Task forces eye administrative efficiencies

Four task forces continue to work on ways to increase efficiency on campus, focusing specifically on human resources, information technology, research administration and non-departmental administrative support units.

Increased coordination in administration across the university is needed to improve efficiency and, ultimately, save money, according to groups charged by Provost John Etchemendy with reviewing human resources, information technology, research administration and non-departmental administrative support units.

The groups have been part of a campus-wide effort to increase efficiency on campus and to help the university adjust to the loss of staff positions and departmental resources resulting from last year's budget cuts.

In a letter last October, Etchemendy wrote to the campus, "The president and I do not think it is reasonable to expect fewer people supported by fewer resources to work twice as hard to accomplish the work of the university. We need to find ways to enhance our efficiency."

After a year of work, the provost concluded, "The task forces have all made progress, but increased efficiency continues to be a work in progress."

Collaboration across units

The four task forces were the idea of Tim Warner, vice provost for budget and auxiliaries management, who has overseen their work during the academic year.

Warner said last year's budget cuts, although effective, failed to look strategically across administrative units for functional areas that, if revised, might lead to greater efficiency and – in some cases – cost savings. This approach, he said, is similar to efforts at other universities, including the University of North Carolina, University of California-Berkeley and Cornell.

Summaries of the ongoing work of each group are part of the annual budget report, released in late May. Among the reported outcomes:

  • The Human Resources Task Force has identified benefits that could result from the creation of "centers of excellence" to handle a number of activities that are now distributed. These service centers would allow local HR staff to operate more strategically and focus on working closely with managers to create more performance-oriented and productive work environments.
  • The Information Technology Task Force is preparing to recommend how more widespread use of central services such as email and calendar services, cellular telephone services and desktop support could increase efficiency and reduce costs.
  • The Research Administration Task Force, using information garnered from several outside consultants, recommends acceleration of Stanford's Electronic Research Administration System (SeRA), expansion of training and support for research administrators and the development of a local cluster to support smaller schools.
  • The Non-Departmental Administrative Support Task Force is still analyzing data on the organizational structures, missions, staffing levels and finances of some 360 support structures located in centers, institutes and other non-departmental entities.

Ongoing work

Given the breadth of the university's operations, a year has not proven enough time for at least the Non-Departmental Administrative Support Task Force, according to Adam Daniel, senior associate dean for finance and administration in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The task force is still analyzing results of a survey on 360 non-departmental units (NDUs). During the summer, task force members plan to continue meeting with schools that have NDUs.

Daniel said there is a wide range and diversity of NDUs, although only a handful of administrative models. Some NDUs, he notes, have achieved efficiency by sharing resources among several units or by associating with an academic department.

"In our report," he said, "we noted the models that we thought were most promising and that might be adopted as a 'best practice' by other units."

But Daniel said task force members do not believe in a "one-size-fits-all solution" for NDUs.

"Our research suggested that good administrative models need to be linked closely to the mission, purpose and functions of the unit," he said. "We concluded that, while further efficiencies are certainly possible, a diverse and complex academic environment has to tolerate a certain amount of diversity in its administrative environment."

SeRA acceleration

The Research Administration Task Force plans to reconvene in the fall to review progress from new and ongoing initiatives, according to task force co-chair Robert Simoni, the Donald Kennedy Chair in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of biology.

The task force's work, he said, benefited from insight from several external reviews of research administration and from reorganization within the Office of Sponsored Research. Already under way, for instance, is implementation of SeRA, the electronic research administration system, which is speeding the grant approval process.

Research administration, Simoni says, is a "very complicated business," starting with the submission of grants to their management to the conclusion of contracts. Different sponsoring agencies often have widely varying requirements.

Simoni says task force members have recommended creation of a Stanford research administration portal and additional training for those involved in managing grants. Task force members also would like to see implementation accelerated of so-far-successful SeRA modules, but only if quality is not compromised.

Converged communications

Also proceeding is implementation of some consolidated information technology services, according to the Information Technology Task Force report.

Task force members learned that Stanford employs about 1,132 information technology professionals and only a quarter of them work in the central IT Services and Administrative Systems units. As a result, the group focused on efficiencies that could be gained university-wide through coordinated and shared services, rather than focusing on the central IT departments.

Specifically, task force members recommend migration to a "converged communications" solution that bundles voice services and local network administration and simplifies billing. The new system would allow users to integrate their desk and mobile phones. It also promises to save money through improved pricing models.

The task force also recommends ending reimbursements for individually purchased cellular telephone plans and leveraging university contracts and volume to provide lower rates. Such a service would end the time-consuming and onerous process of reimbursing some 4,000 mobile telephone bills submitted by employees each month. Individual calls might still be reimbursed.

Task force members also are continuing to study managed or virtual desktop/laptop support and consolidation of storage and server virtualization.

Improving HR processes

The Human Resources Task Force was led by co-chairs Diane Peck, vice president for human resources, and Maureen McNichols, the Marriner S. Eccles Professor of Public and Private Management in the Graduate School of Business.

The task force looked objectively at how HR is done at Stanford and how it compares to peer organizations in higher education and the corporate world. Members also sought suggestions for improvement on all aspects of its operations by all affected participants. McNichols notes that Peck told peer reviewers, "There are no sacred cows here."

The group used a wide range of information in reaching its recommendations. These include internal data and metrics, surveys of HR staff and university-wide administrative staff, a peer review conducted by external HR executives and discussions with two consulting firms that are doing similar work in other academic environments.

In addition to the recommendation to create service centers to handle a number of HR functions, the task force suggested supporting supervisors in their people management responsibilities through education and technology; flattening the organization to reduce complexity, training needs and communications challenges and to improve efficiency and decision-making; and simplifying people management policies and processes.

Ideally, the organizational resources generated by these changes would allow greater focus on employee development so employees can achieve higher levels of performance, greater job satisfaction and more rewarding careers.

During the summer, the task force will meet with senior leaders in schools and administrative units to discuss these recommendations in more detail and to get further input from them on next steps for improving HR efficiency and effectiveness.