Knowing that Iowa’s legislature was unlikely to provide additional funding—and being reluctant to raise tuition exponentially—members of Iowa’s Board of Regents decided in 2013 to undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s three public universities: University of Northern Iowa, University of Iowa, and Iowa State University. The ultimate goal: Make better use of existing human and financial resources by gaining efficiencies.
The size and scale of the efficiency review, not to mention the coordination needed to complete it within a tight time frame, were unprecedented for the state system. “We looked simultaneously at the total breadth of all three institutions, on both the administrative and academic sides,” says Mark Braun, who is now executive director of the board of regents. Previously, he served as project manager of the board’s mandated initiative, which was given the acronym TIER—Transparent, Inclusive Efficiency Review.
The first phase of TIER began in early 2014 when the board selected Deloitte to conduct a rigorous assessment. This involved interviewing nearly 700 faculty, staff, and students across the three universities; holding a town hall meeting and “sounding board” sessions on each campus; and gathering detailed data on academic and administrative operations. While the assessment identified several strengths common to all three universities—including a strong desire to use resources effectively—it also revealed four challenges:
- Limited cross-university collaboration.
- Siloed structures within and across universities, leading to overlapping and duplication.
- High degree of complexity across functions, resulting in inefficient processes.
- Difficulty accessing and using data to drive decision making.
The assessment identified 172 opportunities to save money or create efficiencies, and the board chose to pursue 17 during TIER’s second phase. Braun explains, “For each campus, the consultants reviewed the business cases, identified best practices, evaluated the current state of operations, recommended changes, and estimated the investments needed to support the changes.
“After the business cases were developed, it became readily apparent that each institution was at a different place,” he continues. “As a result, we had to look at each institution individually as we went forward with implementation.” For example, Iowa State University operated with an aging, self-built IT system, while the University of Iowa had installed an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system nearly 15 years earlier. Ultimately, the board allowed the three universities to develop their own, institution-specific implementation models, with different metrics, goals, and guidelines that reflected existing processes and program maturity.
The board also selected several consultants to provide specialized assistance during the implementation phase. Based on variables such as size of enrollment and operating budget, each campus paid a proportional distribution of the consultants’ fees. To offset these expenses, each campus retained the savings it realized. “The board was very clear that any savings for productivity increases and resources gathered as a result of TIER were to be reinvested at each institution, back into the core mission,” says Braun. Keeping the financial benefits close to home helped each institution make a stronger case for operational change, as did the efforts outlined below.
IT Undergoes a Revamp
The “T” in TIER stands for transparency, and that characteristic proved powerful on Michael Hager’s campus. “There’s natural anxiety among people when change is discussed, particularly when the change is a top-down initiative,” says Hager, senior vice president of finance and operations at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), Cedar Falls. “But from the beginning, the board set the tone that TIER was about collaboration—[regents] wanted input and feedback, not a one-sided conversation.”
Early on, board members hosted an open forum on each campus to explain TIER and answer myriad questions. When the various consultants arrived, they had the flexibility to modify their processes and terminology for each campus, rather than adhere to a standard template. At UNI, for example, a questionnaire sent to every clerical staff member about task allocation was revised to sound less corporate. The questionnaires came through the management channel, rather than from the consultants, to demonstrate the institution’s commitment to the TIER initiative. The university also tracked the questionnaires to ensure that all were completed.
“That follow-up required a lot of work by supervisors—but the richer the data, the better the decision making,” Hager notes. “We had never taken a collective look at what all staff was doing and so, for example, we didn’t realize how many people were spending time on desktop support or how we had a shortage of people doing programming.” The results pointed UNI toward its largest TIER-related change: centralizing IT systems and the majority of IT employees.
The university consolidated 16 distinct IT departments on campus, retired 26 applications—including five different ones just for managing work tickets—and took advantage of planned retirements to rewrite job descriptions and realign staffing. Ultimately, UNI registered a 6 percent decrease in the IT budget, as well as increased satisfaction with IT services. “The IT staff morale is much better now because the employees work in a team environment and we cross-train,” Hager reports. “The camaraderie helps both personally and professionally. They don’t feel so overwhelmed and, if they’re struggling with something, they can easily reach out to others for assistance.”
UNI encountered a few pockets of resistance to the centralized services, particularly in smaller units that objected to losing their IT employees. To overcome any fear of change, UNI’s chief information officer had one-on-one conversations with everyone, from vice presidents and deans to clerical employees, and widely shared the benchmarking data gathered through the TIER process. “Most of the changes went smoothly because so many people had been involved in gathering the data initially,” Hager says.
