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Business Officer Magazine
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Lean Bench, Better Processes

With many institutions already having made the difficult decision to downsize staff, the reality for most is that there is more work to do with fewer people to do it. Here’s how one senior leader is handling the challenge.

By Howard Teibel

Ongoing budget issues—particularly for state-funded colleges and universities—have forced higher education leaders to take a hard look at staffing. In the April 2010 Business Officer article "Steady Aim," Sandy Hicks, assistant vice president and chief procurement officer at the University of Colorado, is quoted as saying, "Even if my organization ever returned to the same number of full-time equivalents, we'd look very different because we're doing different things now."

More than a year later, that philosophy remains. Hicks's focus is on efficiencies and making strategic decisions rather than conducting business as usual. (For additional ideas on this topic, see "Business Unusual," in September 2011 Business Officer.)

Over the past three years, the procurement department lost nine positions. Hicks came up with several ways to close the gap left by these vacancies, including:

  • Making better use of technology. For example, the department implemented a Web-based travel and expense system. Prior to implementation, staff contacted one of four travel agencies to book reservations, and the transaction cost of issuing an airline ticket was $28. Taking advantage of its relationships with airlines and hotels, the university now offers a service in which individuals perform online booking. The process offers the flexibility of allowing phone calls for those who prefer a more personal touch, while being directed to a single travel agency. The transaction cost of ticketing has been reduced to $20 for calls and $9 for online reservations. New technology also allows departments throughout the university to be more self-sufficient, with procurement providing a stronger oversight role. For example, expenses up to $500 for parking and mileage simply get paid, with infrequent paperwork audits. As Hicks points out, "We are constantly determining where we add value. Checking one mile doesn't do that." Procurement is working in collaboration with the vice president and chief financial officer on the implementation of CU Marketplace. The system is an online procure-to-pay system that involves creating and approving purchase requisitions, placing purchase orders, receiving goods and services, and processing invoices through the Internet. SciQuest is the solution provider for this project, which went fully live on August 1 and is anticipated to produce additional savings and efficiencies.
  • Streamlining the procurement process. As a result of personnel and technology changes in this area, one person working with commercial card compliance is able to review significantly more transactions than the two people who fulfilled that role prior to the electronic system. Hicks reports that 3,000 transactions were reviewed during FY10; whereas through April of FY11, 12,000 transactions have already been checked.
  • Shifting responsibilities to create positions that are more suited to the new direction of the department. So far, three new positions have been created to reflect departmental changes. The strategic sourcing analyst brings significant travel and travel systems experience to the online reservations system, while the director of procurement systems provides project management of the e-procurement implementation and ongoing management of all systems. The supplier enablement analyst works to acquire vendor participation on the e-procurement platform, and students and temporary help supplement certain other staffing needs.
  • Appreciating the impact on people. Although the results of these collective efforts have been quite successful, Hicks acknowledges, "System changes are hard. They're hard on staff, departments, and vendors. I never minimize that. We recognize that we go on this journey together." In fact, some individuals were very hesitant about the new travel system because of personal relationships with previous travel agents. Realizing the importance of education and outreach, the university conducted town hall sessions to discuss conceptual changes; share timelines; and explain new terms and process maps. Demonstrations and pilot processes also helped establish a staff comfort level for the new system before implementation. 

As for employees outside the department who interface with procurement, Hicks notes that her staff has found other ways to reach out to internal customers. For one thing, they make campus visits frequently to see how to better serve other departments.

The procurement department also invites its strategic suppliers and small businesses to participate in supplier trade fairs each fall. The Suppliers' Showcase acts as a way to connect the supplier to campus end users, with procurement staff on hand to distribute relevant information and answer questions. Last year, 121 suppliers exhibited and more than 1,000 employees attended the showcases held on various campuses.

Another activity is the celebration of Procurement Month, during which the department hosts an open house on each campus. End users are able to meet with procurement staff representatives, promoting one-on-one interaction in an informal environment. Six strategic suppliers also participate in the open house. Last year, 400 employees attended the events.

Hicks believes that the investment in time increases the quality and trust of the relationships built across the university. "You can't wait until you have a project to build relationships."

Hicks will continue to use those strong relationships as she looks ahead to other ways to enhance her group's value to the university. "More so than ever, I have to operate as a change agent. I'm always selling, implementing, or refining an idea."

HOWARD TEIBEL is president of Teibel Inc., Natick, Massachusetts.