When empathy isn’t a given: Department of Education on redesigning relationships [Case Study]
Completing the unit on time while bandaging scraped knees? A teacher’s everyday job. Answering 3,000 calls a day and managing 60,000 queries a month from every school across NSW? An EdConnector’s remit. When communication lags and empathy dissolves between the two parties, few problems get solved.
That’s where Service Design and Customer-Centricity come in handy.
EdConnect (part of NSW Department of Education) hired Academy Xi to help enhance communication and build empathy between its Help Desk staff and teachers across NSW. Instantly effective, the training was then scaled across the entire EdConnect organisation.
The Department of Education’s roll-out of the SAP finance system was a decision that impacted all NSW public schools. As EdConnect solves technical issues and gives expert advice to schools in critical financial areas, they were a core player in the roll-out.
EdConnect staff provide advice in areas like accounts payable, accounts receivable, transactional banking, assets, master data, and taxation. If it’s a complex issue, the call goes to an internal expert in one of these areas and those teams will resolve the issue with the customer and the school. With four contact centre locations in Bathurst, Newcastle, Wollongong, and Parramatta, EdConnect contact centres receive around 60,000 inquiries a month and roughly between 3K-4K calls a day.
This can lead to a lot of frustration if communication isn’t efficient.
What EdConnect needed from teachers was patience and understanding, and to see that admin weren’t a “jack-of-all-trades,” capable of waving a magic wand to solve all problems on the spot.
“There are a number of ways schools can help things run as smoothly as possible, such as ensuring correct processes are followed and working together with the EdConnect team to get the support they need,” said Reece Mahoney, Director of the EdConnect Contact Centre. “What would be great for the schools before they call is if they’d advise of what they’ve already tried, whether they’ve looked at a handbook or an online guide, just advise what they’ve tried and what’s failed, and then we can get straight to the problem quicker for them.”
Meanwhile, teachers needed the same thing from EdConnect staff. With countless activities, responsibilities, and tasks to balance every day at school, they needed EdConnectors to appreciate the urgency of their issues and the time it might take for them to adopt EdConnect’s recommendations.
On both sides, receiving and supplying what was needed required a substantial amount of mutual understanding, and that’s where Academy Xi stood out as the perfect fit for the job.
As part of their “Embedding Empathy” project, the EdConnect team and NSW schools used Xi’s help to increase empathy and understanding between individuals and teams.
Part one of the training resulted in the creation of a Playbook outlining more human-centred behaviour to be adopted within the EdConnect team. An online booklet, flashcards and videos with practical tips were also developed for the team.
Part two involved scaling the initiative across EdConnect and all its departments, with rapid training programs designed to be self-sustaining once Academy Xi had finished its work.
Digging into the problem
After 37 hours of research across eight different locations—which included desktop research, market and competitor research, customer interviews, stakeholder interviews, and contextual inquiries—Academy Xi helped EdConnectors and teachers unearth five major insights about their relationships and goals:
- Empathy is about balancing the needs of all customers.
- EDConnectors want synergy, not silos.
- An EDConnect interaction is part of a broader customer journey.
- Internal networks are seen as the easier option.
- Change is a constant for EDConnect and schools.
Staff on both sides discovered that there was a “lack of understanding and clarity on how teams can work together” and that many team members were “reluctant to adopt changes due to technology gaps and the volume of change.” They were able to dispel certain biases, such as the common refrain from teachers that “If I call [the centre], it’s going to take a while,” and instead show teachers that “99.9% of people want to do the best by the customer.”
Co-designing a solution
The goal of the project was twofold: 1) Create a Way of Working (WoW) framework that supported individuals to think and work more collaboratively and 2) Use this framework to drive empathy across the organisation.
For this particular task, co-design was the obvious choice.
“Co-design allows for the design approach to take place with stakeholders and business representatives, rather than alongside,” says Eric Lutley, Academy Xi’s Head of Partnerships. “When we work closely with an organisation to embed the design approach, capability is continuously built over the life of a project. This capability remains in-house long after we have departed ensuring the long-term success of the project. Importantly, this also allows the project to run at a much faster pace and decreases the need for a lengthy sign-off process.”
