Benchmarking in Higher Education: Adapting Best
Practices To Improve Quality. ERIC Digest.
by Alstete, Jeffrey W.
Increasing competition, demands for accountability, and higher volumes
of available information are changing the methods of how institutions of
higher education operate in the mid-1990s. For higher education to enact
substantial and sustainable changes in efficiency and productivity, a new
way of thinking or paradigm that builds efficiency and a desire for continual
learning must be integrated into institutional structures. Tools are also
being developed that measure or benchmark the progress and success of these
efforts (Keeton & Mayo-Wells 1994). Among the improvement strategies
and techniques such as Total Quality Management (TQM), Continuous Quality
Improvement (CQI), and Business Process Reengineering (BPR), benchmarking
has emerged as a useful, easily understood, and effective tool for staying
WHAT IS BENCHMARKING?
Although the use of comparative data has been used for years in some
industries, including higher education, benchmarking as defined today was
developed in the early 1980s at the Xerox Corporation in response to increased
competition and a rapidly declining market (Camp 1989). The strategy of
benchmarking is important both conceptually and practically, and is being
used for improving administrative processes as well as instructional models
at colleges and universities by examining processes and models at other
schools and adapting their techniques and approaches (Chaffee & Sherr
1992; Clark 1993). More concisely, benchmarking is an ongoing, systematic
process for measuring and comparing the work processes of one organization
to those of another, by bringing an external focus to internal activities,
functions, or operations (Kempner 1993). The goal of benchmarking is to
provide key personnel, in charge of processes, with an external standard
for measuring the quality and cost of internal activities, and to help
identify where opportunities for improvement may reside. Benchmarking is
analogous to the human learning process, and it has been described as a
method of teaching an institution how to improve (Leibfried & McNair
1992). As with other quality concepts, benchmarking should be integrated
into the fundamental operations throughout the organization and be an ongoing
process that analyzes the data collected longitudinally. Benchmarking attempts
to answer the following questions:
*How well are we doing compared to others?
*How good do we want to be?
*Who is doing it the best?
*How do they do it?
*How can we adapt what they do to our institution?
*How can we be better than the best? (Kempner 1993)
Previously, questions like these may have not have seemed important
to institutions of higher education. However, in the competitive and rapidly
changing markets of the 1990s (characterized by declining enrollments and
funding in higher education), organizations are learning never to be satisfied
with the status-quo, and to continually question their internal operations
and relative position in the eyes of prospective customers. To answer these
questions, several multi-step benchmarking methods have been developed
by leading benchmarking practitioners (Camp 1995; Spendolini 1992; Watson
1992). Benchmarking procedures can be condensed into four steps: planning
the study, conducting the research, analyzing the data, and adapting the
findings to the home institution that is conducting the study. The first
step involves selecting and defining the administrative or teaching process(es)
to be studied, identifying how the process will be measured, and deciding
which other institutions to measure against. Second, benchmarking process
data is collected using primary and/or secondary research about the colleges,
universities, or other organizations being studied. The third step consists
of analyzing the data gathered to calculate the research findings and to
develop recommendations. At this point, the differences or gaps in performance
between the institutions being benchmarked help to identify the process
enablers that equip the leaders in their high performance. Adaption of
these enablers for improvement is the fourth step in the first iteration
of a benchmarking cycle, and the primary goal of the project.
A review of the benchmarking literature shows that there are primarily
four kinds of benchmarking: internal, competitive, functional/industry,
and generic or best-in-class. Internal benchmarking can be conducted at
large, decentralized institutions where there are several departments or
units that conduct similar processes. The more common competitive benchmarking
analyzes processes with peer institutions that are competing in similar
markets. Functional or industry benchmarking is similar to competitive
benchmarking, except that the group of competitors is larger and more broadly
defined (Rush 1994). Generic or best-in-class uses the broadest application
of data collection from different industries to find the best operations
practices available. The selection of the benchmarking type depends on
the process(es) being analyzed, the availability of data, and the available
expertise at the institution.
IS BENCHMARKING APPLICABLE TO HIGHER EDUCATION?
Due to its reliance on hard data and research methodology, benchmarking
is especially suited for institutions of higher education in which these
types of studies are very familiar to faculty and administrators. Practitioners
at colleges and universities have found that benchmarking helps overcome
resistance to change, provides a structure for external evaluation, and
creates new networks of communication between schools where valuable information
and experiences can be shared (AACSB 1994). Benchmarking is a positive
process, and provides objective measurements for baselining (setting the
initial values), goal-setting and improvement tracking, which can lead
to dramatic innovations (Shafer & Coate 1992). In addition, quality
strategies and reengineering efforts are both enhanced by benchmarking
because it can identify areas that could benefit most from TQM and/or BPR,
and make it possible to improve operations with often dramatic innovations.
