Benchmarking: A Method for Quality Assessment and Enhancement in Higher Education
The concept of quality is multifaceted. Moreover, its definition depends on who defines it, the context in which it is defined, and the maturity of those who define both the concept and its implications. Benchmarking is commonly used to enhance quality, and it has been applied increasingly in a variety of sectors. The concept of benchmarking refers to the process of comparing processes, businesses, and performance metrics with the best practices of others. This chapter focuses on the theory and practice of benchmarking and its rationale, process, and benefits. The concept of benchlearning will also be elaborated in this chapter. The implications for the use of this method in open online learning environments are described. However, the concept of the quality of open online learning is as elusive and complex as the reality of open online learning itself.
KeywordsBenchlearning Benchmarking E-learning Open online learning Quality Quality assessment Quality enhancement Quality spectra Self-evaluation
This chapter discusses the concept of quality in addition to quality assessment, self-evaluation, benchmarking, and quality enhancement, which comprise the quality spectrum. The chapter explores benchmarking as a method used for quality enhancement and focuses on the definitions, theory, rationale, and best practices of benchmarking. The chapter also describes the formation of a benchmarking team. Also explored are the perceived benefits of the process and its implications for continuous improvement and competitive advantage of implementing benchmarking. The implications of benchmarking for higher education, especially quality in open online learning, are then described. The concept of benchlearning is also elaborated.
The Concept of Quality
Quality as exceptional, that is, exceptionally high standards of academic achievement
Quality as perfection (or consistency), which focuses on processes and their specifications and is related to zero defects and quality culture
Quality as fitness for purpose, in which the quality of a product or service in terms of the extent to which its stated purpose – either meeting customer specifications or conformity with the institutional mission – is met
Quality as value for money, in which quality is assessed in terms of return on investment or expenditure and is related to accountability
Quality as transformation, in which quality is a process of qualitative change that emphasizes adding value to students and empowering them
Definitions of quality in higher education (Revised from Nicholson, 2011)
Quality results from expertise of professoriate
Fitness for purpose (mission)
Institution is capable of meeting educational aims and objectives
External stakeholders’ accreditations agency
Transformative; value added
Linked to assessment; evidence of quality is increased student learning
Accreditation agencies, employers
Value for money, limited supply
External rankings, resource orientation
Administrators, parents, students
Fitness for purpose (customer specification)
Outcomes meet specified requirements
Students, governments, customers
The attributes of quality contribute to its definition, particularly as it relates to higher education. The next section will discuss the spectrum of quality and the journey from quality assessment to self-evaluation and quality enhancement.
Quality Spectrum: A Journey from Quality Assessment to Self-Evaluation and Quality Enhancement
Interpretation of Concepts of Quality
Pirsing (1994, p. 241, cited in Uvalić-Trumbić & Daniel, 2014) stated that quality is not a thing but forms during a process. Moreover, because there are many stakeholders, including those interested in higher education, there are also many perspectives on and definitions of quality. As the saying goes, quality is in the “eye of the beholder” (Ossiannilsson, 2012). Hence, it is important to consider the context, the processes, and the stakeholders.
The concept of quality in open online learning is as complex and elusive as the reality of open online learning itself (Uvalić-Trumbić & Daniel, 2013, 2014). Quality is the gold standard in higher education, and educators try to achieve ideal learning environments, learning design, pedagogy, and effective practices to achieve it (Ossiannilsson, Williams, Camilleri, & Brown, 2015).
The concepts of quality, accreditation, and certification should also be distinguished. Accreditation is understood as a formal process of recognition or licensing operated by or in behalf of a regulating agency. Hence, accreditation determines whether an institution or program meets the threshold criteria of quality by examining the mission, resources, and relevant processes of the institution or program. Certification is understood as a process of recognition by a non-statutory organization, such as a grouping of universities or membership organization (Ossiannilsson et al., 2015, p. 25). Ossiannilsson et al. described not only quality systems that are not only both norm based and process based but also used for the maintenance of standards, such as quality-assurance-based and mature enhancement systems. In their research, they reviewed over 40 quality models worldwide, many of which were benchmarking models. Based on the results of their research, they presented a quality matrix model that was superior to the most commonly used models, in which the spectra included accreditation, certification, benchmarking, and advisory frameworks.
Levels of Quality Maturity
The first level is the initial state (there are no knowledge, enhancement processes, quality control, or cost mechanisms).
The second level is repeatable (there is some knowledge, work is done on repeatable basis, there are some enhancement processes, and quality and costs are explicit first afterward).
The third level is defining (there are full knowledge and enhancement processes and quality and costs can be explicitly predicted).
