Workshops: they’re not just about brown paper and Post-it notes

We delivered the last of our workshops this week, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk in a bit more detail about what was involved and what we do with the information we’ve gathered from them.

Over the past five weeks we’ve run a total of 13 three-hour workshops with colleagues from across the organisation on a range of different topics relating to recruitment and admissions. It’s been a pretty hectic schedule, not just for us leading and running the workshops, but also for some colleagues who have dedicated a lot of their time to attend and contribute. Thanks to everyone who’s helped, we really appreciate your time and efforts!

What’s it all about? 

Photo of staff at the UCAS admissions workshop
Staff at the workshop on UCAS Admissions

Workshops are designed to help us to understand what activity is going on, who is doing it, how and why. At each workshop we focus on a different aspect of recruitment and admissions, we go through the activity step-by-step, and we try to identify any obstacles and issues. It’s not all about problems, though: we love to hear examples of good practice too!

The workshops are a fundamental component of our research during this stage of the project. They help us understand the current situation and highlight areas where improvements might be needed.

Who’s been involved? 

There are usually three staff from the Service Excellence Programme Student Recruitment and Admissions team at each workshop: one person leads the workshop by mapping out the process or journey using brown paper and post-it notes (more on that later); one person is listening to the conversation and identifying any potential issues that arise; and one person is taking copious notes so that we can remember the details of what’s been discussed once we get back to the office.

The rest of the workshop attendees are staff from across the organisation who are involved in the specific area we’re discussing. Workshops are most effective when the group is small enough to be able to chat freely, so we try to limit numbers to around 10 to12. It’s impossible to always have staff from all the Schools, Colleges, Support Group Services with each distinct expertise (UG, PGT, ODL, PGR), but we’ve tried to create a good mix at each session.

Photo of staff taking part in the International Marketing workshop
Staff at the workshop on International Marketing

What happens at a workshop? 

All the workshops follow the same standard format: we spend the first half of the session trying to map out the process of the topic we’re discussing, then we spend the second half looking in more detail at the process and talking about any issues that arise.

It’s been really interesting to hear about all the work that is going on across the organisation, especially on some of the topics I’m not so familiar with, such as admissions processes and conversion activity. I think it’s also been a good opportunity for some of the participants to see what their colleagues are doing and to learn from their experiences.

What’s with all the brown paper and Post-it notes? 

Photo of post-it notes on brown paper
Some of the issues raised at the UCAS admissions workshop

As someone who works in the digital realm, I’m amazed that no-one’s invented a digital alternative to the brown paper and Post-it notes that are an essential part of the workshop. Before each workshop starts, we stick a huge long strip of brown paper to the wall and we use the Post-it notes to document each step in the process. This might sound simple enough, but when you’re mapping a process like UCAS admissions…well, let’s just say you need an awful lot of Post-it notes!

What happens after a workshop? 

After each workshop, we scuttle back to our offices in Old College and frantically write up our findings. At this stage we can now finally create the process map, which is a digital replica of the Post-it-covered brown paper. The map helps us to make sure we’ve understood the process, and also helps us demonstrate any variations or problems with the process.

We then write up the list of issues and try to identify the impact of each one.

The Service Excellence Programme as a whole has four key objectives:

  • to improve services for our users (students and staff)
  • to create greater efficiency and effectiveness in our services
  • to drive process improvements and simplification
  • to improve data quality and consistency

So, we need to weigh each of our issues against these criteria, and we need to think about how we evidence these issues in our report*. Anecdotal evidence is very powerful, but we also need data to demonstrate why these issues have a significant impact.

For example, at the workshop on Events, a number of staff explained how difficult it was to cope with impromptu visits from potential students outwith open days and post-offer visit days. In order to evidence this issue in our report, we need to quantify the impact, e.g.: hours of staff time, or feedback from prospective students.

This is why we send an information request out after each workshop. We ask attendees to provide data to support the issues that were discussed. We’re working to a very tight timeframe, which means we need data back from attendees very quickly so that we have time to compile and analyse it. We appreciate that data gathering can be a time-consuming task, and we really appreciate everyone’s prompt responses to our requests.

During the next stage of the programme, we will be reaching out to a wider audience to ask them to validate the issues and our evidence. We’ll explain more about the validation process in our next blog post.

Tell us what you think 

If you attended a workshop, we’d love to hear how you felt it went. Do you think we managed to cover most of the issues? Is there anything you think we should have done differently?

If you didn’t attend a workshop, but would still like to contribute, please let us know which area you’re interested in and we’ll send you the notes. We’d love to hear your feedback. You can contact us at


* The Current State Assessment report: this is our key deliverable for this stage of the project. The report is basically an outline of the current state of affairs. It highlights the issues we’ve come across during our research.