In-house expertise puts financial and analytical consulting functions on solid footing at the George Washington University.
By Dave Lawlor
These are tough financial times for America's colleges and universities. The recent economic downturn forced many higher education institutions to streamline operations, seek efficiencies, and better utilize existing resources. The need to continue those efforts remains.
The George Washington University's Business Management and Analysis Group, a department within GW's office of the senior associate vice president for finance, helps schools and divisions across the Washington, D.C.-based university maximize resources by insourcing certain consulting functions. BMAG was established in 2001 as a small internal consulting team charged primarily with providing financial and accounting support to the comptroller's office. In the past several years, BMAG has expanded its offerings to include project management and analytical support focused on enhancing operational effectiveness throughout the university.
The group, comprising a core team of full-time professionals and a rotating slate of GW talent on part-time assignment to BMAG, offers wide-ranging expertise in business processes and technology, financial analysis, accounting, strategic thinking, and project management. BMAG plays a key role in dozens of projects each year across the university, from providing analytical support to GW's Innovation Task Force, to creating and implementing a unified project management process used for finance and information technology projects institutionwide.
Innovation Task Force
GW's Innovation Task Force—a flagship initiative chartered by President Steven Knapp—is an intensive, universitywide effort designed to take the institution to the next level through greater innovation and efficiency. The ambitious five-year project, now in its second year, calls for GW to increase investment in academic and research priorities by $60 million per year. To fund the enterprise, university leaders are identifying ways to create new revenue streams and uncover significant savings by making business processes more effective, efficient, and innovative.
During the past year, more than 100 task force members from across the university took the lead in evaluating and prioritizing more than 400 proposals that poured in from throughout the GW community. BMAG members were part of this broader team and played a key role in the elaborate vetting process that will ultimately save the institution millions of dollars while strengthening the quality of the GW experience for the entire university community.
Implementation planning is now well under way for the best initiatives, with BMAG members serving alongside faculty and administrators on many of the implementation teams. Concurrently, an exploration committee is vetting and identifying the next group of leading ideas for implementation in subsequent phases based on the task force's "6 x 6" strategy—to develop six new ideas every six months for the next several years. The strong analytical skills and extensive institutional knowledge of BMAG members make them a valuable asset to the task force.
"BMAG has made outstanding contributions to the innovation task force as well as to the university at large," says Knapp. "In addition to playing a key role in analyzing the hundreds of excellent proposals that the task force received over the past year and a half, BMAG members are now helping drive the implementation of some of the top initiatives. BMAG and the innovation task force have the same mission—enhancing excellence in everything we do."
Project Management Life Cycle
One of the operational gaps identified by GW's senior associate vice president for finance and the chief information officer (CIO) was the lack of a robust, consistent project management process across the institution. Project management initiatives within departments were treated as disparate endeavors instead of as components of a unified strategy.
In response, BMAG, in partnership with the university's IT division, spearheaded efforts to create, customize, and implement a project management life cycle, a universitywide process featuring common terminology and documentation, periodic checkpoints to ensure uniform oversight, templates and checklists to assist project managers, and consistent standards across departments. BMAG engaged a cross-organizational working group to develop the process—integrating industry—accepted, contemporary project management practices with department-specific needs in a way that considers and complements GW's culture. (See figure, "GW's Project Management Life Cycle.")
Departments using the life-cycle process have already seen marked improvement in project effectiveness and outcomes. Business requirements are better defined; leadership is better able to provide input midproject, ensuring that their teams are moving in the right direction; and project teams are coordinating and communicating better, both within and across groups. As the life-cycle process is refined and adopted by more departments throughout the university, its beneficial effects are expected to grow exponentially.
"The project management life cycle puts an organized structure in place to take projects from the idea stage all the way to production," says David Steinour, GW's CIO, who served as cosponsor for development of the process. "Each project now has a dedicated program manager charged with overseeing the process from start to finish, and there are gate checks all along the way for key stakeholders to make sure we're hitting target timelines. We are already seeing great success throughout our division, and I think it's simply a matter of time before the life-cycle process becomes part of GW's culture."