With her colleagues at Iowa’s other two public universities, UNI’s CIO formed a CIO council that meets regularly to discuss efficiencies and bolster collaboration. Its first task was standardizing specifications for basic, medium, and robust models of desktops and laptops to gain better pricing through a master contract. Departments and units can make computer purchases off-contract but must work through the IT department to obtain permission.
The three institutions also negotiated contracts for six other commodities, including office supplies, food, scientific equipment, and janitorial items. Before those agreements were signed in 2015, efforts to engage in joint procurement throughout the system were piecemeal at best. With close to 11,300 students, UNI is the smallest campus in the Iowa system, says Hager, and may benefit the most from the master contracts.
Customization Is Key
“When people hear the word efficiency, they think, ‘I’m losing my job’—particularly when the efficiency plan involves consolidation of administrative staff,” observes Laura McLeran, who is associate vice president for external relations at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, and managed the TIER initiative on that campus. From the project’s start, however, the university publicly affirmed its commitment to not lay off any employees.
“That decision slowed the savings process, but also demonstrated our commitment to the community. As we found efficiencies and attrition occurred naturally, we reinvested the savings,” says McLeran, noting that the university’s attrition rate remained fairly steady throughout the TIER process. Even with the no-layoffs commitment, however, many on campus greeted TIER with a lack of enthusiasm and sometimes a touch of defensiveness. As McLeran observes, “Public higher education has become pretty efficient, particularly on the transactional and business sides, so colleges and units were already streamlined and lean. Everyone thought that TIER was a great idea—just not for their department or unit.”
The turning point, McLeran reports, came when the board of regents gave each university the go-ahead to develop its own implementation plan—what she refers to as “having the freedom to find the right fit.” She adds, “While we all underestimated the amount of work involved, the leadership team agreed that nobody knows the campus as well as we do. Owning and managing the initiative ourselves enabled us to focus on the areas of most benefit to the institution.”
The University of Iowa, for example, decided to immediately move ahead with implementation of streamlined search committees, centralized IT services, and university shared services (USS). The latter proved especially challenging because the university chose a virtual model—most employees physically remained in their customary places on campus, but no longer reported to that particular college or unit. McLeran outlines several change-management strategies that made TIER a success on her campus, which supports 34,000 students:
- Unflagging institutional commitment. “With an institutional directive, there is often a side door. Maybe the president is committed, but the CFO remains unconvinced—or the provost likes it, but the CIO isn’t sure—so people find ways around the directive,” McLeran observes. Backed by the board’s mandate, the university’s leadership stuck to a no-exceptions policy, emphasizing that the TIER initiative would continue no matter how the campus felt about impending changes. Adding weight to Iowa’s TIER leadership team were high-level and well-connected central administrators, including the senior vice president for finance and operations, CFO, CIO, and provost.
- Specialized assistance. The university added two change-management consultants to its TIER team, each for a three-year appointment. They assisted with plan development, communication strategies, and direct interaction with department leadership, particularly in the areas of HR and IT.
- Readiness assessment. In late 2015, as they were wrapping up six months of implementation planning, Iowa’s TIER leadership team held a strategy session. McLeran recalls, “We were ready to launch, but we had to take a step back because the campus didn’t feel ready to move into active engagement mode. In talking with the deans and leadership in each area that would be impacted, we found that they all had hoped TIER had gone away during the semester.”
In response, the team organized a communications presentation that recapped TIER’s objectives, articulated the institutional and board commitment to finding efficiencies, and shared benchmarking data, such as average time spent by administrative employees on business transactions and the number of transactions performed. Over the next two months, the team took its two-hour show directly to individual colleges and campus units, bringing along 10 senior administrators to answer questions and address concerns. The main message to deans, faculty, and their key staff: TIER implementation would be customized to the unit, rather than a one-size-fits-all model, and it couldn’t be avoided.
- Pilot project. Iowa’s office of the vice president for research and economic development served as a testing ground for the virtual shared services model, bringing HR, finance, and IT under the umbrella of the business services unit. This provided the TIER team with real-world examples of cost savings and efficiencies to share with other units on campus. They could, for example, explain how much time was freed up for engaging with students or supporting research when two people, rather than five, served on a search committee to fill an administrative position.
