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Cannot Have Shared Services Without Stakeholder Buy-In

Stakeholder Buy-In Critical to Success for Shared Services
Higher education institutions are increasingly looking at shared services as a mechanism to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, but without sufficient buy-in from staff and faculty, the project could struggle to succeed.

The following email Q&A is with Kathleen Bienkowski, associate vice president for research administration at Emory University. Bienkowski heads up the Shared Services Organization (SSO) at Emory and was a critical player in developing SSOs throughout her career. SSOs are being considered by postsecondary leaders across the country as a way to create efficiencies and reduce operating costs while improving service. In this Q&A, she discusses the importance of stakeholder buy-in to ensure the successful launch and long-term viability of SSOs, and shares her thoughts on some of the major challenges and roadblocks that can stand in the way of their successful implementation.

1. Why is it critical for institutional leaders to get buy-in from staff and faculty when undertaking a major initiative to create efficiencies across the institution?

The success of an SSO is ultimately dependent on the satisfaction levels of their customer base. No matter how well the SSO performs against operational/objective metrics, if the customer-set data is negative, the SSO will not succeed.

Moving to any new operating model represents a significant organizational change. As such, SSO leadership typically spends a great deal of time on addressing change management issues and responding to “noise,” politics and perceptions, all of which detract from focusing on leading a high-performing operation. If the future customer base feels like a shared services initiative is being done “to” them instead of “with” them, the SSO will have an even more uphill journey from the start.

2. What are some of the steps you would suggest postsecondary leaders take when moving to create a successful SSO?

I was not with Emory when the SSO initiative began. However, I was involved in building the SSO from the start with my prior employer. I think the keys are:

    • Have a clear, explicit understanding of the drivers for the shared services initiative. This helps ensure consistent, clear messaging about the initiative and focus when there are competing priorities.


    • Articulate/communicate the case for change. Conduct a thorough current state analysis to understand what’s working well and what isn’t, and gain explicit agreement on the opportunities for improvement (i.e. get staff/faculty to agree/understand that everything is not perfect and/or that the current state is not a viable option for the future).


    • Pre-SSO metrics are many times not available. However, if they are, capture those baselines for measuring against future SSO performance.


    • Actively involve senior leadership to deliver messages across the university. It should be clear the SSO initiative is being driven by the top and the SSO leadership/implementation team has been charged to execute on the strategy.


  • Establish a governance board with well-respected members of faculty and staff. Board members should serve as “ambassadors” for the model with their peer groups across the university.

3. How can institutions meet the specific needs of individual units while also serving the wider priorities and infrastructural demands of the institution? In essence, how can institutions achieve a “highest common denominator” style of service management?

This is always a challenge. Every group is “special” or “unique”— they will tell you they are.

I always shoot for the 80/20 rule. Under this approach, 80 percent of what the SSO does should be standard/consistent across the board. If not, the key benefits of such a model will be compromised. But, if you shoot for 100 percent consistency across the board, you will likely face some of the issues discussed in the first question above — customer opposition, etc.

The remaining 20 percent can represent unit-specific customization. The key when allowing for customization is to ensure (and all are in agreement) there’s a valid reason for the difference. This can be a bit of an iterative process. For example, you may start out 70/30 and, over time, as acceptance of the model and trust develops, you can increase consistency across the board. After all, as the SSO becomes increasingly ingrained in the organization, the “valid” reasons different customers have for their customization may not be as valid over time.

 4. What are some of the biggest roadblocks institutional leaders will encounter when undertaking a project such as a shared services initiative?

There are some significant roadblocks leaders need to be aware of when developing such a program. First, the fear of the loss of control by the future “customer” organization is a big roadblock to overcome as people’s response to that fear is to dispute/challenge the model. Also, leaders must watch out for opposition from people left in the “retained” organization, as they will be concerned about not having enough to do. This concern arises because these staff may feel their job security is challenged. As such, the implementation/change management effort can’t just focus on the shared services organization; it must include the redesign of the retained organization as well.

Additionally, people in the current organization sometimes don’t see a reason for change as they believe things are working well currently and/or cannot be improved upon. Their attitude is, simply, “Why fix what isn’t broken?” Also, as they’re vested in the current model (it’s their “baby,” so to speak), they can become defensive and take it personally when current challenges/opportunities are identified. Sometimes, people will actually try to sabotage the initiative or, more passively, just hope it will fail — and be glad if it does.

Next, not necessarily a roadblock but a challenge, is the lack of availability of baseline data (e.g. performance metrics, costs, etc.) to enable future comparisons of effectiveness of the pre-shared services model versus post-implementation.

As with all major changes in higher education, we must be aware of the financial impact. Many times a key driver of implementing a shared service model is to reduce overall costs. However, there are costs associated with implementing the model, both hard (project managers, consultants, technology purchases, etc.) and soft (cost of existing staff members time dedicated to supporting the implementation). In addition, sometimes there’s a need for additional resources over a period of time until the shared services operations reaches steady state. It can be difficult to quantify this interim additional funding needed and it can be difficult to secure it as well. The saying, “you have to spend money to make money” is somewhat applicable here.

The scope and scale of the initiative and/or the impact of other competing initiatives in the organization can have an impact on the SSO. If it’s too small, there may not be enough momentum to move it forward and/or enough upside to make the implementation effort worthwhile. If it’s too big, it can fail because it may take too long or be too complicated to successfully implement.

Finally, institutional politics and culture can make or break an SSO (as it can for any other major change or implementation in the institutional setting).

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