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Why do timetabling solutions fail to deliver?

March 30, 2018

It’s long been a complaint within universities that their timetables bear little resemblance to what actually takes place on the ground. But does the blame for this lie solely with the institutions themselves, or should their legacy timetabling systems shoulder some of the blame?

Why is it so difficult to ensure that something that’s as core to a university’s function as the timetable is well maintained and accurate? From a university’s perspective, there are plenty of reasons cited for the gap between what timetables say is supposed to be happening and what actually takes place. Sometimes it’s people booking time-slots and then cancelling the event without informing the timetabling team. It may be staff booking space and then using another location that appears to be free without alerting anyone to the change of venue – or even academics arranging teaching sessions independently of the timetable.

Besides the chaos this can create for timetabling staff, the net result is that universities, on paper, can appear to have a shortage of teaching space because administrators have to assume that a booked space is actually in use. Yet a walk of the average campus tells a very different story – one university site we recently observed had a timetable where 57% of available space was booked, yet when observed, usage was actually only 25%. This could reasonably lead to the conclusion that timetable statistics cannot solely be relied upon to both accurately reflect space use and demonstrate that teaching contact hours for each course module are being delivered as contractually required.

In fact, it is often a standing joke at many institutions that the timetable does not come close to representing what is happening on the ground. However, this shouldn’t be an indictment of the organisation, or of the staff entrusted with managing the timetable – solutions for endemic operational problems around the management of the timetable are not always straightforward. Instead, we’d argue that it’s a design shortcoming of the software systems used and their inability to cope with how people behave in the real world.

The reason for this is that, for a lot of common university timetabling solutions, their inner workings are based around the state-of-the-art circa 1995. Even with improved user interfaces and tinkering with feature sets in the intervening period, their core technology is far behind the curve. You could argue that this is an inevitable consequence of the tendering process: the late Steve Jobs once said ‘you can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them’. His rationale was that by the time you gave it to them, time had moved on and they would want something else. Clients can’t always anticipate what technology can do – they will specify requirements based on what they think providers can supply to meet these and not always on trying to find a solution that actually addresses the problems they are facing.

A further difficulty is the sector’s conservatism. Universities are often the biggest impediment to innovation when they consider the suitability of their own administrative systems. With an area as complex as integrated timetabling, scheduling and planning, nobody wants to get fired for not buying IBM, as it were. So more often than not the question is ‘who else is using this solution’, rather than ‘which solution best resolves the issues that have caused us to review our current solution in the first place?’

And that leads us to the big one: in today’s financially-focused academic environment, timetabling is no longer just about slotting activities into timeslots – it is about usability, quality of student experience, fairness to teaching staff, quality of service delivery and, crucially, the ability to plan and model for the future. Technology has moved on a lot in the last 20 years, and if anything, the pace of change is accelerating. A solution provider today needs to know the client’s business so well that they can anticipate the developing need and stay ahead of the curve. Rather than simply bolting on functionality to old tech and selling it as a contemporary solution.

So… what’s the answer for universities?

Deciding on the best timetabling solution involves more than just trying to select and purchase a piece of software by canvassing stakeholders, and producing a large tender document. Rather than asking end-users what they want, a detailed study needs to be undertaken to understand the business requirement and the problems the timetable encounters. Then a suitable partner provider needs to be chosen. You need to ensure that the selected partner understands your business, or is willing to work with you to fully understand it. They need to be intimately acquainted with the issues your organisation needs to address around its timetables, and work with you to ensure that the software and business processes are correctly aligned to deliver a solution that works for everyone.

Perhaps when this happens we will find that rather than the timetable being criticised as a bit of a joke, it will actually become a reliable reflection of what is happening in your teaching space. And that, in planning terms, is a very useful thing.

If you’d like to find out more, have a look around the Services section of the EventMAP site to find out how we can help you study and understand your needs fully before looking at software solutions.

Vernon Chapman



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