What’s more, co-design means the long-term benefits will be even greater.
“Having people in the organisation who have experienced the journey and understand in detail each decision point, we naturally created an internal group of people who championed the benefits of the project and will support it post go-live,” Faoro says. “Co-design also ensured that any outcomes not only align to the needs of our customers but also the strategies of the organisation.”
Mapping different perspectives
As part of the Service Design Thinking process, teams created EDConnect Personas, which were workshopped using a behavioural matrix based on findings from the research across the various EDConnect teams. The behaviours were grouped and mapped, and aligned to the following axis:
- Individuals who value fixed processes vs. individuals who seek alternative ways of doing things
- Individuals concerned about change vs. individuals with a positive regard for change
Part of the power of this exercise was to show that Personas are not a one-size-fits-all classification, and individuals within the organisation may not resonate strongly with one specific persona.
“They are there as a broad consideration point to ensure you think about a new approach from multiple perspectives and how it would be perceived or adopted by different audiences,” Faoro explains.
Creating Personas is an exercise in empathy itself, as it leads teams to rethink the preconceived notions they might have about certain groups or individuals and to, somewhat ironically, resist the urge to throw all individuals into one category or another.
Using human-centred tools
With the help of Academy Xi, the EdConnect Team created a Playbook containing Tools, Templates & Plays that specifically helped EDConnectors overcome frustrations within the organisation.
The Playbook contained the new EDConnect Way of Working (WoW) capabilities, including the Tools & Plays that would help embed those capabilities across the organisation, forming the future of EDConnect’s service design.
For instance, to facilitate the “Achieving Service Excellence & Innovation Through Human-Centred Design” capability, participants were directed to do the following:
- Create a succinct set of Way of Working capabilities that align to the Way of Working strategy and framework as well as to the broader Public Sector Capability Framework and ecosystem.
- Create a set of practical, future-focused Performance Criteria for each capability at three levels of performance: Foundational, Intermediate, and Advanced.
These initial activities then led to two key sets of capabilities: the “Be”s and the “Do”s.
- “Be” Capabilities: A higher-order set of mindsets that overarch all company operations, these capabilities allowed staff to support, practise, and apply certain behaviours in projects, everyday activities, and interactions, helping the organisation move progressively toward a human-centred culture and build its capacity to achieve human-centred outcomes and innovations.
- “Do” Capabilities: A set of practical skills specific to a human-centred design methodology, these skills allow staff to conduct activities throughout the double-diamond framework, and are used in tandem with “Be” capabilities.
In addition to the Playbook, EdConnectors participated in a Training the Trainers program called “Walk in My Shoes,” which reinforced the goals of delivering a new Way of Working, learning new capabilities, and embodying a human-centred mindset.
EDConnectors and schools reported substantial gains in empathy and inter-team communication as a result of the Embedding Empathy project.
One key to the project’s success was direct, face-to-face communication between EdConnectors and teachers. Directly connecting with actual school staff gave EdConnectors a new-found perspective and enthusiasm for their clients, and schools reported being highly engaged and gaining appreciation for EDConnect’s approach.
“Quantitative data does not paint a picture,” one EdConnector said. “The stories [schools] painted for us was the most powerful outcome.”
Reflecting on the program outcomes, another participant reported, “Importantly, the staff were not just telling the stories from the schools that they visited—they also described how it made them feel.”
Academy Xi provided a “comfortable learning environment” that allowed EdConnect participants to be “very collaborative when creating the empathy map and school profiles.”
As an added benefit, engaged participants went on to engage and inspire others who hadn’t been involved in the training directly. For that reason, selecting the right participants was also a key to program success, and to self-sustaining, continued training within the organisation.
If empathy builds trust, then trust promotes clear communication. Whether it’s juggling phone calls or lesson plans, both EdConnectors and teachers now feel well-equipped to handle problems that arise on a daily basis. Academy Xi showed up with the right tools for the job, but it was the trainees who empowered themselves to solve their own problems in the future.