that are happening online. I'm thinking of one application I think is called house party. And just these different ways people are coming together, I think has been a major boon because I think that's going to come back to the business and how people decide to meet. Do we really need to meet in the physical space? I think one of the biggest changes have been that old adage. Well, this whole meaning could have been summed up in an email, where now we're kind of seeing these meetings start off as emails and the dialog and discussion happening there is occurring prior to maybe a meeting being called. I think people feel more comfortable in these spaces. So from a communications standpoint, I think that's where I've seen one of the biggest growths and changes in behavior, both in the personal or professional worlds occur as a result of the pandemic.
Chris Byers: Universities are this probably very rare place where you have young people who just graduated who are coming on the staff and working. And then you have people who've been with the university for a long, long time. And so that creates an interesting kind of dynamic when you think about change. And often people think change is negative. And so I'm curious, how do you tackle change, especially with that wide and a vast variety of people that can be involved in ages and, you know, proficiency with technology? How do you tackle that for yourself?
Mark Walcott: I love it. So I'll consider myself a legacy product at this point. You know, though, I was just talking with one of my students the other day. We employ students here and from an IT perspective, they're building a computer. And I realized just how much things have changed. And, you know, there was a time where all you would need was 64k. No programs would require more memory than that. And to come from that background to now, where not only is storage cheap but the computing power, it's cheap, but all of those things aren't even considerations. And some of the development that they do. So that intersection between what I would call the innovative nature of our student population and the legacy of individuals such as myself. I really think it keeps us fresh. Because from my perspective, I'm always just looking at optimization.
I'm always calculating the costs of transmission. How many bytes I can pack in to something in order to ensure that I'm not wasting any bandwidth or any C.P.U cycles and so on and so forth. And as I'm challenged and as I am introduced to these new techniques of doing things, I believe it creates a great challenge to ensure that not only are we creating a robust product, but we're also creating a product that can stand the scrutiny of the various environments that these results live in. So when the solution is finally built, you know, it's going to stand the rigor of someone like me. But it's also going to have the innovative thought process and the changes in technology that we all have to deal with. But it's pushed more by the younger generation. And I think it's just an absolute pleasure to be at that intersection because without it, I am not sure we would ever have the change that could again withstand the scrutiny and variance and operating platforms and spaces that our solutions ultimately live in. So it's fantastic for me. I continue to grow and learn. And I think for my students, despite the fact that I look like a legacy product, it provides history and context to how we got to where we are. And it gives them a roadmap of some of the pitfalls to avoid and ensuring that we are still reaching for a vision and dream that's just beyond our reach.
Chris Byers: You know, one of the things we talk about is this idea of digital transformation, creating a digitally agile workforce. And so this idea of really giving our teams the skills and tools to really solve their own problems. I'm curious, where have you seen some surprising places that innovation has actually come from the university?
Mark Walcott: That's a great question. When I think about innovation, there's kind of a couple of components to that. One is just the question, just the vision. And I think it's the way we go about challenging people that work in almost any organization is important. You know, giving them the freedom to ask the questions or to present ideas, I think is a critical component to innovation. And when we have an abundance of it at a university, but I think that's where innovation starts. It has to be fostered. And I think part of that fostering innovation comes from the freedom to ask the questions or give people the opportunity to look at things that we do differently where we are never so set in our ways that we no longer accept any criticism or we accept any challenges to the processes that we do. And I think that's a critical part to what we do here at the University of Houston and in other organizations of higher education.
