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Getting down to business: A how-to guide for kickstarting administrative efficiency initiatives on campus

January 5, 2024, By Ann Forman Lippens, Managing Director, Research

There’s no doubt: higher education institutions face an increasingly tight budget environment. Leaders now confront a seemingly relentless series of headwinds: government funding (such as HEERF) has dried up, inflation is the highest it’s been in two decades, and a tight labor market has put pressure on salary and benefit costs. Even more, capital needs are only growing with construction projects running over budget and deferred maintenance backlogs soaring to new heights.

As a result, cabinet leaders are increasingly focused on reining in administrative and academic sprawl. Even state flagship institutions like West Virginia University have gone so far as to announce dramatic cuts to academic programs (though their administrative efforts have gotten far less fanfare). The scale of these cuts signals that university leaders are ready to support change in a way they have not been in the past.

Even with a newfound readiness, college and university leaders do not always know where to begin. EAB recommends that while all enrollment-stressed institutions examine both academic and administrative operations, it is critical that leaders lead with administrative cost containment. Even if the work proceeds in parallel, acknowledging that leaders have taken a hard look at administrative efficiency signals to the broader campus that all units are under scrutiny. (And it is important that senior leaders be able to point to administrative interventions so that faculty do not feel targeted.)

With that in mind, this blog post first defines enterprise-level administrative efficiency and then outlines an appropriate sequencing of efforts to jumpstart this work.

What can administrative efficiency efforts achieve at scale?

Efficiency exists at many levels, from individual tasks and roles up to enterprise-level initiatives. At scale, administrative efficiency seeks to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Resource preservation

    The primary intention is to ensure work is completed with minimal wasted resources (time, steps, money). This enables staff to prioritize mission-critical activities and not get bogged down in bureaucratic transactions.
  • Economies of scale

    The second goal of administrative efficiency is achieving greater scale with existing resources. In higher education, this often looks like unlocking decentralized talent in academic units and moving to more centralized teams (at the college level or even central administration). But regardless of the resource, the intention is to maximize productivity.

  • Business continuity

    The third goal of administrative efficiency is to ensure work continues under a broad range of conditions. For instance, standardizing processes so work can easily be reassigned from one unit to the next (and enabling staff to fully take PTO); or ensuring different units have consistent access to the same function (e.g., HR, Research Administration).

  • Customer service

    The final goal is improved customer service. An efficient university need not be one that puts customer needs second. In fact, improved customer service is at the forefront of many administrative transformation efforts in higher education.

While these goals are not mutually exclusive with one another, an administrative efficiency initiative that does not align with one of these outcomes is usually improperly scoped or not worth the effort.

What are the different ways to achieve administrative efficiency?

Leaders have a few options on where to start when it comes to administrative efficiency: 1) process improvement or 2) strategic reorganization and other talent-centric intervention. Many leaders recognize the power of technology to fuel efficiency gains, but enterprise-level technology investments nearly always require being paired with the two options outlined below.

Option 1: Start with process improvement—or at least standardization

One option is to start with process improvement. This can occur on many levels, from standardizing one or a handful of processes all the way to a culture of continuous improvement. In this environment, processes are constantly evaluated and reinvented to ensure that efficiency is not stagnant.

When leading with process improvement, leaders often streamline and standardize administrative processes first. Once leaders have a single version of the truth when it comes to critical back-office functions, the institution will be better positioned to address more systemic or decentrally managed processes. Many institutions start with HR processes such as position requisition. Clemson University reduced the number of days required to post a new position from 11 to 5.5 days after process improvement efforts.

Ready to get started on process improvement efforts? Check out EAB’s resource center to jumpstart improvement efforts on campus.

Option 2: Start with a strategic reorganization of talent

The second option is to lead with organizational changes by moving staff into different units and/or functions. Most commonly, this is where institutions in highly decentralized environments begin. Universities where many administrative functions live with academic support staff can often reap productivity gains by moving those staff into more centralized teams.

Several years ago, the student affairs division of one large public research institution decided to consolidate its information technology staff and services across 31 units into a single organization. The new shared services center was split into two parts: the Office Technology Center that focused on hardware, server administration, and desktop support, and Student Affairs Information Technology, which focused on programming.

Can technology investments activate administrative efficiencies?

Software solutions can be paired with option one or two but do not offer a standalone solution.

Some business leaders see new technology platforms as a third option for improvement. While it is fair to see technology as a critical piece of administrative efficiency, it is not itself a tool to achieve efficiency. For instance, one regional public institution shared that it previously had 16 different soft ledger systems to generate and track tickets across different academic and administrative units. They recently migrated to a single platform but have yet to see productivity gains because the units have not come to agreement on a single shared process to submit, approve, and complete requests.

That said, institutions with the right data management infrastructure should consider pairing technology implementation with option one or two above.

Curious to learn how generative AI will impact productivity and other parts of campus? Register for our webinar, AI and the Future of Higher Education.

Where should I focus my efforts first?

EAB typically recommends that begin with process improvement to simplify, standardize, and automate end-to-end processes. Then, institutions are better positioned to reorganize talent and scale administrative services. However, some institutions have seen success by focusing on people. One UK university described a year-long effort to centralize all professional service staff into one unit. To achieve savings, the university reviewed every role, rewrote job descriptions, and offered staff buyouts.

Regardless of where they start, EAB recommends that institutions commit to greater efficiency by formalizing the responsibility of process improvement. Short of staffing the function, leaders should consider what training and resources they can provide to create a culture of continuous improvement.

Are you a CBO looking for more strategies to address administrative efficiency? Register for our 2024 CBO Roundtable today.

Ann Forman Lippens

Ann Forman Lippens

Managing Director, Research

Read Bio

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