Taking a high level view at the University of Cumbria

Janet Whitworth
Janet Whitworth talks about adjusting to her new role as chief operating officer at the University of Cumbria with the requirement for good diary management – and a pair of wellies.

Taking up post as a COO means I am suddenly on almost every committee and meeting going and chairing a fair number of them. Ruthless diary management is required. I have also upped my game as a chair and really try to prepare in advance to ensure meetings are run to time and focused on the key issues and decisions. I still find some meetings in higher education have a tendency to become prolonged debates with no outcome if you don’t chair them actively.

Good advice from Jonathan Perks who did some management development sessions with our University senior team was to focus meeting agendas on no more than three big items – one main item and two supporting items. Another tip I was given in the past was “10 out of 10 for the right decision, 7 out of 10 for the wrong decision and 0 out of 10 for no decision” – get the information and evidence and make a decision!

Even with a busy diary it is important to carve out time to spend on the front line of operations. Apart from being great fun and very interesting, it really helps to get to know as many staff as possible and listen to their ambitions and concerns. With estates as part of my responsibilities it is a great opportunity to get my wellies on and have a look at our latest building developments. Thinking time is hard to get but I find our dispersed campus means lots of travelling and that is a good opportunity for cogitation.

Being a COO gives you a very clear high level view of operations in the University and helps to address some of the big questions such as outsourcing and shared services. Without the professional allegiance that goes with having a single directorate, the opportunities for efficiencies present themselves more readily. The hard bit isn’t spotting the efficiencies; it is delivering real cashable savings.

I am a supporter of shared services, but I believe it only works where there is a clear mandate from the top of both sharing organisations. Where one party is interested in delivering or receiving shared services and they can’t find anyone else who is like minded, it isn’t going to work. The best examples are delivered through two or more senior people from separate organisations deciding to share functions. Think big – you need scale to deliver savings that are worth the pain.

On the other hand, outsourcing is easier to achieve but I would counsel those outsourcing for the first time to select contractors who share your values. Don’t underestimate how much money you save through goodwill with an internal service. You may have just as much goodwill with an outsourced service but you will be charged for it.

I outsourced our Occupational Health provision at the University of Cumbria 18 months ago. We have saved significant amounts of money and improved the service, mainly because our provider, Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Hospitals Trust shares our values and ethos. Outsourcing can be difficult to manage with Trade Union colleagues but early engagement helps.

At the recent opening of our Business Interaction Centre in Carlisle I was discussing the merits of Prince 2 and ‘Lean’ with a new business leader. We agreed that Prince 2 is a great tool for project management if used appropriately and ‘Lean’ is great for engaging people in changing the way things are done.

A word of caution – before embarking on ‘Lean’ check that you have the right operating model in place first otherwise you can waste a lot of time improving the wrong process. For example you might apply ‘Lean’ to a manual process when it would be better to computerise or outsource the process first and then minimise waste.

Higher education is facing massive, possibly unprecedented, change. I am amazed at the resilience of our staff and the way they cope with the huge demands of changing a whole area of delivery such as redesigning the teacher training curriculum to cope with Schools Direct at the same time as keeping the day job going.

I am very conscious of needing to manage stress levels and support those who are feeling the pressure. I also need to ensure that my behaviour and morale is positive and encouraging at all times. When I have had a bad day I am always glad to get home to the farm. Mucking out can be quite therapeutic and my horse and donkey are very good listeners!

Janet Whitworth is chief operating officer at the University of Cumbria

Another version of this article appears on our partner site: Guardian management and administration hub.