Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 19, 2017

What does it mean to share services?

In many areas of the UW, if you don’t know how to get something done — post a graduate student assistant position, buy a new laptop, reimburse an expense or track the status of grant funding, for example — it can take time to figure it out. Unit administrators often wear many hats and process countless types of transactions. Many wish they could do less paperwork and devote more time to efforts that more directly benefit the faculty and students of their department, school or college.

hands-typing-6Sharing staff across units to improve service for everyone

Shifting to a shared service model is a way for participating groups to simplify processes for the faculty, staff and students who use common services. Groups can share resources and funding across units, departments, schools or colleges by forming a team to improve service to all participating units. Units usually opt in to a shared service model and choose from a menu of services. The shared service center staff are accountable to the participating units to perform work based on agreed upon measures such as turn-around time and quality. Ideally, the result is quicker, better, more reliable service.

Economies of scale, even for small units

By sharing, smaller units can benefit from economies of scale without losing local control and accountability to their unique needs. The primary goal of shifting to this model is to improve service, not to cut costs, although efficiencies sometimes generate savings or opportunities to redeploy funds.

A single “front door”

In a shared service model, there is one starting place for a wide range of work. An email, phone call or log in prompts shared service center staff to direct requests to the person who can best respond. By having one “front door,” staff can also triage requests, ensuring that a grant with a looming deadline, for example, is attended to before a less urgent request like finding a research-sponsor contact.

Best suited to transactional work, but not exclusively

Highly transactional work, especially that which occurs less frequently in the individual units, is well suited to shared services. Work that is compliance-focused, infrequent but specialized, or supported by systems is also a good fit. Many shared service centers tackle routine business functions such as travel planning and voucher reimbursement, purchasing and payroll. Standard communications efforts such as web design or marketing can also work well when shared. Even advancement functions can be shared if units have common or overlapping goals and donor bases.

Often frees up local administrators to focus on mission-specific work

Moving to a shared service model can allow units to create a tiered model of service. Participating units can send transactional work to the shared service center to be done more quickly at higher volume. This frees up the unit administrators to specialize or do more mission-specific, complex work such as advising or curriculum support.

More accountability than with purely centralized services

Participating units usually sign agreements to form shared service centers. These “service-level agreements” include details about what exactly the shared service group will do for the unit and clarify expectations around performance. In contrast, centralized units set agendas centrally and are less accountable to groups who use their service.

Rethinking the work, not just moving it

A shift to shared services usually entails rethinking both the work itself and how the team handles work coming in. It also may involve training all members of the team on a range of tasks so that any employee in the shared-service unit can work on any transaction. Once established, teams focus on continuously improving their services based on staff input and customer feedback.

Table graphic
View table as a PDF

Additional Resources

Groups at the UW are employing a range of shared service models. Some examples include:

For communications/information
College of the Environment
Foster School of Business

For business functions
College of Arts & Sciences Shared Services
School of Medicine’s Administrative Business Center (ABC)
UW HR, payroll and benefits Integrated Service Center
Enrollment Information Services

For advancement
Academic & Student Affairs
College of Engineering

If your group is interested in exploring shared services, contact a colleague from one of these UW units, learn more about other universities using shared services, or email