Q&A: Provost Eric Isaacs and Vice President Rowan Miranda discuss Shared Services

Provost Eric D. Isaacs wrote to the UChicago community twice last year to discuss new initiatives aimed at improving the delivery of administrative services across campus. In the last several months, University leaders have begun to work with faculty and staff to assess their administrative needs and develop a new model for providing efficient, high-quality administrative support.

Isaacs and Rowan Miranda, Vice President for Operations and Chief Financial Officer, are overseeing the implementation of this new model, called Shared Services. They spoke to UChicago News about the benefits of a Shared Services approach and what changes faculty and staff can expect.

What is Shared Services?

RM: Over time, units start duplicating routine administrative activities. This is an expensive way to operate, and it is also hard to improve quality when services are so fragmented across the University. Shared Services involves consolidating routine functions into a new team solely focused on improving service satisfaction and reducing cost. 

What kinds of activities will be included in Shared Services?

RM: We are focused on the areas of finance, purchasing, human resources, information technology and research administration. A good example is something like routine support for laptops and desktops. Right now, there's a central organization that does this work, but there are many people in each of the units doing the same thing. Under Shared Services, the idea would be to establish a new service that could support the basic computing needs of everyone on campus.

EI: It’s important to note that researchers are going to have very specialized needs that this service is not meant to address. Shared Services is focused on only those processes that makes sense to standardize; purchasing a new laptop with a basic suite of software, for example. It is focused on services like paying bills—we have units that do this all over the University, all slightly different, which can cause errors and rework. In areas in which the divisions and schools have specialized needs, such as in preparing grant proposals, the administrative support will remain with the units.

Why did the University decide to move to a Shared Services approach?

EI: In conversations across campus with faculty, deans and staff, it became clear our faculty feel more and more burdened with administrative work. Growth in regulations and compliance only add to these burdens. We want to provide better administrative services to our faculty so their scholarship and teaching come first. Shared Services is about finding a way to provide better services that meet the needs of our community in a more intelligent way.

RM: One of the key positive attributes of a Shared Services model is what it means for employees. Today, you might have one or two employees working on finance tasks in a very small academic unit. The challenge is: How are you going to get access to career growth opportunities when you're in a unit that small—doing the same thing over and over? At leading institutions like Yale and Berkeley, after employees have worked in a Shared Service center, most employees really see the value of the model for their careers. They get a formal career path, there are new opportunities for promotion and they don't have to do the same thing forever. For example, you can start working in one area of HR and then transition to something new. So you get to develop deep expertise that's meaningful over a period of time, but you also can broaden your interests and have career growth opportunities.

What do you say to members of the University community who are satisfied with the services they currently receive, and like having a staff member in their department who can handle their needs directly?

RM: In terms of having somebody local, that's very important—in many areas, there will still be local support. The support will be coordinated between the unit and the Shared Service center. Every function is different in terms of proximity needed at the unit level; paying an invoice to Staples doesn't require as much interaction as working with an IT expert to assess your computing needs. We need to design the right proximity of the service to the user, and that is why we are working so closely with the schools and divisions to determine what activities should remain local.

As technology evolves, organizations in all industries have had to change. We have different expense management, human resources and payroll systems than we did 10 or 20 years ago. When they’re designed right, these systems do more of the work, and faculty and staff do less. It’s a challenge to learn something new, for all of us. But these new systems can have real benefits for everyone. For example, in expense management, it's common for organizations in a paper-based system to take six to eight weeks to reimburse people after they've traveled. Today we have the ability to pay travelers in a few days once expense reports are submitted.

Central administrative offices have not always had a strong track record at delivering great service quickly. How will moving more resources into these same areas result in improved service?

RM: Shared Services is very different from centralization. Under centralization, you would essentially move anything related to finance and put it together in one place—and that's the end of it. With Shared Services, you're really taking a look at a division’s or school’s administrative needs and asking, “Which tasks are really so routine and common across units versus those that are unique to the unit and should remain in the unit?” Shared Services is based on very careful assessments made by people who actually do the work, and you're only consolidating the routine parts of their activity. Also centralization means exclusively central control—the people who use the service have very little say. The Shared Service center is ultimately governed collaboratively by a board of people from across the University who use the service. That is a very important difference from centralization.

EI: Service can also be improved by providing employees with more knowledge and support. Currently you might have an IT or finance person working alone in a school or division to solve some complex problem. Shared Services does a better job of providing guidance and training that exists very inconsistently in our present model.

Is cost saving the primary goal of Shared Services?

EI: The primary goal is to provide significant value to the University. That’s the bottom line. That means we want to provide services that are not only excellent and meet the needs of our faculty, students and staff, but are also cost-effective. We think we can do both at the same time with Shared Services.

For example, the Research Computing Center provides a central resource for all University researchers who need access to high-end computing. Providing both experts in computing and data visualization, as well as access to high-end computing facilities, RCC takes advantage of economies of scale for a more efficient use of resources than any one department or institute could provide alone, and it has been used by more than 1,600 users in its first three years.

Also as we become more cost-effective, we can take those saved resources and reinvest them in what we’re all about, which is scholarship and education. The goal here really is to provide more value to our faculty, to our staff, to our administrators, and at the same time reinvest any savings we get back into our core mission.

Does consolidating routine administrative functions mean that there will be layoffs?

RM: As we continue to work with faculty and staff to design the model, our goal will be to manage staff attrition over time. In a large organization like the University of Chicago, you have turnover where people leave—either to other places in the University as they grow professionally, or to outside companies. There's an approach to managing those vacancies over the next two to three years that really minimizes the impact on current staff.

The transition to Shared Services has been challenging at other institutions. How will we learn from those experiences?

EI: The most important things we’ve learned from our peers is that it's essential to have an inclusive and consultative process and really understand the needs of faculty and staff in their respective units.

While we anticipate the process may be challenging, we believe that we have outstanding people here on campus who are committed to doing the right thing for our community and the future of this campus. We will make sure that our approach is tailored carefully to who we are and supports our core values.

Each unit at the University requires a unique mix of services. How will you take that into account?

EI: We will only succeed if we work closely with faculty and staff to understand their specific needs. Certainly we know some administrative needs are widely shared—Rowan talked about some of these, like laptop/desktop support services—but many are not. For example, pre-award support for proposals is going to be different between the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences.

These are complex questions, and we realize that getting the services right for each unit is going to take effort. We have an advisory committee involving deans, deputy deans and administrators that's working with us to help us make these decisions. Going forward, we plan to broaden our discussion to engage the faculty. There are working groups made up of representatives from across the University collaborating with us to determine the best way to move forward. And once a Shared Services approach is in place, we want to continue to work with faculty and staff to make sure the services are meeting their needs.

What is the timeline for implementation of shared services?

RM: We want to operate thoughtfully, so this will be a phased process. Since we’re completing the planning phase, we don’t know yet all of the specific functions that will be part of Shared Services. If it’s fewer functions, we can go faster; if it’s more functions, we’ll need more time. But right now, we expect we’ll start delivering some transaction processing services through the Shared Service center by early 2017, and finish many of the areas previously mentioned by December 2018. We want to be transparent about where we are in the process, so we are launching a Shared Services website to provide faculty and staff additional information and share project updates.