- Communications ambassadors. “We asked each college to identify someone willing to own the TIER process internally so that there would be a familiar face, a local expert whom the unit already knew, delivering the news,” McLeran says. For at least six months, those ambassadors from across campus convened regularly to share tactics, successes, and concerns, and to bring issues to the attention of the leadership team. This communication channel often served as an early warning system. “We wanted to know if something was going south in a particular college or unit so we could find solutions before everything spun out of control,” she adds.
- Communications toolkit. Each ambassador received TIER background materials and success stories to distribute throughout their college or unit. In addition, Iowa established an internal website where it posted TIER case studies and the various metrics reported to the board of regents.
Nearly three years after beginning TIER implementation, the university has amassed plenty of success stories. The IT initiative, for instance, consolidated931 servers and repurposed 9,731 square feet of departmental floor space by closing small server rooms across campus. University shared services has also shown its worth. “Because training now occurs centrally and people do transactional work regularly, the speed of the work and the accuracy are off the charts,” McLeran reports. After moving to shared services, the average transactional time dropped from 10 days to five; the error rate for travel vouchers plummeted from one error per 6.5 transactions to one for every 1,053 transactions. “As the errors decreased,” she continues, “we had the ability to reassign much of our central audit staff. We’re now using their time in ways much better than reworking inaccurate work done by someone else.”
Efficiency Plus Effectiveness
The TIER initiative coincided with a period of rapid enrollment growth at Iowa State University, Ames, which added about 10,000 students over the course of a decade and now enrolls 35,000 students. For Jonathan Wickert, senior vice president and provost, the initiative’s timing was fortuitous. “TIER came along at a good time, when we were really growing and people recognized the need to start doing things differently,” he says. “We needed to ensure that we were serving all the additional students on campus, while increasing the quality of what we were doing, so the combined focus on efficiency and effectiveness was very good.”
Wickert credits the board of regents with getting TIER off to a positive start by meeting with the faculty senate executive board before conducting a public forum. During the meeting, the board president outlined the parameters of TIER and how it would differ from other initiatives aimed at cost cutting and consolidation of academic programs that faculty might have experienced in the past. Wickert also believes the university’s responsibility-centered management budget model naturally provides incentives to identify cost savings and efficiencies.
Like their colleagues throughout the system, campus leaders at Iowa State appreciated the opportunity to customize an implementation plan. For example, one business case included the recommendation to limit off-grid scheduling of classrooms. The university, however, has a strong culture of student learning outside the curriculum, meaning many of its classrooms remain in use long into the night by some 800 student groups.
Still, says Wickert, “TIER challenged us, in an uncomfortable way at times, to be more forward-looking and better at what we do.” Most significantly, the initiative prompted Iowa State to move its legacy HR, finance, and student systems to Workday; the new ERP will go live July 2019. “We have 40-year-old systems that run on mainframes and are based on languages that our computer science department doesn’t teach anymore—but they work and everybody was comfortable,” Wickert notes. “TIER made us step back and have objective conversations on campus. Everybody started to understand that an institution of science and technology really should have modern software.”
Thanks to the data analysis component of TIER, Iowa State has improved its room scheduling and now registers increased use of its classrooms, particularly during midday. Department chairs and deans are more cognizant of enforcing standards for minimum class size and, therefore, more likely to cancel under-enrolled courses.
In addition, based on space utilization patterns, the university prioritized and established funding for classroom and instructional technology improvements; top priority went to classrooms accommodating 75 to 100 students, which were the most used and most in demand for scheduling.
In the end, Wickert says, “The TIER study got people on campus to think differently. Once the process ran its course and people saw what could be done, we’ve had multiple units implement various efficiency and effectiveness initiatives on their own.” Iowa State’s graduate college, for instance, revisited its program of study process—all the steps a graduate student must complete to earn a degree. The college partnered with the Boeing Co., which offered the free services of several lean process consultants, and eventually streamlined the entire process.
Paper-based forms are no longer circulated around campus for reviews and approvals, which has reduced the cycle time from 252 days to 26 days. The number of steps necessary for a graduate student to complete a degree now numbers 18, down from 82.
“Without TIER creating the right environment and showing what can be done, something like that might not have happened,” notes Wickert, adding that another manufacturer is helping Iowa State’s research office redesign its pre-award process. Within the last year, the university also convened brainstorming meetings with constituent groups, which produced 16 pages of ideas to improve campus efficiency and effectiveness for an implementation group to consider. “We’re seeing the echoes of TIER in our culture and communications,” says Wickert. “These secondary efficiency efforts weren’t necessarily anticipated when TIER started, but they’re a really good outcome.”
SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minn., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.