But for us, in the pandemic era, I guess I call it for now or this time is everybody is looking at what we do and having to pivot in some form or fashion. It's challenging a lot of the existing processes and the innovation that's coming out of that is largely around. Again, I've mentioned communication, some business processes, but it's really opened our experience to some of the digital spaces as it relates to augmented reality. It's really challenged us to look at how we can insert ourselves in these other spaces that have otherwise been ignored. So online games is an opportunity here where you've seen the advancement of EA leagues. So wouldn't it be nice if we could if you could see your alma mater presented on one of the billboards? So when you're playing, whether it's a basketball game or football game or a hockey game, you have these digital signage in those spaces. Why can't we be in there? And a simple question like that leads to this innovation of, OK, what systems do we need to get in there? You know, how can we keep it fresh? You know, how can we see how if we are generating any type of return or interest? So are we going to use QR codes? Are we going to have URLs? We're doing far more work in mobile spaces as it relates to texting, as it relates to engaging people on their phones a little differently. So the innovation that's happening again is really surrounding how we can connect with our alumni, donors, and friends and ensure that we continue to enhance that relationship and make them feel a part of the University of Houston, because they are the University of Houston to us. And we want to make sure they feel that way.
Chris Byers: Can you give us an example, this could be just about any time, this could be in the past four or five months, where you recognized a relatively complex system and discovered this needs to be fixed, we need to simplify this to actually make it easier for the people that are using it.
Mark Walcott: One of the things I think people take for granted is really what goes on when you submit a form. So we have different forms that we collect information with and we transform that data a couple of different times and a couple of different spaces before it ends up as a final PDF for signing and so on and so forth. That process was a little overly complicated, as we have technology set in place that one component accepted the data, we had a completely different system that pulled that data and recreated PDFs. And then we had a completely separate system that then accepted that and we use for digital signing. And that was overly complex. The security concerns around that were, you know, once you keep moving data from system to system, you introduce different vectors of attack. So we simplified that through Formstack, actually, and now we use a single system to handle the complete lifecycle of that journey. And that was something that we were toying with prior to the pandemic. But during the pandemic, we were fortunate enough to have that platform which streamlined the entire process. So where we had three different systems, now we have one, where before we required three or four different skill sets in order to manage that. Now we have one or two where that process had three or four different people involved to ensure that everything got routed correctly. Now there's one, so that's the type of simplification that we've been able to introduce during the past three or four months that has not only resulted in less complexity, but higher user adoption and satisfaction as well.
Chris Byers: So what do you think the criteria is to decide it's time to simplify a process? So obviously the pandemic kind of has caused a lot of us to rethink things. But what was the thing that happened that you said, oh, it is time to focus on this because presumably the process worked to a degree just not as efficiently as you wanted. Can you describe that?
Mark Walcott: Any time you are scared that if somebody leaves, there's nobody around to fix it. That's a good time to probably reevaluate your processes and see whether or not they could be simplified. And I operate under the mantra that if something should ever happen to me and I like to spin it positively. If I ever win a billion dollars in the lottery, I want to know that the systems I left behind there, they're able to be managed by anybody around me. So with that philosophy, that's kind of one of my litmus tests in determining whether or not something is too complicated. And as a result of that litmus test, as a result of seeing when things break, which is always a good example, if it requires 50 engineers and 100 hours to kind of figure it out, chances are it could be a little too complicated. Now, that's not to say there aren't legitimate use cases where that's true. But in the arena I'm working in that means it's probably way too complicated. And we have to find another way of building this process such that it's much easier for people to diagnose. It's much easier for a developer to get in and resolve. And more importantly, for end users, it's seamless in the environments and tasks they're trying to accomplish.
Chris Byers: We've all experienced so much in the past few months of things that we expected to be the way it was forever, and all the sudden we had to realize that that's not always the case. I love that kind of thinking of, you know, think about the people around you, the processes around you. Using that same example, once you got done with the change, how has it impacted your team and the people using the process?
