Notes from the field: NACUBO, staff engagement, and innovation

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The Business Affairs Forum sent several of its researchers to the 2017 NACUBO annual meeting, which convened in Minneapolis, Minn., under the banner of “Currents of Collaboration”—a theme referring to CBOs’ responsibility for bringing together diverse teams on campus in pursuit of common goals. While in Mill City, the EAB team participated in a range of sessions on topics related to ERP implementation, risk management, financial reporting, AMCs, and benchmarking—all in order to keep tabs on topics of greatest interest to CBOs and to connect them to themes covered by ongoing EAB research.

Engage staff in transforming the organization

As the Business Affairs Forum has delved into the question of how to “modernize” the administrative work of universities through both process improvement and organizational realignment, one theme has become patently clear: widespread staff engagement and buy-in is critical for success. Investigating instances in higher education where business process transformations have succeeded—and where they have not—affirms trends similar to what is seen in the private sector, where innovation efforts have an 80% success rate when frontline staff are actively involved in shaping the change.

Themes of communication, staff engagement, and change management dominated many presentations at NACUBO—not surprising, given that greater operational efficiency and effectiveness requires upending reporting lines and changing workflows that have become embedded in institutions. Leaders of the Network for Change and Continuous Innovation posited that campuses’ ability to innovate depends on staff engagement. EAB’s 100+ interviews with administrative leaders supports this conclusion, given that frontline staff often know best how an institution’s business processes are broken, and are therefore invaluable allies in sourcing ideas for how to fix them.

Move from concept to action

Still, it’s one thing to talk about staff engagement in the change process, and another to do something about it. Whether freeing staff capacity by eliminating unnecessary process steps, handoffs, and approvals, or transforming service delivery by introducing shared services or consortia-like partnerships, any success hinges on bringing the rest of campus onboard—and the sooner, the better.

The Business Affairs Forum has identified a baseline set of recommended approaches, including administrators’ forums, surveys, and focus groups, to engage staff in the change early and often. Other campuses have taken staff engagement further in their transformation initiatives: one institution has created a year-long mentorship program to help high-performing staff develop change management and leadership techniques of their own, transforming them into champions of change on campus. Another provides monetary awards to staff who implement the greatest ideas for simplifying business processes and realizing cost savings.

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