Efficient working practices can save money and time, but the University of Salford’s chief operating officer, Vikki Goddard, says they can also help to make the working lives of university staff more interesting.
You became chief operating officer (COO) last August after two years as registrar. Do the two roles differ at all?
The changing title was a reflection of how the role has evolved for us. When I was registrar I was responsible for student and academic support and marketing and planning. Now, I am responsible for the performance of our professional services. Our head of student and academic support is now also registrar and I’ve got the broader remit around the leadership of our professional services and supporting achievement of the university’s objectives.
Could you reflect on the importance of the efficiency agenda for COOs?
It’s critical to everything we do, it’s as simple as that. For me, the key driver is about doing the hygiene factor, the things we have to do, as efficiently and effectively as possible and doing that drives our ability to add value to the university.
We need to be focused on supporting the student experience and making things more interesting for colleagues. If we can do the basics, efficiently and effectively, we can make things interesting and do more things that are about added value. And of course, finances are important because we are having to do better with less, stopping doing things that aren’t as critical.
What have been the key achievements at Salford in terms of improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and value for money?
A lot of what we have been doing is looking at our students and identifying things that will provide better value for money for them. One key area we have brought together is our student support services into a hub that we call AskUS. That has been very much about driving a customer service ethos across registry, student support, student finance, enabling a one stop shop for our students coupled with more online services moving forward towards 24/7 delivery.
Our library already has the customer service excellence award and we are now rolling that out to our student and academic support services. It is really about asking the whole time, what does this look like from a student’s perspective, how is this supporting our students. As an example, we had a big overhaul of our online registration processes in September 2014. We re-engineered the whole online process in partnership with students saying how can we make this more user friendly for you. We achieved an 80% reduction in queries from students and we have more than doubled the number of students who completed the registration online.
Another interesting area is where we do things in partnership with others. We’ve just renegotiated our catering contract with Chartwells and we have very much done that on a partnership basis. It’s a long-term contract and as a result we are co-investing in capital improvements in all of our catering outlets. So again it is about driving value for money, driving the impact on students and staff by trying to things in a longer term way rather than essentially a three year contract. That’s enabled us to do a lot of investment work across our catering outlets in a way that wouldn’t have been feasible if we hadn’t done it in partnership.
Any plans for the future ?
We are in the process of bringing our travel office back in-house, which is really driven by a combination of factors. It’s partly because we believe we will get better value for money by doing our travel arrangements in-house. But it is also about having a level of oversight, particularly around international travel and understanding what people are doing so we have a better handle on making sure that we can make best value of our colleagues when travelling abroad. For example, if we have someone going abroad for a recruitment event and we have an alumni event at the same place, we can use those colleagues in a more effective way. Joined-up thinking is driving a lot of what we do to enable us to get best value.
What feedback do you get from students about the importance of providing value for money?
Very honest feedback! One of the key things is our students are digital natives. They have grown up with the internet. They expect everything to be available online, to be personalised and I think that is a real challenge for all universities, particularly in their professional services to students. The sector has been quite slow in enabling some of those things to happen but for us, in the £9,000 fee era is very much at the forefront, so it is about making the investment in those kind of services so they support our students. They want the face to face contact where sensible, they want to do things online and in a personalised environment so that is something we are developing at the moment.
Can you describe the leadership challenges that COOs face in terms of encouraging cultural change within universities?
Time is a major challenge because a critical aspect is about getting out and about and really understanding what is happening in your organisation. I also think consistency and enthusiasm are critical. You need to be there to keep others going at times when things might not being going as well as they ought to be, to have that enthusiasm to say “come on, we can do this”.
You have to be able to challenge things in the right kind of way. There is something about not accepting things that are happening if you think it won’t take the university in the right direction but doing that in a way that is supportive rather than people feeling it is a challenge to their position. A lot of it is about interaction, people skills and working relationships.
What do you like doing in your spare time?
I have two kids who are still at primary school so time is at a premium, but when I do get some spare time I like cycling and I go to zumba, and I like going out for meals. I am a big gig goer when I can.
Which was the last concert you went to?
Duran Duran, would you believe, in Liverpool.
You can find out more about the University of Salford’s AskUS student services hub in this blogpost.