Streamlining The Administrative Function

In the book Organizational Paradigm Shifts, Kidwell and O'Brien argue The new economic realities confronting higher education require a serious rethinking of the way that work is done, the way it is organized, and the systems needed to support the academic enterprise.

Alternatively, as described: Today's "corporate" re-engineers are taking apart current hierarchical business models and are developing in their stead process-oriented organizational structures.

Slowly but surely process-focused business structures are making their way into higher education. On the administrative side of the house, project teams are the means to lead and manage enterprise technology initiatives, organizational efforts that require significant business process redesign.

What Makes Project Teams So Critical?

Project teams are a byproduct of the lack of process-focus in the traditional hierarchy of business units. For example, in enterprise initiatives, project teams manage the redesign of a procurement process, with representation from the finance division. The finance division will eventually inherit elements of the new system, but is not in a position to take apart the current system and reassemble on its own.

With consultants having implemented elsewhere, partnering closely with "loaned" internal experts in the procurement process, the new team works to unravel the current business practices that make up procurement. When the new system comes into being, management's expectation is that the project team will disband, consultants will depart, and employees will return to their permanent roles, albeit with a new set of skills. It's when these employees move back to their respective jobs that the disconnect in process-oriented work and hierarchical structures reveal itself.

What Is A Process?

By definition, processes are about inputs and outputs, with sequential steps that lead to a recognizable benefit for a customer. (however you define the customer) Pick any example of business activity in your organization-paying a vendor, buying supplies or hiring a person. These processes run horizontally across the organization, traversing multiple business units. At the same time, the business units responsible for specialized administrative functions are managed vertically, each owning a piece of the larger process.

The basic dilemma with hierarchical structures is that they are primarily set up to maintain control, not manage ongoing change. But in the words of Yogi Berra "It ain't over til it's over", and these projects ain't ever over.

Are We Done Yet?

One of the problems with process projects is what is meant by the term "over". Redefining a business process may appear to be simply replacing an existing system with a new one. On the surface this is true, except that it always takes longer than expected for the "new" process to become "old" again. Is the project "over" when the system goes live? Is it when the project team disbands? The truth is once a new process is in place, the process of acclimation is just beginning. And it's those hierarchical structures that end up inheriting the responsibility for bringing acclimation of the new process to the larger organization.

Information Flow-Vertical Or Horizontal?

Hierarchical structures manage up and down, but not across units. Processes, on the other hand, flow horizontally across business units. The result is administrative structures have little understanding how current and new systems touch departments outside their own.

When employees who participated on the project move back into permanent positions, they are often given the responsibility over some piece of the new system. It doesn't take long for them to realize that the existing administrative structures, (such as HR, Payroll, Student Services or Finance) each own a piece of the new process, but are collectively an impediment to supporting ongoing improvement. The communication and activities that flowed easily within the project team now don't exist among these structural silos. With this pattern repeating itself over and over again on technology projects, management ends up keeping the project team intact and/or retain consultants, both options interpreted as unexpected consequences of poor project management.

In hindsight, these projects are bound to create an ongoing need for external departmental support. Sponsors should consider at the very least to open the question of how the transition will flow back from the project team to the administrative departments. This conversation should happen early in the project, when business structures can be evaluated and potentially modified to accomodate new processes. Unfortunately, this is rarely done and causes much misunderstanding and chaos at the end of the formal project phase.

The Greater Dilemma

An even greater dilemma facing senior management is this: Just when they are looking for the benefits of their investment to start paying off, does it become apparent that the strategic value outline in the project charter has been hijacked by the sea of technical and structural hurdles. It becomes almost impossible to effectively manage IT, HR and Finance groups through this maze of challenges. In this case, the structural silos play havoc on the expectations for a timely return on investment.

So What Can Be Done?

Without completely re-engineering the administrative function (which is a great idea but may not happen in your tenure) what would it look like to loosen up the top-down approach? First, it needs to be acknowledged that project-style work more closely supports these strategic initiatives and must be integrated across organizational structures, especially when the project is perceived as "over". The inter-relatedness of department activities and employee day-to-day work demands more people understand the big picture and where they fit in.

Secondly, faculty and administrators need to demonstrate better collaboration across administrative and academic departments. This is critical to improving process flow. Institutions can no longer afford to have the highest form of problem-solving across these two groups be faculty complaining about administrator's lack of mission focus and administrator's complaints about lack of faculty compliance. Both sides need to genuinely start working together if business processes are going to improve.

Finally, sponsors of administrative initiatives needs to take a more active role in leading people to the promise land of improved business performance. There is so much inertia to maintain traditional hierarchical structures as they are. Leadership needs to get creative in taking apart existing departmental structures and bring more process-style thinking directly into the groups that own these systems. It's only then that the disruption created by taking apart old systems and creating new ones that the intended benefit will get realized in a more fluid and timely way.

Facilitation Tip

One of the most useful low-tech tools that a facilitator can employ is introducing "Post-it" notes into group dialogue. Invented by Art Fry back in the 1970's, the Post-it's create the following value:

  1. It allows individuals to generate ideas before settling in on any one path.
  2. Because of the size of the Post-It, people are forced to describe their idea in succinct ways.
  3. Once displayed on a board, the group can participate by reorganizing the information, thereby creating collaborative opportunities for discussion. The next time you want a group to brainstorm, give each person a post-it pad and ask them to write down five ideas. Then post each on the wall and discuss. As obvious as this is as a brainstorming tool, it is rarely utilized by groups working through a problem. Don't wait for consultants to introduce these in your group!

Excellent Reading!

Here are three books that focus on improving the quality of Administrative functions in Higher Education:

Responsibility Centered Management -- Jon Strauss and John Curry
RCM or Responsibility Centered Management is the coupling of financial choice with consequence, seeking to right the imbalance of authority lying with faculty in departments and schools, while most responsibility lying with Central Administration.

The Strategic Attitude-Integrating Strategic Planning Into Daily University Work -- Nathan Dickmeyer
Learning how to integrate strategic thinking into day-to-day management can transform an institution into a strategic organization that operates with an effective understanding of environment, mission and values.

Organizational Paradigm Shifts -- NACUBO Selected Authors
Collection of essays that explore different methods of seeking, implementing and coping with a new higher education paradigm, i.e. the growing demands institutions face to reduce costs, improve quality, and work harder to meet the needs of their customers.