The fourth level is managing (there are some eligibility and changes, processes can be measured, and the effects of enhancement processes can be improved).
The fifth level is optimizing (organizations operate internal quality assurance systems that provide full confidence in their ability to identify and rectify systems deficiencies).
The concept of quality, its interpretations, spectra, and maturity levels are highlighted here in order to introduce the main section of this chapter, which focuses on benchmarking as a method used in quality assessment and quality enhancement in higher education.
Benchmarking Theory and Praxis
Background and Definitions
The concept of benchmarking refers to the process of comparing processes, businesses, and performance metrics to the best practices of others. The dimensions that are typically measured are quality, time, and costs. The essence of benchmarking is the process of identifying the highest standards of excellence for products, services, and processes and then making the improvements necessary to reach those standards, which are called “best practices.”
[T]he full definition of benchmarking is finding and implementing best practices in our business, practices that meet customer requirements. So the flywheel on finding the very best is “Does this meet customer requirements?” There is a cost of quality that exceeds customer requirements. The basic objective is satisfying the customer, so that is the limiter.
The Xerox Corporation defined benchmarking as “…a process for improving performance by constantly identifying, understanding, and adapting best practices and processes followed inside and outside the company and implementing the results. The main emphasis of benchmarking is on improving a given business operation or a process by exploiting ‘best practices,’ not on ‘best performance’” (Xerox, 1999). Simply put, benchmarking may be defined as follows: ….benchmarking means comparing one’s organization or a part of it with that of the other companies (Xerox).
Several coherent definitions of benchmarking are expressed in the literature, all of which indicate that the benchmarking process is designed to enhance quality, identify gaps, bring about improvements, and implement change.
Benchmarking and Its Rationale
Benchmarking can be used in industry, business, service, and manufacturing as well as in education. The method is used to identify new ideas and new ways of improving processes whereby organizations and stakeholders are better able to meet the expectations of customers. The ultimate objective of benchmarking is the improvement of a process in order to meet customers’ expectations.
The rationale for benchmarking concerns the utility of querying and learning from others instead of “re-inventing the wheel.” Hence, benchmarking has become a popular method that is used to gain a competitive advantage . Over time, the procedures used to benchmark have been improved and modified. Many companies have become interested in benchmarking because of the continuous improvement it allows. The appeal of benchmarking is increasing in organizations because of the cost savings it achieves in executing operations. It also supports the organization’s budgeting, strategic planning, and capital planning.
The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) stated, “Benchmarking is a learning process, which requires trust, understanding, selecting, and adapting good practices in order to improve” (Crozier et al., 2006; ENQA, 2009; Hämäläinen, Hämäläinen, Jessen, Kaartinen-Koutaniemi, & Kristoffersen, 2003, p. 7). The European Centre for Strategic Management of Universities (ESMU) (van Vught et al., 2008a, p. 16) defined benchmarking as follows: “Benchmarking is an internal organizational process which aims to improve the organization’s performance by learning about possible improvements of its primary and/or support processes by looking at these processes in other, better-performing organizations.” Benchmarking refers to the internal organizational process that aims to improve the organization’s performance by learning about possible improvements to its primary and/or support operations and by looking at the processes of other, better-performing organizations (Ossiannilsson, 2012, p. 19; van Vught et al., 2008a, p. 16). Therefore, organizations learn how well other businesses perform, and, more importantly, they learn about the business processes that explain why these firms are successful.
Benchmarking has developed into a method that is considered essential for organizations, and it is regarded as a vital component of good management practice. The method is internationally respected in not only businesses, organizations, and management – where the concept originated – but also education, including higher education (Moriarty, 2008). Benchmarking has gradually become a commonly used method, even in higher education, despite the fact that the process was conducted even earlier in various forms of peer reviews, site visits, and the critical opinions of interested others.
In order to develop and improve quality, it is necessary to compare the current status with the desired status. Moritary and Smallman (2009, p. 484) argued that “the locus of benchmarking lies between the current and the desirable states of the affairs and contributes to the transformation process that realize these improvements.”
Although the literature on benchmarking is extensive, research on and evidence of the benefits and challenges of benchmarking are still lacking (Moriarty, 2008). According to Moriarty, the criticisms of benchmarking are based mainly on the lack of information, difficulties with implementation, and the lack of theory. He stressed that benchmarking may require another definition and that benchmarking is intended to be a means toward the end of achieving a desirable organizational state of affairs. Indeed, benchmarking may identify the changes that are necessary to achieve that end.
