The price of freedom: when the cost of adapting professional services to meet local needs becomes too high (and what to do about it)

Balancing BallsUniversity senior managers have long been aware that they interfere with academic independence and freedom at their peril. This extends to professional support services as much as research or teaching focus: managers of individual academic units (e.g. departments or research centres) often feel they serve their constituents best by recruiting to roles, configuring systems, or putting in place processes that have been designed with local priorities in mind.

Multiplied many times over, however, this ethos of adaptability has a very real cost, whether in terms of high rework rates, services becoming very costly to deliver, or inequitable standards for students.

For many universities the Covid emergency has highlighted the challenges that high levels of local adaptability bring in terms of speed and consistency of institutional response to new challenges. One silver lining of the crisis is that its sheer scale and severity has forced rapid (re)alignment. But the task of finding the right balance between alignment and adaptability will remain once things return to a more settled state. There certainly may be cases where the pendulum has swung too far the opposite way and some of the virtues of adaptability have been lost.

Fortunately, the experience of the members of the UniForum programme point to a handful of deceptively simple interventions that professional service senior leaders can make to introduce a healthy degree of alignment and thereby balance out costly adaptability.

Finding the right balance

Flexibility and freedom are written into the DNA of universities: from researchers quickly shifting research and teaching focus to administrators in individual schools and faculties redesigning professional support roles to meet local need. This ‘ethos of adaptability’ is the source of much of the innovative energy in universities, ensuring they are constantly growing and evolving to reflect changing circumstances.

The critical question for the university executive is whether the adaptability currently enjoyed in how local administration services are delivered is eating into university budgets that may be needed to enhance the student experience or invest in research platforms (for example).

Because even in the most adaptability-prizing institutions university senior management teams will recognise that divergence has consequences: causing duplication, over- and under-servicing, inequitable levels of service provision, and ultimately inefficiency. They will also recognise that support for local adaptability makes rapid response at an institutional level challenging when there are sudden changes in demands.

An extreme example of local adaptability at one institution was a role with the position title: Pigeon Feeder and Web Developer. It certainly created a full-time role and met local department needs, however, doing something like this 1,000 times over across the institution creates 1,000 unique roles, each with a different mix of responsibilities. In the example institution, a review showed that 1,200 positions across the academic divisions had approximately 800 unique position descriptions. These ‘generalist’ roles can be difficult to develop training for, engage in initiatives to improve services, or deliver professional development support to. Staff working in these roles typically lack a clear career path and sense of how to progress.

How to square this circle? The alternative to local adaptability is to accept greater alignment across the institution for how services are delivered. This requires academic divisions giving up on some decision rights: a factor that very clearly makes this a decision that the university’s executive team has to lead.

The role of senior leaders of university professional and administrative services is to pick the right battles and to make the right choices and trade-offs, including around what to put on the table for discussion by the executive in the first place. Several factors should guide this process, for example:

  1. The level of adaptability pressure they face
  2. Which services are the best candidates for greater alignment?
  3. Which services should remain most tailored to local need?
  4. How to handle the conversation with academic leaders (and when to have it)

Question 1: How much ‘adaptability pressure’ is there at my university?

Universities in different circumstances face varying degrees of ‘adaptability pressure’: highly devolved or very research-intensive institutions, for example, are likely to have a lower tolerance for role or process standardisation due to a long history of ‘how things have always been done’, a critical part that makes up the culture of the institution.

The answer lies partly in engaging widely and building strong relationships with heads of school, allowing leaders of professional services to understand the pattern of pressure and how this varies across the institution. Could there, for example, be certain faculties where the appetite for alignment is naturally higher?

Hard data can also help: within their first six months of membership members of UniForum get access to a detailed picture of the extent to which schools and other individual academic units control the budgets that pay for professional service staff and suppliers and, crucially, how this compares to a university’s peers. Simply being able to quantify and compare the real (rather than perceived) level of devolution in terms of budgetary control can be a powerful step in the right direction towards building an awareness of the need to change.

