We had a lot of things to discuss at last week's UCISA meeting, but we kept coming back to one topic - Shared Services. It's a well known secret that there is a view in some quarters in government that Universities are inefficient (note the comments made after Mandy's Christmas letter on the cuts that we could absorb them and not affect learning and teaching or research). Discussions about sharing services have been going on for some time - in fact for so long I felt a distinct sense of deja-vu during the meeting.
So, could we make large efficiency savings by sharing services with other Universities? Do we need all to be running our own back office systems (by that I mean Payroll, Finance, HR, Student records). This wouldn't necessarily be a re-run of the mac initiative (for those old enough to remember), as that involved groups of Universities commissioning systems to be written - now we'd be looking at using software which already exists, and possibly being hosted outside of the University environment. Could a group of us get together and run the same version of SAP as our Finance system, or could one of us run it for the rest? How about putting the functions as well as the systems together - paying invoices for example?
There are some shared service projects which should soon be coming to fruition, but it's been a slow process - sharing data centres for example. There seems to be a real fear of loss of control though.
Outsourcing is another option for reducing costs - including commodity services such as email, where we can currently get suppliers to run systems for us for free.
We mustn't forget that we have some really good examples of shared services in the sector - JANET and UCAS being two of the most successful. Although by some definitions, these aren't shared services at all, because we have no choice but to use them.
The government is pointing to huge savings made in other areas of the public sector such as the NHS when shared services were introduced, but I think we are starting a different point - we are already quite lean and efficient in many of our back office areas. I remember sitting round a table with a number of other IT Directors working out how much we would save if we outsourced our payroll, and it was tiny in comparison to the savings made in the rest of the public sector.
But, and a big but - hard times are coming. Our back office systems will have to become more efficient and cheaper to run if we are to continue to put our efforts into supporting teaching and research. Hard decisions will have to be made, and some of our users will have to accept compromises in the level of service we can offer. For example, we are currently consiering outsourcing some more of our functions to Google, including our diary. The Google one is not as functional as the one we currently have, but it is much cheaper to run. As I said earlier, difficult decisions....
Watch out for a UCISA Shared Services Summit later in the year.