The concept of change , as articulated both by Moriarty (2008) and Ossiannilsson (2012), seems inherent in benchmarking. However, benchmarking concerns both change and improvement. According to Harrington (1995), all improvements are change, but not all change is improvement (cited in Moriarty, 2008, p. 29). Moriarty emphasized that benchmarking concerns not only making changes but also identifying areas that need change and successfully implementing the change process. Therefore, he suggested the following provisional definition: “Benchmarking is an exemplar-driven teleological process operating within an organization with the objective of intentionally changing an existing state of affairs into a superior state of affairs” (Moriarty, p. 30).
Different Types of Benchmarking
Strategic benchmarking is aimed at improving a company’s overall performance by studying the long-term strategies and approaches that helped “best-practice” companies to succeed. It involves examining the core competencies, product/service development, and innovation strategies of such companies.
Competitive benchmarking or performance benchmarking is used by companies to compare their positions with the performance characteristics of their key products and services. Competitive benchmarking involves companies in the same sector.
Process benchmarking is used by companies to improve specific key processes and operations with the help of best-practice organizations involved in performing similar work or offering similar services.
Functional benchmarking or generic benchmarking is used by companies to improve their processes or activities by benchmarking other companies in different business sectors or areas of activity but involved in similar functions or work processes.
Internal benchmarking involves benchmarking a company’s own units or branches, such as business units of the company situated at different locations. This allows easy access to information, even sensitive data, and it takes less time and resources than other types of benchmarking.
External benchmarking is used by companies to seek the help of organizations that succeed because of their practices. This kind of benchmarking provides an opportunity to learn from high-end performers.
International benchmarking involves benchmarking against companies outside the country when there are very few suitable benchmarking partners within the country.
The Benchmarking Process
The process of benchmarking is more than a means of gathering data on how well a company performs against others. Benchmarking is a structured process that consists of several steps. In implementing these steps, a company must be aware of the ethical and legal issues involved. These issues serve as guidelines for both benchmarking partners to ensure the mutual achievement of objectives.
The goal of benchmarking is to formulate, through others and sometimes together with others, strengths and challenges for the purpose of improvement (ENQA, 2003, 2009; Elmuti et al., 1997; Van Vught, Brandenburg, & Burquel, 2008b). The benchmarking phases can be accomplished either individually or collaboratively. Benchmarks are used throughout the process. A benchmark can be defined as the criterion by which something is measured, scored, or judged. Benchmarks create a standard or reference point (Ossiannilsson, 2012, p. 19).
Determining what to benchmark
Forming a benchmarking team
Identifying benchmarking partners
Collecting and analyzing benchmarking information
Planning: Determine the subject to be benchmarked, collect and analyze the data, report the findings, and adapt. The planning stage includes identifying, establishing, and documenting specific study areas, key events, and definitions, identifying the relevant best-practice organizations, and selecting or developing the most appropriate data collection tools and techniques. The purpose of the data collection is to accumulate qualitative data and learn from the best practices of different organizations. Information is collected mainly through questionnaires that are administered to all best-practice companies. This stage also includes site visits to organizations that follow best practices.
The data analysis and reporting stages involve the critical evaluation of the practices, followed by high-performing companies and the identification of practices that help or deter superior performance. The key findings are presented in a detailed final report. When these findings are discussed, best-practice companies also take part through systematic networking activities and presentations. The adaptation stage includes developing an initial action plan to adapt and implement the practices followed by high-performance companies. In this stage, the strengths of competitors (best-practice companies) are assessed and compare the company’s performance with that of its competitors. This stage determines the current competitive gap and the projected competitive gap.
Integration: Based on the data collected, establish the goals necessary to attain best performance, and integrate these goals into the company's formal planning processes. This stage determines the new goals or targets of the company and the way in which they will be communicated across the organization.
Action: Implement the action plans and assess them periodically to determine whether the company is achieving its objectives. Deviations from the plan are also managed at this stage.
Maturity: Determine whether the company has attained a superior performance level. This stage also helps the company determine whether the benchmarking process has become an integral part of the organization's formal management process.