Mark Walcott: It's been great. I think that one of the things about implementing change is that it's not just an IT thing. I think a lot of people, when they think about these types of changes, think it's just IT doing it. We have a number of different staff and I can't applaud them enough, they can focus on the marketing. They can focus on the curriculum development. They can focus on some of the customer communication. And, you know, I think about the business analysts that we have, all of those individuals are integral components to managing any type of process change. And the success of that unity is what really makes some of these transformations much easier on our end users. So while we have focused on creating change technologically, that change doesn't happen without the support and coordination of these other components. So all of those individuals and all of those groups for me have really come together even more so in the past couple of months in order to ensure that we are all aligned. And when something does happen, when change does happen, we can communicate that and roll that out in a fashion that is much easier for end users to adopt because a lot of great ideas fall to the wayside, not because they weren't great, but just because they they were presented in a way that users could either not understand or they're pushed out in a manner that users refuse to adopt. So I don't ever want our innovative solutions to fall prey to those pitfalls. So I generally work with that group to make sure that we roll things out in a manner that eases as many obstacles as we can. And any anxiety that may exist when we have these processes or business or IT changes.
Chris Byers: With so many processes going on around you that you want to make sure are effective and working for the team around you, how do you actually oversee all that and monitor kind of the data, its movement, the processes, and what's working well and not.
Mark Walcott: I kind of take my development practices and apply that to a broader scale, and that's just test driven development where we make sure we develop tests to ensure that the output is correct. So that test driven analysis applies to all components of the delivery. So stepping away from the development side, we use polls and different tactics to solicit feedback from our users when something has been deployed. We listen to our end users through different types of meetings and user acceptance testing. We look at our own practices and ensure that the things we've learned from one project, we disseminate to the rest of our developers and teams to enhance the rest of our products that are going on. So this test driven analysis, this insurance that we're always soliciting feedback from our users has been critical for me to ensure that not only do we roll projects out successfully, but we're rolling them out and meeting the needs of our clients at the same time. So not to get into all the agile components of this, but that iterative process is critical in how I manage the business, technical and various processes changes that we do here.
Chris Byers: And so as we take kind of what you have learned over time, what's the advice you'd give to other people in higher education or other companies who want to simplify business processes?
Mark Walcott: I would say the first step is just listening to users. I think sometimes you don't know what processes need to be simplified. Sometimes it's easy on the backend to know, hey, we need to go over here. We have a lot of legacy code and we need to address that so that we can have a platform that can better sustain some of the feature requirements of the future. But I've always found that just listening to our end users, listening to both the compliments and complaints that come in, are some good indicators of areas that we need to focus on. So it really comes down to listening to end users, which means ensuring you have mechanisms both to solicit that feedback and mechanisms to ensure that they have a way to identify and provide information to key constituency groups to manage these processes at key functions so that they can be notified of what's happening. And I think that's a good way to determine where you need to spend your time and then determine, what I think all of us have to report at some time or another, which is the value to the organization. So we are addressing this over that in regard to our priorities as a result of what the organization has communicated to us as a necessary value.
Chris Byers: And you talk about that idea of simple, not simplification, but really talking to your users, understanding their processes. But it leads to simplification often for them. What are the impacts that that has on those users?
Mark Walcott: It's tremendous. I know, having worked a help desk before, it's interesting to always hear the problems that are presented, but most importantly, how they're presented. So it could be my computer never does what I need it to do and it's broken and I can't get my job done. And really, it's just as simple as saying, hey, you know, did you know you could use this Excel function? Did you know you could create a macro and in providing these different types of solutions. I've often found that while it didn't cost me much, if anything, to provide the end user benefits and perception of impact are almost incalculable from my perspective. So you can't always know what the value is to the end user until the end user tells you. But the cost of implementing a solution sometimes are far less than we anticipate, but have much further reach and much further impact for end users who are trying to do their jobs on the front line.
Chris Byers: I love that kind of experience that you're creating for people where we keep talking about as we talk to people about how to really make smart decisions. It all goes back to talking to that set of customers on the front lines that have customers who are using your product and just how high impact that can be.
