A best practice approach to academic restructure and corporate services transformation at a research-intensive university (Part 2)

This article concludes a two-part series co-authored by Mike Shore-Nye, Senior Vice-President and Registrar & Secretary at the University of Exeter, with Ariel Rainbow, Consulting Services Manager at NousCubane.

The first part of our case study described how the University of Exeter had experienced a period significant growth, but without its organisational structures and administrative functions advancing at the same pace. This necessitated transformation into a more efficient and resilient organisation aligned to an ambitious new strategy. The approach Exeter took to restructuring, by engaging meaningfully and building consensus across the university’s staff community to decide on the solution together, enabled rapid transition to a new operating model.

In this concluding part of the case study, Exeter’s Senior Vice-President and Registrar & Secretary – and co-lead of the transformation – Mike Shore-Nye, talks us through the benefits of using ‘common language’ peer input and transparent data to give Exeter’s restructure both internal credibility and resilience against future challenges.

Combining Open Engagement with Evidence

Access to robust data on how services were resourced by local teams was critical to sustaining the collaborative ethos at Exeter throughout the transformation. These data insights supported transparent engagement with all stakeholders on the need for change, and in what areas the change might be prioritised.

A common challenge during transformations of this sort is in the ability to make the case for the target operating models being considered for different support service functions. Comparisons to other institutions are often made with only a superficial understanding of their models and how they are resourced. Difference in terminology, scope of included services and ways of assessing resourcing, lead to poorly informed choices and low confidence in the conclusions.

Being part of a collaborative multi-university programme with universities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the UniForum programme, gave Exeter access to a unique set of cost efficiency and service effectiveness data that enabled Mike and his team to give their stakeholders confidence in the choices that needed to be made. And just as importantly it is enabling the university to more quickly identify solutions to key challenges – for example learning from the University of Auckland around how to implement effective shared services capability.

Reflecting on the impact that this had, Mike said, “the collaborative UniForum programme enabled us to move rapidly through the organisation redesign and confidently redeploy resources to support the new strategy. The common language and data captured across the UniForum membership to describe service models and how they are resourced helped us to identify significant efficiencies in the process of creating new faculties and departments that are well aligned to our new strategy.”

The savings from these efficiencies have been key to the investment needed to support the transformation of services. This speaks to a consistent and powerful finding from the UniForum programme globally, which is that an institution can only achieve lasting savings to reinvest in the academic mission by making fundamental changes to its service delivery model; growth alone is not the answer. You can read more about this in an earlier Insights article.

A major concern for academic staff with the introduction of a new support services model was whether the changes would result in more administrative workload being placed on them. Again, in the interests of full transparency, Exeter provided all staff with the ability to provide effectiveness assessments of the professional services that were critical to them in their roles after the changes were made. As part of the effectiveness assessment, they also provided structured feedback on their user experience when using these services.

These inputs established a baseline for the new service structure and understanding of how well services were performing on the services attributes that matter most to academics and other service users. Continued use of the Services Effectiveness Assessment following the transformation will enable Exeter to transparently measure the impact of changes being made and the extent to which the service improvement focus is delivering improved user experience on the service attributes that matter most to them. It has also provided an independent assessment of how well the changes are being accepted by the different academic and professional staff cohorts.

Finally, Mike states, “our ability to bring learnings from other universities in a transparent and credible way was essential for ensuring individual staff wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the scale of change and it supported the narrative that restructuring was necessary to lead Exeter into a more secure and competitive global position. For us, this was made possible through our membership in the collaborative UniForum programme.”

An Organisational Structure Fit for the Future

The simpler academic structure now in place at Exeter brings a clearer alignment to the University’s goals while improving interdisciplinary opportunities for colleagues and students. Now, fewer departments are ‘supercharged’, they are larger, more empowered, with clearer accountability and more autonomy to deliver their plans. Exeter is quickly making strides towards a more successful professional services organisation that is more in sync with the overall strategy and simplified, has enhanced resilience against future challenges, and is more closely aligned to academic units. Exeter’s overall structure is now more visible, local, and person-centred so that its professional services and academic teams walk the same journey and feel empowered.

If you would like to discuss this case study in more detail or learn more about our global benchmarking membership and service effectiveness solutions, please contact us.