By Published On: March 11th, 2021

University leaders can be forgiven for assuming that operating conditions would have stabilised by now, but instead the ground continues to shift beneath their feet. Unpredictable patterns of international student recruitment may yet provide a welcome boost to revenue, but high levels of in-year student attrition, along with government budget pressures could just as easily make another round of cost-cutting necessary. The ever-evolving schedule of pandemic constraints and release makes it hard to know when, and for how long, which adaptations to teaching and student services will be essential (not to mention affordable).

Despite the stops and starts of the past year, big decisions around service delivery still need to be made. It can become easy to delay major changes in the name of stability, or concern for the very real fatigue amongst staff. However, a wait-and-see approach risks losing the ability to leverage several pandemic micro-innovations into sustainable shifts towards effective and efficient professional services delivery.

And decision-making doesn’t have to be difficult, even in uncertain times. Members of the global UniForum insight network and benchmarking programme have a suite of brand new tools available to them to make decisions in exactly this kind of fluid and uncertain environment, based around real time reporting and practical implementation planning.

The pandemic has given you the impetus to innovate – how do you decide how ambitious to be?

The sheer scale of the past year’s challenge has swept away queries about the need to change and galvanised staff from all corners of the university to make it happen. But what next? Does a university take this opportunity to build on the progress made and go even further, with (for example) a complete reorientation of professional services? Or should it look to nurture individual innovations and help widen their spread to other service areas in a more organic, incremental way? Or perhaps pilot a radical redesign with a small set of services as a first step?

When the world won’t wait: planning for change in a complex, uncertain environment

Cubane now offers a powerful modelling tool – the Implementation Planning App – that takes a university’s UniForum benchmarking data and allows professional service planners to set different parameters for a change initiative. This kind of ‘flight simulator’ application allows the destination, route and speed of a change journey to be tweaked and tested before take-off, and in practice means:

  • Choosing which of the 162 UniForum professional service activities should be ‘in scope’: for example should a shared service centre include HR and Finance, or Facilities support too? A sub-set of activities within each of these functions, or all of them?
  • Assessing how many staff in existing roles contribute their time and effort towards the activities in question, and setting different thresholds for which of these staff might transition across to new working arrangements or structures
  • Evaluating whether an approach focused just on staff in central professional service departments would give enough impact versus whether the reform agenda should take into scope administrative staff working in academic departments too

The business case for change is clear – how do you ensure your implementation stands up to scrutiny?

Universities using UniForum data and tools like the Implementation Planning App (IPA) not only get the chance to test different flight plans, they also get to see whether the journey is worth it: does the business case really stack up, especially in cash-strapped times? The output of the kind of modelling process described above gives leadership teams a clear view, based on detailed and robust data, of the costs and benefits of the planned change.

Of course being confident that the numbers look like they’ll come together is only half of a good business case: managers, unions and staff themselves will need to see evidence of careful implementation planning before they’ll be willing to get on board with the change. UniForum members can get help here too, including by using the IPA to:

  • Make the right decision about the sequencing of change: by revealing the level of resourcing complexity (e.g. where there are certain activities where a very large number of roles contribute) the IPA helps a change team to determine which services would be better suited to be part of a ‘first wave’ of change as opposed to which should be tackled down the track
  • Identify and mitigate risks: anyone working at a university will know that most staff contribute across multiple activities at any one time. What this means is that when a group of staff – even if specialist – change their primary focus they will risk ‘leaving behind’ their support for other tasks. The IPA allows a change team to identify exactly what these are, and then support local managers to find alternative means of getting the work done, rather than these activities being ‘stranded’ and either not getting done at all or causing unplanned overwork of colleagues
  • Show where role redesign may be merited: some of the UniForum members who have achieved the biggest and longest-lasting positive change have gone beyond restructuring and looked to reduce unnecessary diversity of role descriptions amongst staff doing essentially similar things. The IPA highlights this kind of opportunity and shows exactly where to go to work with teams to plot out a better model for everyone.

In addition to a robust data-driven case for change, a university environment requires thinking through several ‘soft factors’. These include considerations that balance the need for institutional alignment with the reality of quasi-independent academic units. We’ve talked about asking yourself a few key questions in this earlier article to help formulate your approach and ambition.

If you are interested in setting up a demo or learning more about how the Implementation Planning App and other UniForum tools can help support your change program, feel free to get in touch with us here.

About the Author: Phil Copestake

Phil leads Cubane’s business in the UK and Europe. Before joining Cubane he was a senior member of the higher education practice at PA Consulting, with wide-ranging experience of supporting universities across the UK and internationally. He worked with a large number of institutions to develop and implement major transformation programmes to improve efficiency and service standards, and also aided several universities in developing and stress-testing global expansion and other investment plans. Phil specialises in strategy development and execution, preparing robust business cases to aid good decision making, and designing new customer-centred service delivery models. To contact Phil please email [email protected]