Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 19, 2017

The School of Medicine’s Administrative Business Center (ABC): Committed to customer service


ABC makes use of an Idea Board to capture suggestions and ideas for continuous process improvement from staff. Photo: Shelley Prosise.

The challenge: Departments doing more with less

Between 2009 and 2011, the School of Medicine was facing new challenges in the areas of visas and grants administration. Budget reductions and changes to compliance rules prompted administrators to review their processes — and they noticed inefficiencies. At the time, each department managed its own visas for foreign visitors and grants administration, two complex areas requiring expertise that takes time to develop and maintain. In some departments, staff had to know a little bit about everything; for example, payroll specialists would spend time learning grants administration, a process they would only do infrequently. Other departments would invest time to develop one staff member’s expertise — and if that person left the position, the department was back to square one. In all cases, individual departments were doing more, with fewer resources, leading to staff turnover, inefficient processes and potential compliance risks.

The solution: A team of experts to partner with departments and faculty

In 2012, the dean’s office created a work group to consider implementing shared services, composed of department directors and administrators, dean’s office staff, campus partners with shared service experience and Lean methodology facilitators.

First, they outlined four primary goals: increased efficiency, compliance, customer service and overall value. Then, they defined criteria for departmental activities that would benefit from shared services, processes that are:

  • common to all departments (excluding clinical and academic activities)
  • transactional or common but infrequent
  • reliant on specific expertise
  • marked by clearly defined stopping and starting points
  • key business processes
  • drivers of customer satisfaction

Based on the criteria, two processes emerged as prime candidates for shared services: grants administration and visas for foreign visitors. Both are common but complicated processes, requiring extensive training and upkeep to stay on top of rules and guidelines. They are also high-stakes processes for applicants — making attention to customer service extremely important.

In July 2013, the School launched shared services in the form of a new Administrative Business Center (ABC), with grants and visas as the first two services to units. Staffed by a combination of redeployed departmental administrators and new hires, ABC offers resources to manage these processes more efficiently: namely, a team of dedicated experts providing one-on-one service. The model gives time back to administrators and allows the faculty recipients of grants and visas to focus on their research.

ABC Shared Services Values

Customer Focus: We seek to understand our customers and focus on our shared success. We provide accurate, flexible and responsive service with the goal of exceeding expectations.

Accountability: We are proactive, reliable and trustworthy project managers who take ownership of projects from beginning to end. We produce accurate results by staying up to date on regulations, following best practices and continuously learning.

Effective Communication: We believe that effective communication is the cornerstone to building strong relationships and trust. We demonstrate this by providing timely, concise, respectful and transparent communication.

Continuous Improvement: As a team we are empowered to change our processes and tools to create efficiencies and add value for our customers.

A collaborative, customer-driven approach

ABC functions through shared governance: a model in which customers (departments and individual grant and visa recipients) work in partnership with ABC staff to determine values, establish goals and carry out processes. The emphasis that ABC places on customer service means that staff are empowered to address issues as they arise, and customers feel listened to and valued.

The system relies on close one-on-one relationships between ABC and its customers: department chairs, faculty and PIs of research grants. It also relies on open lines of communication and regular feedback via customer surveys.

And the system works. According to surveys, customer satisfaction has been rising steadily — with 99 percent “satisfied” by the end of 2016, up from 79 percent the previous year.
“ABC has been terrific to work with,” says Cecilia Giachelli, professor of Bioengineering. “Their efficiency has allowed us to spend more time working on the grant science instead of worrying about the administrative pieces.” Says Wyeth Bair, associate professor of Biological Structure, “I would not have been able to submit [my] proposal on time without my grants administrator’s constant help. She seemed genuinely invested in the success of the proposal, which conferred a team mentality to the process.”

A team mentality applies to ABC’s administrative partnerships as well, including their Faculty Oversight Committee (FOC), the Administrative Business Leadership Enterprise (ABLE) committee and School of Medicine leadership. “All are essential for our functioning, and for high-level strategic guidance and perspective,” says SoM Director of Business and Operations Marie Carter-DuBois.

Lessons learned

Prosise notes several lessons that ABC has learned along the way, that apply to shared services centers in other units and contexts:

  • Define the mission and vision: Understand and articulate why shared services will have value for customers
  • Communicate and build trust with customers — those who use or benefit from the service — from the very beginning, and incorporate the “customer voice” into goals and values
  • Build a robust governance structure — make sure you have support
  • Invest heavily in staff hiring and training upfront, and involve unit staff in planning processes as soon as possible
  • Invest in the right tools and have them ready (ABC uses SharePoint)
  • Determine metrics for measuring success (and collect baseline data, if possible)
  • Stay flexible: Ask for feedback and be prepared to change processes, policies or procedures as necessary

Next steps

ABC is currently in the process of launching new services in human resources and payroll, working closely with a newly formed HR/Payroll committee. To coincide with the launch of Workday and ease the transition for departments, they began offering payroll services in June 2017. As for next steps, says Prosise, ABC is committed to continuous process improvements and making sure new services are responsive to departments’ needs.

abc graphic
View graphic as a PDF