Educational Publisher Puts Process Management to the Test

To speed test development in response to federal regulation, Harcourt Assessment is using BPM technology to integrate stand-alone applications and streamline the publishing process.
Tests are big business. Just ask Harcourt Assessment (Harcourt), the educational test division of publishing giant Reed Elsevier. State-based assessments have long been the staple of the test market, but Federal No-Child-Left-Behind legislation has created new opportunities and new pressures in an already competitive field.

To speed test development and turnaround times, Harcourt is using business process management (BPM) technology to integrate stand-alone applications and create a streamlined publishing process. The company expects to cut "hundreds of hours" over the course of a year-long test development process, says Roberta Henson, a program manager at the San Antonio, Texas-based company.

Harcourt relies on custom-built content development and publishing applications built on top of Oracle databases. The problem was these systems weren't integrated, so employees had to manually route batches of work though each application. "We couldn't track approvals or the routing of information through a standard set of processes," says Henson. "Each area of the business had slightly different processes, so it was difficult to develop metrics that were accurate and understandable."

Harcourt needed to support collaboration among internal participants, third-party content developers and customers such as state and city educational agencies. Once prospective test questions are written, they're subject to initial approval followed by multiple edit and review cycles. Steps vary, with some agencies calling for earlier and more frequent reviews and approvals.

To create a more efficient and consistent process that could also meet the needs of individual customers, Harcourt implemented the Savvion BusinessManager BPM platform early this summer in beta release. As a first step, the company mapped its existing approaches and then designed one process that could support the development of both standardized tests sold through catalogs as well as custom tests requiring optional review and approval steps.

The beta release of the new process, implemented in late August, integrated Harcourt's content creation applications and gave users access to secure task inboxes. Instead of issuing and responding to phone calls and e-mail messages, the 30 to 40 participants in each project instantly see when work is ready for completion.

"We've definitely eliminated redundancies," says Henson. "Until recently, we had to move test questions in batches, and approved materials were often held up by just one item in a batch. Savvion's process and workflow gives each test question its own life cycle, so individual questions can move through the entire process as soon as they're ready." The system will support 1,200 to 2,500 users and the development of 40,000 to 60,000 test questions each year.

Harcourt won't implement the editing, review, compilation and publishing half of the process until the fourth quarter. Henson said that in addition to time savings, the system will ensure more predictable planning. "We wanted the ability to accurately predict the amount of effort required to produce these test questions and exams, so [BPM] will help us with capacity planning and being able to understand where we can improve our processes," says Henson. "Ultimately, that lets us be customer focused, decrease the time and cost required to bring our products to market, and quote the best price on RFPs."