Benefits of Benchmarking
Benefits of benchmarking in the two-level approach (Johnson and Seborg, 2007)
Benchmarking benefits known by ESMU (van Vught, 2008) and benefits identified by Ossiannilsson (2012, p. 106)
Ten statements according to ESMU
Identified benefits by Ossiannilsson (2012)
Better understand the process
Creating positive attitudes
Discover new ideas
Enhancing collaboration and networking
Measure and compare
Awareness of cultural issues
Obtain data to support decision making
Respond to national performance indicators and benchmarks
Set new standards for the sector
Set targets for improvement
Strengthen institutional identity
Participation in the benchmarking process can potentially lead to improvements and changes in the area under investigation. Participation, which can be considered a direct and substantial value, increases awareness at all organizational levels (both individual and collective). This awareness may lead to both casual and critical reflections. Høyrup (2004) revealed that critical reflection is crucial and can be a catalyst for organizational change. Benchmarking processes are considered facilitators of change processes as both Moriarty (2008) and Ossiannilsson (2012) have argued. Tang and Zairi (1998) identified that internal and external validity, strengths, and weaknesses are achieved through benchmarking and good practice. The values include establishing and developing a culture of quality. They also emphasized involvement, participation, increased communication, ownership, enhanced coherence, and efficiency.
Practical Implications for Open, Flexible, and Online Learning in Higher Education
Benchmarking in European higher education was initiated by the ESMU. It was established as a modern management tool to support higher education institutions and to promote institutional reforms, increase operational efficiency, and adapt to innovative changes in order meet new challenges in the environment (van Vught et al., 2008a, b). The ESMU has conducted benchmarking in several projects in different areas within higher education. One such project focused on blended learning and e-learning, which involved nine higher educational institutions in Europe (Comba et al., 2010).
Many attempts have been made to develop e-learning quality schemes at the international level. Because several attempts have been conducted through funded projects on quality development, sometimes sustainable development was not achieved. Another consequence is that far too many quality schemes are not transversal, and they often lack a framework, which is also true of benchmarking schemes. In a research study on behalf of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), the most commonly used quality models around the globe were investigated and analyzed. The findings showed that some of the most common benchmarking models were the following: EADTUs, E-xcellence, OpenupEd, Epprobate, the eMM (eMaturity Model), Quality Matters (QM), and ACODE (Australasian Council on Open, Distance, and e-learning) (Ossiannilsson et al., 2015).
A previous research by Ossiannilsson (2012) studied several European universities that had conducted benchmarking and had received the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) excellence benchmarking quality associates label (Ubachs, 2009; Williams, Kear, & Roswell, 2012; Kear & Roswell, 2016). The findings showed that the process and the benefits could be confirmed and validated for higher education and open, flexible online distance education. However, as shown in Table 3, several additional soft benefits could be achieved. Ossiannilsson also focused on and discussed the challenges encountered in attempting to integrate benchmarking e-learning into general quality assurance systems. Some challenges are related to the tension between quality accreditation and quality enhancement, as discussed above. However, accreditation bodies frequently start the accreditation process with a self-evaluation. The project Supporting Quality in e-learning European Networks (SEQUENT) emphasizes that quality in e-learning can be aligned with the standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) by ENQA (Williams, 2015).
As open education and e-learning mature and become integrated into the mainstream worldwide, quality will be discussed, considered, and placed on the agendas of several stakeholders, including learners (Ossiannilsson, 2016b; Ossiannilsson, Altinay, & Altinay, 2016). At present, education is more or less available to learners in universities around the world. The field of flexible, open, online learning is developing rapidly because of several factors, such as the increasing development of technology, increasing globalization, and changing demographics. In the term open education, “open” refers to the elimination of barriers (physical, mental, and organizational) that can preclude the access, opportunities, and recognition of participation in institution-based learning (Ossiannilsson, 2016c). Open education refers to and includes the resources, tools, and practices that operate within a framework of open sharing. It aims to improve educational access and effectiveness worldwide. Open education combines knowledge sharing with twenty-first-century information and communications technology (ICT) to create a vast pool of shared educational resources. It harnesses today’s collaborative spirit to enhance and facilitate educational approaches that are more responsive to learner’s needs than traditional pedagogy is (Open Education, 2015). “Open” also refers to the three Fs (Weller 2014): freedom, flexibility, and fairness. Through open education, learning and educational opportunities can be scalable through the power of the Internet, allowing rapid and free dissemination and enabling people around the world to access knowledge, to connect, and to collaborate (Ossiannilsson, 2015, 2016a).
“Multifaceted: systems use a multiplicity of measures for quality and often consider strategy, policy, infrastructure, processes, and outputs, and so on to develop a well-rounded view of holistic quality.
Dynamic: flexibility is built into systems to accommodate rapid changes in technology as well as in social norms. For this reason, they rarely refer to specific technological measures and instead concentrate on the services provided to users through that technology.
Mainstream: although all the quality tools surveyed aim at high-level quality improvement, they are intended to be used for reflective practice by individual staff in their daily work.
Representative: quality systems seek to balance the perspectives and demands of various interested stakeholders, including students, staff, enterprise, government, and society.
