Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 19, 2017

The College of Arts & Sciences: Sharing business services for efficiency and support


Members of the CAS Shared Services (CASSS) team, from left to right: Fiscal Specialist Supervisor Felix Velasco, Fiscal Specialist 1 Natalie Bissiri and CASSS Manager Heidi Tilghman. Photo: Elizabeth Lowry

The challenge: Departments doing more with lessThe challenge: Administrators’ time eaten up by transactional work

In 2011, the College of Arts & Sciences was seeking ways to address growing administrative workloads. Within departments, high-level administrators — hired for their special knowledge in, for example, Anthropology programs — were spending time on increasingly complex transactional tasks. For example, the move from paper to online travel expense reports made those processes more efficient overall, but relied on department administrators learning the new web systems, their complexities and any changes in processes. And when many individuals performed a task infrequently, compliance suffered. What should be standardized processes (such as filling out travel expense reports) became harder to manage and control for minor errors.

The solution: Move work out of departments to experts who do it best

The college launched its shared services center as a pilot, to see whether the model would relieve some of the pressure on administrators. And it has. The current team of five staff members serves approximately 1,500 employees across 24 college units, and executes transactions in 20 distinct areas such as travel and purchasing reimbursements, invoice payments, honoraria and awards, foreign national payments and visas, Human Resources and payroll. Administrators have more time for department priorities, and shared services team members are more efficient in the transactional work — because they do it all the time.

To get started, and to ensure the center would meet the needs of individual units, a group of department administrators first brought projections to the dean: which schools needed which transactional services, how much efficiency could be gained and how many new hires might be needed. Rather than consolidating existing administrators (a common way to form shared services centers), the college invested in new staff specifically for shared services: one manager and two fiscal specialists. As work volume increased over time, the team hired two more.

The benefits: Compliance and efficiency — plus freedom

Sharing services has sustained the creative energy and individuality of each department in Arts & Sciences. The team members provide technical expertise in university-level business practices while, at the same time, personally getting to know each unit’s culture and needs. But the team also helps to standardize practices when more efficient and assure compliance across the board.

Administrators are freed up to do more mission-focused, custom work, such as the administrative end of curriculum design, in direct support of professors in their teaching and research. The shift to shared services has also freed up funds for some departments.

As no funds were needed from department budgets to create the center, newly available funds can be re-allocated toward other staffing needs.

And, the whole college has benefitted from faster, more reliable services. The team has implemented an online ticketing system for intake of service requests — for example, a travel reimbursement request from a faculty member — that routes the request directly to the right person for the job. The system increases both efficiency in turn-around times and accountability. Customers can view the status of their requests in one online record. The system’s success has led the team to offer its web intake tools as templates for other communications across Arts & Sciences.

Next Step for CASSS

As CAS Shared Services continues to evolve, a few key goals are guiding their plans for next steps. One of these is to evaluate the impacts of Workday, the new HR/Payroll system, on member department’s business needs and on the team’s workload. They’re asking: how best to serve departments as they get used to Workday, how to set submission and turn-around standards, and how to manage the semi-annual system upgrades to make the changes as seamless for departments as possible.

More broadly, CASSS is also considering how their Shared Services model might be useful in addressing other needs across the College. They’re looking to identify those non-member units who might want to tap into an area of the team’s expertise, and figuring out how to best provide the desired services. Relatedly, they’re evaluating whether there are transactional areas they want to add to their portfolio, given potential member units’ needs and goals.

Lastly, says Tilghman, they will continue to fine-tune the workflows, policies and goals they’ve already established. “This is the real work of continuous process improvement,” she says, “and will always be a priority.”

Lessons learned: Build trust and establish networks of mutual support

Active, consistent, on-the-ground support from both administrators and executive sponsors was crucial to the transition, says Heidi Tilghman, manager of the College of Arts & Sciences Shared Services (CASSS). “They made this growth possible,” she says, “as we created — primarily from scratch and involving multiple and ongoing iterations — our intake forms and step-by-step workflows, as well as our overarching goals, standards and tools for measuring success.”

Trust and communication have been vital to securing buy-in across units. Building trust takes time, notes Tilghman. To this end, she says, “careful staff recruitment is absolutely key — and we have been fortunate to attract eager, innovative and highly competent staff from the beginning, who not only learn new systems quickly, but who are deft communicators.” They’ve also made use of Lean methodology to help create a spirit of collaboration, inclusivity and shared responsibility with participating units.

A continuous cycle of feedback and improvement

As the team’s track record grew — of accurate, efficient and responsive work — so did demand for services. In spring 2016, the team re-evaluated: How could they manage increasing demand and maintain their service standards, without adding to staffing?

Working with an advisory group (seven volunteer administrators from member units), the team considered the widely varying needs and resources of participating departments. They recommended returning specific tasks to units and staff equipped to handle them. The shared services team decided to return reimbursement processing to the School of Art, Art History and Design (a large unit with its own well-supported processes) and return payroll processing to the English department (the unit with the largest number of employees).

These changes reduced turn-around times, and even allowed the team to add several small, understaffed units in the college to their service group. With some month-to-month variability, the team’s work volume is trending consistently upward — while maintaining a steadfast error rate of less than 2 percent.

The shared services center regularly asks for feedback from all participating units, to stay flexible in responding to changing needs and goals. In response to an informal survey, a staff member from the Dance program said that to have access to the center “feels like such a wonderful luxury.” A School of Music staff member put it more simply: “We are successful because of you.”