Developing GRACE

The concept of our enquiry recording system, GRACE was developed in 2007, on a summer’s day on a beach in North Cornwall. I had been manager at SSiD for a couple years but realised I needed better management information to understand the needs of the service and its customers. I wanted to be able to collect data that reflected the actual activity of the service and reinforced the anecdotal evidence of team members. At the time, the activity of the service was recorded (or not) across a series of spreadsheets and tick sheets.


We had already developed some simple databases to help colleagues book appointments and record open day enquiries but the concept of GRACE was to be a significantly larger undertaking, with a more sophisticated level of interactive design and functionality.

The first version of GRACE, then known as SERS (Student Enquiry Recording System), was a series of buttons on the screen that acted merely as an advanced electronic tick-sheet. However, the system did provide more information than the tick sheets i.e. time and date of the enquiry and the name of the member of staff who had served the student. Staff on the counter used SERS for a couple of weeks and gave feedback on how well the system worked, what it lacked and how it could be improved. Acting on that information, we then made improvements and launched a new version of the system. The staff used the system for a couple of more weeks and gave feedback. We therefore we embedded a continuous improvement process for the development of the system.

In a team meeting in 2008 I expressed my dissatisfaction with the name ‘SERS’. One of the team suggested that I named it after something I cared about and the forced the description to fit the acronym. I thought long and hard about this (for at least two seconds) and said “Grace” the name of one of my heroes Admiral Grace Hopper, a pioneer computer scientist, who, among other things, was instrumental in the development of COBOL, which was the first language that allowed a programmer to speak to the computer with words rather than numbers. GRACE thus became “Gatekeeping, Referrals and Customer Enquiries.”

The continuous development period continued as we used the system between 2008 and 2011. From time to time, staff would request changes to help them serve student more effectively. This included new categories and functions such as default values for an enquiry or delivery method. In 2011 version eight of the Microsoft Access application was replaced by webGRACE - a web-based application that could be accessed by many more users across the University.

Change Management

Implementing a new system was not easy. In the early days there was opposition from some front line staff who told me that they were too busy serving students to record details of their requests. Buy-in was achieved, over time as staff observed and experienced the following improvements:

  1. We persistently looked at making the recording of the enquiries quicker and easier.
  2. As the customer history grew over time staff and student frustration reduced as they no longer had to repeat the details of previous related enquiries.
  3. Staff also had details of who had previously served the student. This removed the need for staff asking each team if they could remember the previous visits. They could now quickly seek clarification from the relevant colleagues.
  4. The development of the functionality of GRACE was a direct response to front line requirements of students and staff. Each change was made to make the system more sensitive and responsive to the needs of students and the staff that were serving them.

Adding functionality

Additional functionality was also requested by staff and developed over time. This included:

  • Automatically generating and emailing a pdf to the email address of the student contained in the main database.
  • Being able to select from a list of regularly used sentences to customise student status letters.
  • Being able to record and print details of the enquiry and the details of the service we are referring to. In this way we are able to provide the student with an ‘informed’ referral rather than just redirecting them somewhere else. The referral slip contains key information including a map and a picture of building, the description of the service and its purpose.

Information retrieval

To meet the needs of students, the user interface of webGRACE is information intensive and organised in a series of tabs. Each tab contains reference information drawn from the central student record, as well as the GRACE database which holds enquiry specific data. The way the information is organised on each tab suits the operational needs of our service and the needs of our customers and designed using feedback from staff.

Information recording

When handling an enquiry we are able to record a great deal of information about the service encounter very efficiently. This data includes:

  • The status of the enquiry or request, indicating whether is still being handled (open) resolved (closed)
  • The enquiry method is a description of the way we receive the enquiry: face to face, email, phone, post, etc.
  • The delivery method field is a description of how we reply to the enquiry or request via the counter, email, phone, etc.
  • The start date and end date of the enquiry help us determine lead times and gives us information to confirm that we are meeting our published service levels
  • The referral field describes whether the enquiry was passed on to colleagues elsewhere in the University, and if so, who they were.
  • The third party field helps us add the details of a third party’s involvement in meeting the needs of the students. The concept was a challenge when designing the original system, as all our work is based around serving students. For example we include a business name on a letter proving student status. These third parties include embassies, local and central government agencies, banks, employers, employment agencies, shops offering student discounts, etc.

by Scott Castle
18 December 2008
updated 5 January 2018