Professional Services – How you doin’?

Steve Smith

Director of Operations | University of Liverpool

Steve Smith has 18 years of senior leadership and management experience in HE following a 17 year career with Unilever. As a 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 support for academics and students. Having also led a number of university wide projects, his experience means he is well positioned to advise on overall operational design and efficiency, including benchmarking, as well as on corporate governance processes, committee management and risk management.


“How you doin’?” Although more famously used as Joey’s tried-and-tested pick up line in the US TV sitcom Friends, it’s also a very valid question to ask of professional services operations in HEIs.

How do you know if your HEI’s professional services are doing what they need to and are doing it well? Have you looked at how your professional services are doing compared to those in other institutions? Have you compared what different parts of your own professional services are doing? Where as Joey may well have got easy answers to his question, it’s not so easy when it comes to professional services.

In this short piece I share my thoughts on some of the specific considerations and issues that might need to be addressed to find some answers. I’ve done this using five headings to provide a bit of structure but they are very connected and far from mutually exclusive or exhaustive.


Design

It may seem obvious to say it but an HEI’s professional services must be designed to support the institution’s strategic aims and operational plan. It’s no good trying to target growth in, for example, online education, if you haven’t put in place the professional services support for it. Furthermore, you need to set your professional services up to complement and support the academic structure in the institution.

Economies of scale need to be borne in mind here too. Benefits can be gained by bringing together professional services into larger units, but this must be balanced by the possible negative effects of not having the appropriate support in the locations across the institution where activity actually takes place.

Interfaces?

Any professional services structure will necessarily have interfaces; e.g. between central functions, between central and local functions, between academics and professional services. These are a natural consequence of any organisation above a certain size delivering a range of functions. Interfaces can be a very positive feature of an organisation but they can also be sources of friction and cause problems. You can’t avoid them but, in order for the professional services to function well, you need to know where they are, understand them and manage them carefully.

Both efficient and effective?

This is perhaps the largest area of consideration and covers many aspects. One thing to consider is how to measure efficiency in this context. Various quantitative measures have been used, from the very complicated ones such as those based on normalised cost models, to the more simple ones such as staff ratios. All have their merits but starting with simple ones is often the best way. Effectiveness is generally qualitative and more usefully measured through asking users about the services via surveys or focus groups.

Another consideration here is how good your business processes are.

If staff are constantly using manual workarounds and there is poor organisational planning, then there will be waste in terms of duplication, errors and delay.

To avoid this, business processes should be simple and standardised. When they are, this leads to efficient services but care must be taken to ensure they are effective too and that all users are given the necessary support.

One final consideration under this heading is the use of rapidly developing technology. The world of work for professional services staff will continue to be changed by technology and, when applied well, it can bring significant efficiency and effectiveness gains.

Competition vs Collaboration

It’s easy to see each HEI’s professional service as being in competition with others. This generates an environment where challenge, a desire to improve and benchmarking become the norm. Benchmarking between institutions or even internally within institutions is a tool that can, when used well, be very beneficial. However, collaboration can bring benefits and improve quality too. There are many existing networks and communities of practice within the professional services community that share best practice and solve problems together.

Partnerships

Professional services will always perform better when they are engaged positively in partnerships in the institution. The most important partnerships here are those with academic colleagues. They need to work well, whether they be between individuals at whatever level in the institution or between academic departments and professional services areas. It hopefully goes without saying that good working partnerships between professional services staff and their areas are important too.

Steve Smith is a Lead Consultant with AUA Consulting. If you’d like to find out how AUA Consulting can help your organisation explore the issues discussed in this blog, email consulting@aua.ac.uk. Find out more at AUA Consulting.


A footnote – this think piece was written in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. Whilst no reference has been made to this, it would be remarkable if professional services operations remain the same on the other side of the lockdown. The questions to be asked about ‘how you are doing’ will remain relevant; depending on how you view the profound shocks of the pandemic, the need to appraise effectiveness in professional services may become even more pressing in the months ahead.


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