How are Shared Services Helping Institutes of Higher Education Meet the Needs of Faculty and Students?

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Overcoming resistance is a key challenge, but the benefits – in terms of supporting faculty and students – are irrefutable

Last week I was in Dallas for the 2nd Annual Shared Services Higher Education 2017 event (expertly produced by SSON's Jules Miller). Higher Education used to be combined with Public Sector in our events calendar, but in testament to the enormous interest, opportunity and growth the sector has witnessed, the conference now stands on its own – the strongest indicator yet that institutes of Higher Education are gathering momentum in restructuring support services.

Looking around the conference, I was reminded of how our flagship Shared Services and Outsourcing Week events used to feel when the industry was first gathering momentum (we now run them annually, across five continents) – it felt intimate, with lots of key decision-makers present, and I got a real sense that we were witnessing the beginning of something big.

Having listened to numerous universities present their Shared Services stories and describe what they were going through, I also realize that it will probably take a generation (a career generation, that is) for this sector to evolve and catch up with the private sector, in terms of Shared Services performance and maturity. One of the delegates from a West Coast University put it perfectly when she said, "Academia has been used to enormous freedom; the problem is that their administrative offices have assumed the same freedoms. And that, as it turns out, is not a good thing."

Comparing what we see in other industries, it is clear that academic institutions operate in a unique environment, which presents a challenge for Shared Services models. There is, within the private sector, no position that quite compares to that of “Provost”, and his/her ability to resist what might otherwise make sense on paper. Historically, the modus operandi of Academia has supported the evolution of fiefdoms (if not kingdoms), with lots of duplicated work, and too much uncontrolled spend. Letting go of this personalized, supporting infrastructure is a hard sell. One SSO leader explained that, within one square mile, his university operated seven different colleges, each of which ran their own network. Synergy, let alone optimization, has not been a priority!

More interest in quality services – and efficiency

With the current economic climate characterized by budget cuts (let’s not forget, though, that these budgets are still huge; certainly bigger than those in comparative private sector institutions) there is suddenly a lot of interest in getting support services in order, from a cost as well as quality perspective. Many of the case studies emphasized that cost was not the key driver; rather, it is the requirement for improved quality of services to enable faculty. Academia rises and falls on its reputation so delivering quality services to enrolled students, supporting faculty's research ambitions, providing the right infrastructure, and ensuring the smooth running of a highly complex University is the number one objective. Shared Services is the ideal solution.

Progress has been slow, though. The majority of attendees at the conference are in the early launch phase, and still focused on getting relationships established, overcoming mistrust, and learning how to communicate with faculty given the very different viewpoints each party presents.

What is certain, however, is that Shared Services are enormously successful within Higher Education. There are plenty of exemplary case studies: Yale University’s Joanne Bentley, Director of Faculty Research Management Services, shared tips on the Pre-and Post Award Services managed by her group. A simple illustration of the progress achieved by pushing a Shared Services agenda is the fact that, whereas projects used to require signoff from all seven faculty CFOs, they now report into one central CFO and decision-making is streamlined through that central position.

The Awards process is a key one for research faculty, but with Federal funding increasingly volatile, and often not renewed, universities are seeking new sponsors, which means more foundation proposals that require specialized knowledge. With no historic talent repository and deadlines now more intense, the knock-on effect at Yale as as other universities was also a disruption of routine finance reporting. The Faculty Research Management Services group has changed all that. Today, that group effectively takes compliance issues off faculty’s hands in the pre-Award period, letting them focus on research; and post Award, financial reporting is also managed by the Shared Services. Effectively, the end-to-end process is now managed by Joanne’s group (this development is encouraged and actively promoted by audit, as the wins in terms of better compliance have been obvious). Results like these require specialist staff, however, who can navigate the sometimes sensitive relationships and who are aware of the significance of what they do. To reflect the fact that jobs in the Shared Services require higher skills sets and are differentiated from other similar titles, Joanne and her leadership team partnered with HR to create unique job descriptions. This also helps validate the roles and the group’s value-add.

