Staff Effectiveness and the Modern Efficient Institution
The following email Q&A is with Kendra Cooks, controller at The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte. As public higher education institutions grow and expand, even as their available resources and operational budgets shrink, operational efficiency has become a top-of-mind focus for administrators. UNC Charlotte looked to achieve efficiencies by finding ways for staff to become more effective. In this Q&A, Cooks reflects on the impact of that experience and discusses the importance of improved efficiency to the success of the modern postsecondary institution.
1. What impact does staff competency have on operational efficiency at a higher education institution?
Staff competency has a direct linkage to operational efficiency, regardless of industry. It’s staff planning, preparation and execution that yields the efficiency gains sought by managers and executive leadership. Unlike other industries, colleges and universities serve multiple constituents that have overlapping, and at times competing, needs. Though many critics of higher education’s collaborative management model demand more business-like methods and decision making, others require that it operates as a charitable organization for the good of society. It’s this dichotomy that provides the challenges and rewards in managing higher education institutions.
To navigate this complexity, staff must be savvy of the environment, of business methods, of strategic objectives, and have a strong, analytical ability to clearly define all required elements of a solid business process to ensure compliance is a core building block in the architecture of the process. Developing, defining and refining business processes to ensure business needs are met efficiently requires a keen understanding and view of each process across the organization. ‘Silo’ mentality and ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ philosophies don’t make the grade in the classroom, nor on the business side of the organization.
At UNC Charlotte, key leaders understood the need to equip staff with skills and tools related to the definition of effective business processes, documentation of those processes and identification of improvements along the way to ensure streamlined, customer-focused delivery of service. In 2007, 44 staff were trained in business process analysis to direct change management efforts across campus. Equipping staff with advanced analytical techniques led to effective results for the institution, including refined business processes, documented guidance to campus customers and development of key training programs for business managers and other partners across campus.
2. How do operational efficiency and streamlined processes impact the student experience?
Colleges and universities’ core mission is the education of their students. Any positive efforts that simplify our students’ interaction with academic and administrative functions positively impact that experience. UNC Charlotte has implemented a number of initiatives to simplify our students’ interface with the organization, including strategically co-locating service units like the registrar’s office, financial aid and student accounts; developing easy-to-navigate web presence through our content management project; developing straightforward policies using plain language; improving online services for advising, payment and electronic disbursements of financial aid funds; and developing needed services such as a book advance program to improve students’ preparation for the financial aspects of the college experience.
University leaders were increasingly concerned about student performance particularly in light of budget cuts in an environment of increasing enrollment and diversification of our student population. The Student Success Working Group (SSWG) was formed in 2011 to identify key initiatives to improve student success at UNC Charlotte. The philosophy of the SSWG is intertwined with that of its Quality Enhancement Program’s (QEP) student learning outcomes, designed to ensure academic and individual success.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 68 percent of high school graduates attend college, but only about 40 percent of those students graduate after four years. UNC Charlotte, in tandem with other UNC-system institutions, is focused on these issues. Our board of governors elected to shift performance funding criteria to emphasize the following academic measures in its evaluation of each campus:
- 1-Year Retention
- 6-Year Graduation
- 4-Year Graduation
- 4-Year Graduation, Transfer Students
- Degrees Awarded to Pell Recipients
- Degree Efficiency
- Undergraduate Attempted Hours
- STEM/Health Degrees Awarded
- Financial Integrity
- Alumni Participation in Annual Giving
Data gathered allowed the SSWG to refine policies and processes to deliver exceptional service to students to enhance their success:
- New Student Start-Up
- Orientation Messages
- Early Warning Systems
- Freshman Seminars and Learning Communities
- The Road to Recovery: 49er Rebound
- Access and Active Learning
- Large Course Redesign
- Community Engagement and Experiential Learning
- Retaining High Performing Student
- Clarifying Progression: Prescriptive Degree Maps
We continue to focus on improvements to all aspects of the student experience. The University has implemented targeted programs, such as the Levine Scholars to promote scholarship, ethical leadership and civic engagement; an Early College High School program to improve the local pipeline for engineering students; and the Passport program to facilitate ease of transfer into higher education. The University has focused on meeting the financial needs of our students through the deployment of a Scholarship Office chartered to identify and support funding, which is complemented by our first financial literacy program.