Other hard data that can be highly valuable is the proportion of the university’s support capacity that is in roles that are ‘generalist’. Greater adaptability leads to higher proportions of roles that have no clear alignment to functions and where the functional mix that makes up the role is not driven by any conscious design choices.

Question 2: Which services are the best candidates for greater alignment?

A simple question for a senior leader to ask in order to discover good candidates for greater alignment is: which service areas do I hear about most often in terms of high error and rework rates? This might come to light via common themes in student complaints or service outages.

The services most impacted by too much adaptability are those that are routine and frequently repeated, that benefit from high familiarity with the systems and how they support the process. It is common to find that people in ‘generalist’ roles use the university systems relatively infrequently and lack the process familiarity that is needed to be efficient and effective. One university reviewing a routine financial transaction processing activity found 25% error rates as a result of the lack of familiarity. The rework increased the academic division’s spend on that activity by a factor of 30 compared to what was being achieved in other units processing the same transactions with teams more familiar with the processes and systems.

Data from across the UniForum benchmarking programme suggests that universities that have made the biggest strides in reducing spend on routine and repetitive activities are the ones that have achieved higher levels of alignment for the services in question.

Question 3: To balance these out, which functions are likely to benefit most from local flexibility and / or feel most important to the leaders of academic units?

Many services that are not routine and require bespoke responses at each interaction also benefit from greater alignment. Admissions processes are a classic example here: although the decision-making ultimately needs to be guided by standards and criteria that will necessarily vary from faculty to faculty and often department to department, there is a huge amount of the ‘under the hood’ work of admissions that can and should be simplified and streamlined and, often, handled in a consistent manner by a smaller number of individuals. The universities in the UniForum programme that have gone furthest in making their admissions services really cost effective, however, have also looked at redesigning the roles of professional service staff involved in academic processes like admissions: looking to reduce the plethora of different roles that can occur.

Generally, functions and services that really do benefit from local flexibility are non-routine and strategic in nature. For example, areas of research support requiring specialist discipline knowledge, close interaction with researchers, and ‘custom’ services dependent on the type and scale of research. At the same time, institutions should clearly define roles in these areas to clearly separate the strategic from the routine to allow local advisors to focus on areas of the greatest benefit to end users.

Question 4: What's the best forum or opportunity to have a positive and productive conversation about these trade-offs with senior academic leaders?

Practices developed over generations of academics mean that any changes to increase alignment will require giving up some flexibility, some adaptability, and this is clearly a conversation that needs to be handled carefully. Senior professional service leaders can help generate a good discussion with university executive teams – one that results in a sensible balance between alignment and continued adaptability – by:

  • starting with the ‘safest’ areas (often in corporate services like HR and IT) and building from there; 
  • clearly emphasising that alignment doesn’t necessarily mean local staff will be relocated away from individual academic units; and 
  • making the case for change in terms of the cost of not aligning, in terms of resources being sucked away from support for research and teaching activities, and service quality being compromised.   

Peer pressure helps too. Benchmarking and best practice sharing programmes such as UniForum help by demonstrating the big strides that fellow universities are making to increase alignment without sacrificing the academic stakeholder’s view on service quality. Data-informed insights help by providing the academic leadership with the means to engage their professional service leaders in ways that allow for transparent conversations about the value of the trade-offs between alignment and adaptability. Experience show that these insights are critical for helping build a case to their academic colleagues leading faculties, schools and departments across the university that is hard to ignore.

Future UniForum Insight articles will share research into role redesign and best practice in organisational effectiveness. Subscribe to UniForum Insights.

The UniForum program

This is a collaborative program open to all universities to help inform their efforts to make the most effective use of student fees and research income.

Further information on the UniForum program can be found at UniForum. Past UniForum Insights articles can be found here: UniForum Insights.