Setting a post in the ground

Possibly one of the most interesting sessions was a "fireside chat" (minus the fire, although Dallas was a chilly 62 degrees) that brought together three C-suite executives, all with different relationships to Shared Services: A Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) as a client; a Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) as a client and also as provider of procure-to-pay (P2) Shared Services; and a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a multifunctional, system-wide, Shared Services organization.  Although all on their own, unique journey, what was clear was how important measures and metrics are, and that it is an evolving and fast developing area.


The metrics that are critical to the executive are those that align to the mission of the organization, beyond providing efficient and effective back office services, and they support Shared Services contributing to and enabling the core delivery of education, research and clinical services. This requires a breadth and depth of performance reporting that is significantly different from typical workload and cost performance analysis, and from what has (or, indeed, has not) been traditionally done in the past. One common message from the session was to simply get started and set a post in the ground. The key opportunity is to develop the metrics, share the results, use transparency to improve data quality, and leverage Shared Services as an example of how performance reporting can be employed more broadly across the higher education sector.

Phil Searle, Founder and CEO of Chazey Partners, who moderated this discussion, has worked with numerous universities and colleges across North America and internationally. He understands the challenges well: “It’s important to consider metrics from organization-wide (both system and campus), provider and customer perspectives, and to understand that performance reporting is also part of a commitment to continuous improvement – not a point-in-time effort,” he explains. “It’s also about navigating the internal landscape and picking the right battles at the right time. Today there are enormous opportunities in higher education to improve the quality and efficiency of service provision, make better use of technology, and help ensure higher education institutions can fulfill their mission.”

How to avoid a ‘strategic pause’

Before you can fulfill the mission, however, you need to identify your objectives. The importance of planning could not have been made clearer. University of California, Davis and University of Michigan both shared the setbacks they experienced during launch, as a result of rushed or not well thought through implementations (both subsequently had successful comebacks). The session was appropriately titled "Superstars", and memorably introduced by conference chair Dr. Michael Hites, Senior Associate, Vice President for Administrative Information Technology Services and CIO of the University of Illinois System. He shared his own tips in connecting with superstars at the rock concerts his teenage daughter ‘drags’ him to. These involved high-fiving, positioning and skull-rings. It's not so different when it comes to Shared Services superstars, we discovered: High-fiving translates to recognizing achievement; positioning is all about knowing who's important; and skull-rings… well, we didn't get there.

Both UC Davis and University of Michigan recruited Shared Services leaders externally, specifically to repair the damaged launch (in one case brought on by a hasty and rushed six-week implementation that led to a complete standstill and the decision to take a year’s strategic pause; in the other, the abrupt removal of support staff from faculty departments broke the trust that was so important in building up a Shared Services). Key lessons shared included the importance of selecting the right technology for the right project. One presenter explained that the brand new technology was actually the project’s downfall: no one knew how to use it, and operations ground to a halt.

On campus – or off?

While in private industry offshoring has emerged as a cost-effective solution, for faculty, proximity is key. That’s why many universities have opted for a hub-and-spoke model, with the spokes embedded in (or near) faculty offices. Location strategies are also driven by the fact that the largest customer group is the 18-to-25-year-old demographic – which prefers everything online or mobile, or at least easy to get to.

While many university Shared Services start with whatever office space they can get (this generally translates into working across multiple buildings on campus), subsequent efficiency gains are often funding new buildings. Some institutions, like the University of Tennessee, chose to invest significantly up front and are now, two years later, seeing a return. Others, like the University of Louisville, wanted to stand up Shared Services with little upfront cost and recruited all the talent they needed from the functions. They hired 13 people into the new center, with no backfill – i.e., no additional HR costs.

Another approach was shared by the University of Saskatchewan, which launched its center in a high traffic area in the Faculty of Arts and Science. It offers Tier 1 support in a space designed to encourage walk-ins traffic, and leveraging underutilized real estate (off campus operations are used for Tier 2 services). Modern plasma screens are used to customize messages depending on location or component – for example, research, science, etc. Wade Epp, Director of the SSO, emphasized that a lot of thinking went into optimizing and maximizing space usage for this project. That kind of expertise is generally not found inhouse though. Wade’s team worked closely with a firm specializing in optimal office design. The results have certainly been well-received by the student generation.