Multifunctional: most systems serve the triple function of instilling a quality culture within an institution, providing a roadmap for future improvement, and serving as a label of quality for outside perspectives.”
Contestable/debatable: because there are many stakeholders with a variety of interests, and quality is multifaceted, and so on, there are many opinions that constitute bad, good, or excellent quality. Although the review systems are designed to provide a structure for the objective assessment of quality, it is difficult to remove all elements of subjective judgment because quality resides “in the eye of the beholder.” Systems that invoke peer review and seek to form a community of users assist in the development of shared perceptions of quality levels.
Context bound contextualizes generic vs. content, such as subject-based content. Tension exists between whether quality can be based on generic dimensions or whether it is content based and subject based. In the context of open and distance learning, the delivery and support mechanisms must have parity with academic rigor if effective teaching is to be delivered. Hence, local contexts of culture, language, and infrastructure influence assessments of institutional quality.
Open culture/practice core of culture: The way quality is measured will surely differ in emerging open cultures and practices in changing learning landscapes, unbundling contexts, and increased personalization. Flexible systems for quality assurance offer better prospects for adaptation to changing practices, and the effective operation of improvement strategies will facilitate innovation.
Personalization: although the personalization of learning and education is becoming increasingly valued, there might be disparities between the meanings of quality and quality dimensions because they are often defined from the organization’s points of view. According to Bates (2015), “we will not talk about online learning in the near future (2020). The future is about choices and this gives consequences for students and learners, for faculties and instructors, for institutions, as well as for governments. Accessibility, related to individuals with special needs, is strongly related to personalization, and this feature needs to be addressed in any quality model, if not it is a gap in quality enhancement and quality assurance. Those set of characteristics might have impact on how quality in e-learning, online learning is discussed.”
The maturity of an organization that authorizes quality development can be distinguished in quality interventions in the initial or early stage of development, the mature stage, and the evolving stage. In the initial stage, organizations plan and begin to introduce e-learning or open online learning. In the developing stage, they introduce e-learning, but the system is scaling up, and the processes are still in flux. At a mature level, because the e-learning system is established, well-established processes are used. In the final stage, the institution is evolving beyond well-established processes to achieve excellence. In addition to the level of maturity, the purpose of any quality scheme and the roles of the quality managers and reviewers are important.
Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations
More and more learners are taking the lead in open learning, particularly in making their own choices, especially now that ICT has made it possible to learn at home through the self-paced, flexible schedules offered by open educational resources (OERs) and massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are led by researchers and universities. Furthermore, the trend is toward quality enhancement rather than quality assurance, that is, the emphasis is on process-based quality enhancement rather than on norm-based accreditation.
This chapter has discussed quality in education, especially higher education and open flexible online learning. The chapter has focused on benchmarking as a method used to enhance the quality of an organization. As benchmarking continues to grow in popularity, the process will evolve in new and improved directions. It appears that the use of benchmarking worldwide will continue to increase in the business sector and even more so in the educational sector as self-evaluation becomes the primary method used to enhance and sustain quality. However, any organization should benchmark if it wants to attain excellent competitive capability, prosper in a global economy, and, above all, if it wants to survive. These trends are no longer optional for companies or the educational sector; indeed, they should be implemented for all organizations to remain competitive.
When it is applied correctly, benchmarking can help any company and organization to achieve success. Benchmarking makes it easy to identify the gap between where the organization would like to be and where it actually is. This gap provides a measure of the improvement an organization would like to make. Avoiding this gap and refusing to change will decrease the opportunities for the organization’s survival. Benchmarking is an excellent, highly valued method because it involves both the management and the workers. Because the method is inclusive, people are committed and keen to contribute to making changes; thus, a culture of quality can be developed and maintained. Because management and top managers are involved from the beginning and throughout the benchmarking process, the chances are better for success, as many can testify, not at least of which is the Xerox company, which was the first to implement benchmarking and develop both the concept and the term. The type of benchmarking an organization should undertake depends on its characteristics and circumstances. The top management is responsible to decide whether the benchmarking process should focus on diverse internal functions, competitors, performance, or “best-in-class” targets. It is the seed of organizational and cultural changes that must be planted if survival and competitive excellence are to be achieved. Organizations attempting to achieve continuous improvement and quality enhancement will benefit from using benchmarking to help them become more successful. Although benchmarking does have limitations, they are far outweighed by its benefits.
Benchmarking is one way forward in relation to quality and quality by learning from others and by oneself. Consequently, as benchmarking is about quality enhancement and improvement, the way forward could be termed benchlearning. (Ossiannilsson, 2012, p. 130)
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