From the discovery of Richard III’s remains to launching a national sports medicine centre, Loughborough University chief operating officer Richard Taylor tells Rosie Niven about his career highlights and the importance of fixing ‘failure demand’ to improve efficiency.
There can’t be many university chief operating officers who have played a role in finding a lost king, but that is something Richard Taylor was involved with while director of corporate affairs and planning at the University of Leicester. He was responsible for the budget that funded the discovery of human remains in a Leicester car park, which were later identified as those of Richard III.
It’s two years on from the discovery of the Plantagenet King, whose final resting place had hitherto been the subject of some speculation. Taylor is now chief operating officer at Loughborough University, but last month he made the short journey south to reunite with former colleagues for the University of Leicester ceremony ahead of the reburial.
Capturing the imagination
Taylor says the project shows the value that high profile research of this kind offers British universities. “When you look at what came out of that project, it excited a lot of people,” he says. “You’ve captured the imagination, you have generated that interest and as a result, people can see the worth of high quality university research.” It even led to an unusual story in the Independent on 1 April.
While Taylor now has an cross-cutting role at Loughborough, he started out in marketing. He is clear about how his former employer’s open approach to handling the media and public engagement for this project benefited the university’s academic mission.
“I think the key lesson I would draw out of it is that high quality academic research and open engagement with the public are not incompatible, indeed, they are mutually reinforcing.
“The thing that was quite different about the Richard III project, the comms and the public engagement were built into the work from the very first cutting of the soil in August 2012, right through the the announcement of the outcome in February 2013.
“When you suddenly get into discussions about the importance of higher education and justifying the budget settlement, that openness pays off.”
While his marketing background might not be a typical one for a COO, Taylor says that some of the methodology in marketing is relevant in any sort of service organisation. ”Marketing as a systematic process prioritises the needs of end users, whether they be students or research funders,” he says.
Turning to the efficiency agenda, he says that his focus remains on making a system work well for the end user rather than making efficiency an end in itself. One of the causes of inefficiencies in universities, he notes, is ”failure demand”, or the increased demand on services from users seeking help when a system fails.
“By making the process more effective and stripping out the hand-offs and the workarounds, stripping out the duplication, you reduce failure demand, you increase end user satisfaction, but you also deliver a process that is inherently more efficient and less costly,” says Taylor.
“You don’t go into the process to make it more efficient per se, but the efficiency is the benefit that comes out of the back end of it.”
Taylor says that one characteristic of our universities is they are structure strong and process weak. He explains that this means that the workforce has a very clear idea of which bit of the structure they belong to and identifies with, but end users don’t experience the university through the same structure, but through its processes.
“Our structures can blind us to the end user experience,” notes Taylor. “There is a danger that from our vantage point of the structure, we only see part of the process.”
The role of COO is often seen as offering incumbents an unique overview of the university and sometimes the opportunity to shake things up. Taylor agrees with this assessment, adding that that he thinks that in some ways it is the only role that can do this.
“If you are the head of a professional service, while you have got significant authority, what you haven’t got authority of other areas to act on the process. That is what I can do that the others can’t. The vice chancellor has to run, not just the operating process side of things, but the academic enterprise within the organisation..”
Loughborough has a reputation for innovation in asset sharing with its role in the development of Kit Catalogue. While Taylor says he has doubts about the role outsourcing can play in increasing efficiency, he is more enthusiastic about shared services. “Equipment sharing is a really great example of where we can make headway.”
But he has some caveats. “The problem comes trying to get a consensus about how you share a service. If I was another university working with Loughborough, one of the things that I would want to share in terms of services is access to sporting facilities. From our perspective, that’s a USP, so why would we share that in that way? There are other things such as payroll, occupational health support, procurement initiatives where there is more scope to share services.
“The other issue is if your philosophy is that effective processes deliver efficiency, the shared services have got to be capable of delivering an effective process, not just an upfront efficiency, because if it doesn’t deliver an effective process it won’t deliver a long-term efficiency.
“If all your shared services do is produce failure demand that hits the system, it’s not an efficiency. They can end up providing a poorer service, more failure demand and hence end up being more costly to operate. I think the trick is to design and configure the shared service so it is capable of not just giving upfront saving but delivering an effective process.”
Taylor will be cheered by this week’s news that Loughborough has leapt to second in the Times Higher Education’s student experience survey. There are a lot of other things happening too, including the launch of a new strategy, the development of the new National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine and an international strategy, which includes partnering with Boston’s MIT.
“There’s a lot of work going on around process improvement,” he adds. “ We’ve brought in a new director of marketing and advancement and there’s a lot of emphasis going on around our successes and getting that narrative out to the broader world.”
Taylor recognises that universities are becoming more business-like in their activities, in the sense that they are striving to be more efficient and trying to provide good levels of service. But he says that it is important to remember that universities’ core mission is neither a business or bureaucratic one. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are an academic organisation with an academic mission,” he says.