Culture and technology: driving success and failure

One of the most significant hurdles we heard about, time and again, was lack of concentrated, centralized, leadership support. Certainly, there are pockets of buy-in, but with University culture generally based on large meetings which rarely lead to immediate, firm, decisions, Shared Services leaders need to overcome a lot of inertia. More specifically, the general presiding cultures are not conducive to the collaborative, specialized delivery strategy represented by Shared Services. It is possible, however, to leverage relationships within faculties to develop a new, Shared Services culture. It’s important to take culture seriously, we were reminded: When things are not done right from the start, it takes a long time to heal. "We spent a year on a continuous apology tour," explained one presenter.

As mentioned earlier, technology can be a hindrance, as much as an enabler. Many practitioners agreed that in the early stages hick-ups are more often the result of incorrect technology applications, rather than process issues. “We bought a Cadillac and drove it like a Pinto” is the way one SSC leader described it.

Only time will teach which solutions work and which don't. A valuable tip shared by one presenter was to try to position technology solutions “above the ERP”, so that any change in the underlying ERP would not grind the various applications to a halt.

A low-profile approach with limited technology is what many would opt for a second time around. Flawed implementations can quickly become expensive mistakes. The traditional route taken by many includes referencing Gartner's best of breed solutions and buying an expensive system. The point is: “You might need a Honda – not a Mercedes (car analogies were popular!), to get the job done.”

Andrea Ballinger, Associate Vice President & Chief Technology Officer at Louisiana State University made the clearest case on how to make technology work for you. A lot of legacy solutions just aren’t needed, she explained. She dared to shut down 15 applications in her first weeks – years of data – without causing a blip in the system.

One of the things Andrea emphasized is that you need to have ownership before you can sign on to a technology solution – and for that, you need to create a CIO council that can have a dialogue across the enterprise. If individual campuses are standing in your way you simply cannot deliver efficiencies. Silos are a huge problem when it comes to technology, as they hinder an enterprise architecture, she warns – and if you are integrating across multiple architectures, you are effectively creating “self-inflicted wounds that give IT a bad name.” Instead, target ‘foundational technologies’, says Andrea.


Without strong leadership, pushing a Shared Services agenda in a University is nearly doomed to failure, given the conflicting power-plays at stake. However, the leadership skills needed vary according to the stage or maturity of the center, we heard. Pam Gabel, who has 18 years’ experience in building up SSCs across five different industries, listed three main Shared Services phases, and explained how the different challenges of each required a tailored approach: For the first Project Stage, you need someone who can get going: a motivator and innovator who makes the decisions needed to move forward. For the second, Go-live Stage, you don’t need project management skills anymore, but fire-fighting comes to the fore. Negotiation skills are key, along with listening skills. The third stage is the Grow-and-Sustain Stage, where you need a financially conscious facilitator who can thrive even when the frenzied pace slows to a grind. This phase is about building relationships. It also, to a certain extent, will determine the success or not of the project.

Digital = wins

Universities run on paper, so one of the biggest ‘wins’ Shared Services can provide is to eliminate the paper trail. One presenter said that in the early years he could pretty much have thrown a dart blindly and saved costs, just by eliminating paper.

At the University of Saskatchewan, the service support repository consisted of over 1 million pages. The solution Wade Epp shared with us was to move to e-forms and leverage a web-based platform. The Shared Services group also drove a swivel chair strategy across platforms to enable a user to resolve separate issues through one interface.

Throughout, the guiding principle was whether the communications and forms would pass a ‘sixth-grader’s comprehension test’, explained Wade Epp. “Although services are based on policy, they don’t have to be written in policy language,” he said.

The University of Saskatchewan’s initiative, called ConnectionPoint, has scored big wins with its users. The innovative use of a Service Relations role (two people were recruited) was key, Wade emphasized. Their ability to just mediate, from a neutral basis, without representing either side, was instrumental and the investment in the positions has more than paid for itself: Current satisfaction rates are at 80%. [Look out for the full case University of Saskatchewan study on SSON's website, which will specifically outline the governance model, the value of campus touch points, designing optimal spaces for engagement, and the service relations role.]