3. A few years ago, UNC Charlotte engaged in a project to train managers to implement effective process improvements, helping to streamline UNC Charlotte’s back-end. What were the changes that came about as a result of this transformation?
Executive leadership in business affairs spearheaded training efforts for staff to implement process improvements. Partnering with the continuing education department, a business process analysis program was leveraged to provide the training and tools needed for our managers. Six committees comprised of 44 faculty and staff participated in the inaugural process improvement project focused on payments made by the university by category — vendors, employees, students, grants and contracts, non-residents (for tax purposes) and capital/project design. Staff completed training and worked collaboratively within their assigned teams to document as-is business processes, perform gap analyses, conduct assessments and develop new processes and recommendations.
Key changes include:
- Staff speak the same language related to business processes and continuous improvement
- We generally think of process first when looking at documentation or improvement projects
- Trained staff are tapped to serve as improvement champions and facilitators across campus and additional staff are participating in BPA training
- Processes are reviewed and streamlined before the start of key projects to maximize results
- Operational areas leveraged training to document and optimize processes including the controller’s office and facilities management
- More processes are documented and published throughout campus
- Staff continue to teach process improvement concepts to maintain and enhance results and we are relating it to strategic planning and metrics
- Key areas, like the controller’s office, review their processes annually to ensure continuous improvement is planned
Selected improvement projects conducted include:
- Implementation of an eProcurement system
- Development of a purchasing card program
- Development of an online scholarship award process for students
- Completion of the controller’s office process documentation project and business continuation planning
- Implementation of direct deposit for payroll, vendor payments and student disbursements
- Implementation of a mobile communications devices policy and procedures
- Development of web time entry system
- Implementation of a pilot document imaging project
- Development of a grants and contracts certification and a business manager certification program to ensure competency throughout the organization
4. Ultimately, how has the institution benefitted from this transformation of staff roles?
UNC Charlotte is a young, vibrant organization growing in tandem with the city of Charlotte. To meet the educational needs of the region, resources have understandably been initially focused on the educational mission to deliver needed services to our students. With growth came the increasing complexity of managing the state’s urban research institution within a very lean administrative infrastructure.
In 2008, thoughtful university planning and strategic funding provided sorely needed staffing resources for administration that were largely redirected to meet the challenges of the economic downturn that subsequently followed. Many areas of the university are staffed administratively at levels that existed for our 8,000-student population, even though we have grown to our current 27,000-student population environment. For UNC Charlotte, operational efficiency is a strategic imperative to meet increased demands for our services while managing the increased complexity of the fastest growing campus in the UNC system.
UNC Charlotte and the UNC system have been involved in a number of strategic initiatives to improve operational performance and chart ways to attain the educational goals of the state. UNC Charlotte is uniquely positioned to deliver on these goals and accounted for 48 percent of the growth in the system since 2008.
The institution has clearly benefited from the transformation of staff roles as it relates to a continued focus on operational efficiency. A mindset of continuous improvement is in place and must be for our staff to meet increasing demands of our growing organization within current staffing levels. Additional projects have been conducted with the same operational improvement philosophies and means to leverage technology whenever possible are consistently sought.
Additional projects underway will focus on streamlining administrative processes in research to support growth goals, refining our processes to support our new football program as it enters into Conference USA, and completing our IT master plan, which will be instrumental in driving additional operational efficiency throughout campus. For an administratively lean campus — with one of the highest student-to-full time employee ratios in our system — when you use the term ‘more with less,’ UNC Charlotte knows exactly what that means. Operational efficiency is our way of meeting the increasing demands for our exceptional academic programs with existing faculty and staff without losing quality.
Author Perspective: Administrator