Mark Walcott: For us as developers to create solutions in search of problems, instead of sometimes just listening to the problems and developing the solutions, and I know that sounds a little weird to say, but I can't tell you how many times I've had these grandiose ideas or things I've just wanted to code that don't necessarily apply to anybody or anything. It's just something I want to try. But when I've been able to kind of listen to our end users and draw inspiration from them, you know, I have sometimes used that technological platform in ways I never anticipated or shown them things and tools they could use in ways they've never anticipated to solve their issues. But at the end of the day, the focus should be on the groups we are serving. And we have to listen to what their experiences are, both good and bad.
Chris Byers: Well, you know, as we wrap today, we'd love to hear from you, just a piece of advice for embracing simplicity in your business or your organization.
Mark Walcott: I think embracing simplicity can mean... Simplicity is going to be one of those squishy terms that's going to be different for everybody. But I always feel that a good solution is one that can be easily explained to anybody. If you can easily explain the solution to somebody who has no familiarity with the concept or IT or some of the new wants of the business protocols and practices, and they get it, then I think you've hit the mark. If you are spending hours trying to figure out how to articulate the solution or you find that people are always coming back with more and more questions, not necessarily for enhancement, but just for simple understanding, then chances are you have an opportunity to simplify this process more. And I think it's critical that people are able to understand the solution, both who are familiar with the product or business process and with those who aren't, because at some point we are going to have to train a new set of people. There's going to be a different user base or transition in user base. And if we aren't able to communicate that knowledge forward, then chances are it could be too complicated and we have to find a way to simplify it. If not for the organization simply to ensure that we can continue to operate in a manner that will see our organization flourish in the future.
Chris Byers: And can you share with us your go to productivity tip?
Mark Walcott: For me, depending on what the issue is, I think it would change. But at the end of the day, I am a big believer in developing mind maps. So any tool, Visio, there's free mind mapping software, anything that allows me to take the vision in my head and put that in a way that other people can see. That alone helps bring other people kind of into my world, understand my vision, and then build from it or alter it or give me the feedback I need. I think from a productivity standpoint, bringing, allowing, and finding ways for people to share, enhance, and see my vision as a number one productivity tool for me, because that means when we start or when we continue on something, everybody is aligned on the same set of principles, ideas and values and outcomes. And that reduces a litany of obstacles that I think are entered if you don't have the alignment from the start.
Chris Byers: All right, and last question, how will you be reimagining work moving forward?
Mark Walcott: The way we reimagine work moving forward is an even greater interaction or even a more seamless movement between our digital and or physical space and how we go about sharing information, how we go about seeing our impact on the spaces around us. I see that as being critical. Not to seem too futuristic, but when you go into your office, if you have an office or a cube, when you go into that space, having that space reflect or project or encourage a particular mood. So whether or not the cup, the hues are changing on the walls, maybe the pictures are changing. If outside is a little dreary, the physical space changes to promote a little more sunlight or a little more positivity. I feel like that is going to be critical to enhancing our productivity overall, but making sure that as we work in these more confined spaces, it doesn't feel confined both mentally and physically. And I think as we move forward, I think our connection and our experience in these spaces are going to be critical. And that's one way I see our workplace and work environment changing in the future as a result of what's been happening here now.
Chris Byers: Well, as we wrap this episode up featuring Mark, there's a few things that have stood out to me as we've talked, and one is this idea of envisioning your outcome and really doing that for other people. It's probably pretty clear in your head often, but finding ways to visualize that for the people that you're working with and for.
Also, creating a culture of really a place where it's comfortable, it's OK to challenge and ask questions. Why is this process the way it is? Why is this thing the way it is? Because that's where innovation will come from. And then something we've talked about a lot, which is listening to your users. That's got to be the piece of advice that we keep remembering is if you're not talking to your users, you're probably not going to solve the right problem.
Well, I want to invite you all to join us for season two of Ripple Effect. This season, we're unlocking the stories of people and organizations around the world doing one thing exceptionally well, and that's reimagining work. How can you reimagine your work for the better? Join us this season and find out.