3 proven ways to improve higher-ed collaboration
executive vice president, Apogee
Working across higher-ed departments is not easy but it can strengthen the institution’s ability to get things done. Here's how
Collaboration across departments has been identified as the fundamental differentiator in achieving strategic objectives in not only the business community but also in higher education. Today’s challenging higher-ed environment can benefit from more collaboration, particularly between IT, business, and finance leaders.
The EDUCAUSE/NACUBO 2017 Enterprise IT Summit identified four main areas that can markedly enhance collaboration:
- development of institutional relationships and partnerships
- improvement of analytics and data governance initiatives
- a forward -thinking leadership team to align unit goals with university goals
- cultivation of a better understanding of IT costs and strategic value
eCampus News highlighted one example that showcased the fruits of collaboration at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia, where IT, finance, and housing collaborated to transform the campus into one of the most digitally connected campuses of its size. Business Officer magazine wrote about a private university where close collaboration between the vice president for advancement and chief business officer during a capital campaign allowed the vice president to tie his asks to strategic initiatives. By working together, they devised a feasible multi-year capital and operating budget that furthers the work of both divisions.
Collaboration across departments in a university setting is no easy task. But, it is ultimately the mechanism that can strengthen the institution’s ability to get things done.
How to collaborate for better financial decision-making
Today, more companies are embracing cross-functional collaboration. While businesses have one main profit goal, higher ed is a complex environment in which the difficulties of collaboration are exacerbated by the complexity of various departmental goals. But improved communication internally will help campuses become more nimble and responsive to necessary changes—from declining budgets to new technologies and changing demographics. The best focus will be on understanding and measuring accountability—and constant evaluation.
So, how can university leaders collaborate more efficiently to improve outcomes and advance their strategic plans? Here are three high-level actions administrators can implement:
1. Improve technical and financial training
As technology drives much of the university experience today, business leaders in higher ed will benefit from becoming more knowledgeable about technology. Sit with the chief information officer and IT staff to understand what’s working and what’s not. This will foster a transparent feedback mechanism and knowledge sharing about software, cloud services, servers, etc.
Additionally, IT staff need to better understand the university mission, P&L, and balance sheets. As part of a cross-functional collaboration team, IT should meet regularly with business leaders on the importance of financial and operational efficiencies.
To truly make cross-collaboration work, incentives should be aligned across the organization for a better understanding of total cost of ownership. Do we need a dedicated full-time employee on digital signage? Can we create work/study programs to cut costs and increase learning opportunities for students? It’s not about eliminating jobs but refocusing them to mission-critical activities.
2. Align incentives to drive outcomes
For many, collaboration doesn’t come naturally. It’s no different in higher education.
What is different is that cross-functional teams in corporations generally have incentives aligned to drive the top and bottom lines. In higher education, the rewards are real, if subtle.
- Monetary incentives can be useful, but recognition tends to be more effective and builds culture.
- One-on-ones between mid-level managers and C-Suite can incentivize both groups.
- Helping foster the creation of something positive and seeing it bear fruit can be incredibly satisfying.
- Seeing a difficult situation improved can provide strong motivation.
- Winning respect through a particularly thoughtful or creative approach to problem-solving.
- Incentives to finishing projects on time and receiving high adoption rates.
3. Share institutional knowledge for better decision making
Leaders across all parts of the university must be knowledgeable about each other’s responsibilities to advance the strategic direction of their institution while lowering operational costs. Administrators can share institutional knowledge in many ways—through regular inter-departmental and “engagement” meetings, setting up collaborative SMART goals, reading publications outside of your expertise, and attending education consortiums, seminars, and conferences.
Ithaca College is a perfect example of how sharing institutional knowledge can result in better decision making. At the college, a close CIO-CBO collaboration facilitated work within different reporting structures with sometimes differing goals. This ensured transparency and fostered trust among stakeholders. For the broader institution’s goals, they instituted monthly “Dollars and $ense” meetings, during which staff from any department can participate to better understand the financial and operational facets of the college.
Such sharing drives accountability and improves institutional habits, creating awareness across the organization. It is ultimately the mechanism that strengthens the institution’s ability to make better decisions and get things done.
Clear and shared responsibility—top down and bottom up—is important on the strategic initiatives undertaken by any university. Without this feeling of shared responsibility, all too often the best laid strategic plans lose steam after year two or three.
Collaboration among different functional units provides a huge opportunity to align the whole organization to the core mission of the university, mitigating the “us versus them” mentality. With technology driving much of the university experience today, communication and collaboration between the CIO and IT staff and other business leaders is critical. As officers of your institutions, what is your role in creating this collaboration across departments?