Collaboration has led to efficiencies in areas such as procurement and shared services, but it can be a challenge to embed this culture. The University of Nottingham’s Paul Greatrix shares his experiences of a successful collaboration with the University of Birmingham.
Whilst universities are, in theory, highly collegial and collaborative environments, in practice it can be hard to share ideas and approaches across departmental boundaries. This is as true in professional services as with academic departments.
At the University of Nottingham we have been working with the University of Birmingham in a broad collaborative arrangement for more than three years now. Much of the joint activity in this time has been research-focused and has included:
Building on existing collaborations – including involvement in the Midlands Physics Alliance, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, and the Midlands Energy Consortium – as well as new partnerships.
The award of several million pounds in research funding by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Arthritis Research UK to jointly explore ways to reduce the pain and disability caused by ageing.
Nottingham and Birmingham are also formal partners in three large Research Council-supported Doctoral Training Centres.
We have made significant inroads into Brazil over the past 12 months including a £480,000 fund for research projects between the universities and Brazilian institutions in São Paulo State, and a PhD scholarship scheme.
With others we have continued to promote equipment sharing via the M5 group.
To help support new collaborative ventures we also jointly provided a collaboration fund which has so far allocated over £400k to support new joint developments between academics at both universities.
Given that much of the emphasis and successes have been in academic collaborations, my counterpart at Birmingham, Lee Sanders, and I were keen to see what we could do together which might lead to collaborative developments, but also to improved practices in both institutions through sharing of experiences and ideas. We therefore decided to organise a ‘sandpit’.
Based on the model adopted by some of the research councils in looking to find new approaches to particular areas which they can then decide (or not) to fund, the Birmingham/Nottingham Professional Services Sandpit brought together a diverse group of administrative staff together from both institutions for a two-day residential. The aim was to enhance agility in the professional services and to tackle bottlenecks through innovative shared approaches. With the help of an experienced external facilitator, we sought to identify a small number of exciting ideas that could then be taken forward by staff from both universities working together.
Some half a dozen projects were identified during the course of the sandpit. Whilst it is fair to say that none has made an immediate fundamental difference to operations in the universities, the approach and the process has, I believe, really led to a change of attitude among staff and the development of a stronger sharing and collaborative culture both within and across the two institutions.
Buoyed by the success of this first sandpit, we arranged another one in the middle of 2014. This event involved a different cross-section of professional services staff and the theme of the day was “Efficiencies” with the aim being to devise a number of projects/schemes within that theme that we could take forward and develop either jointly or independently. Colleagues therefore focused on process efficiency and re-engineering and ways of removing bureaucracy to free up staff time. We also looked closely at the Diamond report and encouraged participants to explore the Efficiency Exchange website for inspiration.
The outcomes of this sandpit included collaborations on the benchmarking of services, space efficiency modelling and procurement opportunities in the areas of IT and Library services.
This remains, I think, a pretty distinctive approach to shared problem-solving in UK universities (certainly I’ve not heard of anything similar taking place elsewhere) and one of the many interesting aspects of the exercise was the speed and ease with which colleagues from the two institutions were able to begin collaborating and sharing experiences, ideas and proposals. Both universities feel it was appropriate to do this on a collaborative basis – over the past few years we have broken new ground with the partnership and we feel we are going even further with this collaborative activity.
I think the longer term effect of this approach is the emergence of a culture of greater openness and more inclination to sharing and collaborating both within and across the two universities in order to deliver more effective and efficient services. This can only be a good thing and lead to greater benefits in the long run.
Dr Paul Greatrix is registrar at the University of Nottingham
On Twitter @Registrarism