Despite the majority of positive recommendations for using benchmarking
and successful examples of its current use, there are critics of its applicability
to higher education. The stated objections include the belief that benchmarking
is merely a strategy for marginally improving existing processes, that
it is applicable only to administrative processes (or only to teaching
practices), is a euphemism for copying, is lacking innovation, or that
it can expose institutional weaknesses (Brigham 1995; Dale 1995). These
concerns are largely unfounded because benchmarking can radically change
processes (if warranted), apply to both administration and teaching, adapt
not "adopt" best practices, and if the Benchmarking Code of Conduct is
followed, confidentiality concerns can be reduced. The Code of Conduct
calls for benchmarking practitioners to abide by stated principles of legality,
exchange, and confidentiality (APQC 1993). Benchmarking can make it possible
for the industry to improve processes in a "leapfrog" fashion by identifying
and bringing home best practices, and therefore offering a way of responding
to demands for cost containment and enhanced service quality in a cost-effective
and quality-oriented manner (APQC 1993; Shafer & Coate 1992).
WHERE IS BENCHMARKING BEING USED IN HIGHER EDUCATION?
Graduate business schools, professional associations such as NACUBO
and ACHE, independent data sharing consortia, private consulting companies,
and individual institutions are all conducting benchmarking projects today.
The broad-based NACUBO benchmarking program was begun in late 1991, and
it seeks to provide participants with an objective basis for improved operational
performance by offering a "pointer" to the best practices of other organizations.
Today, nearly 282 institutions have participated in the study, and the
current project analyzes 26 core functions at colleges and universities,
such as accounting, admissions, development, payroll, purchasing, student
housing, and others (NACUBO 1995). The Association for Continuing Higher
Education (ACHE) and graduate business schools have also conducted specialized
benchmarking studies that focus on the processes and practices concerning
their particular institutional departments (AACSB 1994; Alstete 1996).
A review of the literature finds independent benchmarking projects are
currently in use, or have recently been conducted, by a wide range of institutions
such as the University of the Chicago, Oregon State University, Pennsylvania
State University, Babson College, and many others. These independent projects
cover undergraduate and graduate teaching processes, as well as academic
and business administrative practices.
How Can an Institution Get Started?
Before beginning a benchmarking study, an institution should decide
if benchmarking is the correct quality improvement tool for the situation.
After processes are selected for analysis, the appropriate personnel, who
have a working knowledge of the area undergoing the benchmarking analysis
should then be chosen to conduct the study. A college and university can
take part in an externally sponsored benchmarking project with predefined
objectives, or conduct a project on its own or with the help of consultants.
It is recommended that, as a start, an institution new to benchmarking,
begin with a more "grassroots" level departmental or administrative project
that measures best practices internally, or with local competitors. An
institution that is more advanced in quality improvement efforts can seek
out world-class competitors better and implement the findings more readily
than a benchmarking novice (Marchese 1995b). Information on prospective
benchmarking partners can be obtained from libraries, professional associations,
personal contacts, and data sharing consortia. Once the benchmarking data
is collected and analyzed, it can be distributed in a benchmarking report
internally within the institution and externally to benchmarking partners
for implementation of improved processes. The overall goal is the adaption
of the process enablers at the home institution to achieve effective quality
improvement. Benchmarking is more than just gathering data. It involves
adapting a new approach of continually questioning how processes are performed,
seeking out best practices, and implementing new models of operation.
Camp, R.C. (1989), Benchmarking: The Search for Industry Best Practices
That Lead to Superior Performance. Milwaukee, WI: ASQC Quality Press.
Camp, R.C. (1995). Business Process Benchmarking; Finding and Implementing
Best Practices. Milwaukee, WI: Quality Press.
Kempner, D.E. (1993). The Pilot Years: The Growth of the NACUBO Benchmarking
Project. NACUBO Business Officer, 27(6), 21-31.
Shafer, B.S., & Coate, L.E. (1992). Benchmarking in Higher Education:
A Tool for Improving Quality and Reducing Cost. Business Officer, 26(5),
This ERIC digest is based on a full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report series 95-5, Benchmarking in Higher Education: Adapting
Best Practices to Improve Quality by Jeffrey W. Alstete.