Professional Services – ready for new operating models?

Steve Smith

Lead Consultant | AUA Consulting

Steve has 18 years of senior leadership and management experience in HE following a 17 year career with Unilever. As a former Faculty Director of Operations at the University of Liverpool he has extensive experience and expertise in the design, planning, optimisation and management of a full range of professional services.

The academic year just starting will be extremely challenging for all HE institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has required changes in methods of delivery and operation as well as putting significant financial pressure on the sector. In this context many institutions will be reviewing their strategies and plans and potentially having to consider restructuring. Part of this will involve checking that their professional services are operating in the best way possible – doing the right things and doing them well.

In a previous blog I presented some thoughts on the questions to be considered when checking how your professional services are doing. This was done under five headings and it is helpful to return to these and refresh the questions to reflect the current situation.

Design

Institutions may be having to review seriously the scope of what they provide both in terms of teaching and research. All will have reviewed and changed their modes of teaching delivery and all professional services teams will have adapted to largely working from home.

In all the above scenarios there will be a need to ensure that the future design of the institution’s professional service is reviewed and adjusted to suit the revised provisions, different delivery, and new ways of working. It is unlikely that the model you were operating before lockdown started is now going to work as well.

Interfaces

As we deal with the pandemic and, in time, emerge and recover from it, HE institutions will have a significant role as an important part of local, regional, and national communities and economies. Graduates need to be equipped with the skills and experience to contribute to the recovery and courses should be aligned with this need. Research needs to be targeted at both providing solutions to the pandemic and supporting organisations with innovation and technology to develop their activity in different ways.

To achieve this institutions need to maintain and strengthen their relationships, or interfaces, with those communities they are a part of. Professional services need to ensure they are operating in a way that has an externally facing element to facilitate these relationships. This will ensure that, working with academic colleagues, the institution can continue to make a contribution to the nation’s future and well-being.

Both efficient and effective?

The financial pressures faced by institutions make the drive to seek cost savings even stronger. This means that measuring and optimising the efficiency of professional services and the streamlining of business process is ever more important. However, it may be the case that to generate further savings, this now requires a different approach than has previously been considered.

An option that has been adopted by a few institutions is the consolidation of back office, or corporate, functions into a shared service centre. This is a concept that has been around in other sectors for some time and proven to be beneficial. Perhaps this is the time for HE to consider this more widely as a way forward.

A word of caution though. Whilst striving for efficiencies and cost savings, professional services need to remain effective. If not, then there is a risk of academic time being diverted away from academic tasks to administrative ones. As ever, it’s a tricky balance to achieve.

Competition vs collaboration

It could be that the current situation leads institutions to consider mergers as part of an overall strategy for HE. This moves things very much in the direction of collaboration. For professional services, a merger requires a lot of work but also provides an opportunity to redesign a merged professional service collaboratively.

Even if a full merger isn’t the way forward perhaps there are more limited options that might be considered. For example, institutions near to each other might consider sharing professional services functions between them. This could provide opportunities for both improved services and reduced costs. All very much on the collaborative side – and with the need to put aside competitive instincts.

Partnerships

Whilst internal partnerships are still very important, I’ll turn to external partnerships here – with a consideration which might be radical for some. As part of reviewing strategies and possible restructuring, institutions may consider partnering with third party organisations and outsourcing some professional services functions to them. This could range from transactional services such as payroll, through to more transformational activity such as organisational development. It’s not a step to be taken lightly but done correctly could be beneficial.

It may also be the case, that as a result of cost savings schemes implemented by institutions, professional services teams are now at a critically low level. In these circumstances partnering with an organisation that can provide interim support may be a beneficial short-term solution.

AUA Consulting is a consulting practice ‘of the sector for the sector’ – our Consultants are working now with a wide range of HE institutions on areas as diverse as governance; professional services structure and operations; student mental health; employability; CPD and professional development.  AUA Consultants are practitioners in higher education administration and management with a depth of experience and professional expertise – for clients this means we combine the benefits of an external perspective with sector specific credibility. Any financial surplus derived from AUA Consulting is reinvested to support the AUA’s charitable objectives – connecting and developing HE professionals.  If you’d like to find out how AUA Consulting can help your team explore the issues discussed in this blog, email consulting@aua.ac.uk. Find out more at AUA Consulting.

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