A Trail of Successes
Over the years, BMAG has scored a series of wins with a variety of initiatives. Among the many examples:
- Electronic change-in-status project. BMAG lent a hand with a sweeping overhaul of GW's former paper-based transaction system to an all-electronic process. The change-in-status project transformed the university's system for reallocating funds from various sources to compensate people working concurrently on multiple projects—typically research personnel affiliated with more than one grant. Until recently, GW managed tens of millions of dollars of financial transactions on paper forms routed throughout the university. The electronic change-in-status project was a collaborative effort among many GW departments, including the office of research, the medical center, IT, human resources, and finance directors from throughout the university. BMAG's role was to manage this initiative, collect information on how other universities execute changes in status, document GW's existing practices, and work with university stakeholders to hammer out a sleeker, more modern system. The result is an all-electronic process with built-in approval routing, document retention, and audit trails that are fully integrated into Banner, our system of record. The IT department was included in every stage of the project's development, ensuring that when the change-in-status project went live, the department would be fully equipped to handle its operation. Internal consultants from BMAG knew the individuals involved and were able to help gather relevant information, present it to each audience, and move the project to final delivery while guarding the project's scope and facilitating stakeholder satisfaction throughout.
- Faculty and staff service center. BMAG was also integral to establishing GW's new faculty and staff service center, a fully-integrated, single-source location for employees to conduct face-to-face employment transactions. The walk-in, service-oriented center centralizes front-line benefits administration, HR, parking and transportation services, payroll services, tax, and related functions. It is staffed by a team of employees trained to address a range of faculty and staff issues. The center also offers space for specialists and vendors to serve faculty and staff on an appointment basis to handle more complex issues. In addition to providing face-to-face service, the collaborating departments that developed the center in tandem with BMAG are working to expand self-service and online offerings where feasible.
- E-procurement. One of the university's top finance initiatives is to improve its procure-to-pay cycle. Because this cycle is complex, it is filled with opportunities for enhancements. Three years ago, the university moved to e-procurement and implemented a new system, GW's iBuy Central, on the SciQuest platform. While the project was managed in a customary fashion for a cross-functional systems implementation, gaining buy-in from end users was deemed paramount to its success.
Since the university did not mandate the use of iBuy, it was vital that a sound marketing and communications plan be developed and deployed to generate interest in the application. This called for a compelling solution—one that would not only feature superior usability, but also offer significant economic benefit to the departments using the system.
BMAG assumed this task, working tirelessly with the university's creative design group to generate a brand and an easily recognizable logo. The team then implemented a brand-awareness campaign, creating communications geared toward keeping the GW community informed of and intrigued by iBuy. These communications included a prelaunch phase, where the team released a teaser e-mail to pique the community's interest; a launch phase, announcing and displaying iBuy's name and logo; and a post-launch phase, which announced some initial metrics and revealed the iBuy support hotline.
When training was announced for the new application, the response was overwhelming. During the initial two months of iBuy training, more than 80 sessions were held for hundreds of potential users, and many more have since been trained. Thanks in large part to the efforts of BMAG's iBuy project team, the new system today has approximately 1,700 active users who have spent more than $11 million through the application.
Value Beyond Savings
"Over the years, we have built a reputation that we are here to help," says David Green, assistant treasurer and executive director of BMAG. Green joined the group shortly after its inception in 2001. "We started out a decade ago with a core group of four people focused primarily on temporarily filling vacant financial positions around the university. We got some early wins and gained momentum as we gained trust. You really build up a lot of goodwill when you do the job right, and BMAG has a high success rate for doing things right," notes Green.
Team members bring with them a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the George Washington University's mission, operational structure, and culture.
The university reaped benefits as BMAG expanded its scope from transactional projects and position support to project management and analysis. Today, BMAG is involved in solving some of the university's toughest operational problems and propelling GW to the next level in terms of technology adoption and implementing best practices. As internal consultants rotate across projects, cross-pollinating divisions throughout the university, a significant core of institutional knowledge develops. Each assignment builds upon BMAG's deep reservoir of knowledge and facilitates collaboration and synergy across the GW community.
"We hire people from a variety of backgrounds who have demonstrated success in cross-functional initiatives and have consistently done more than their day jobs," says Green. "BMAG team members are encouraged to stay light on their feet, frequently working on multiple projects at a time and building relationships with key people across GW. Divisions throughout the university appreciate having a dedicated resource on campus committed to pitching in and giving them the extra support they need to help projects succeed."
One of the many positive byproducts of developing an internal group such as BMAG is that as team members move from project to project, they bring with them a wealth of knowledge and understanding of GW's mission, operational structure, and culture. "Institutional knowledge is a big advantage in getting some quick traction and results," says Gary Naegel, director of finance and personnel for the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. "BMAG professionals know firsthand the enterprise environment they are working in, so they can often skip the learning curve and start making an impact very quickly. External consultants can take much longer to ramp up."
While the university continues to call upon outside consultants for certain types of expertise, BMAG offers a high level of institutional knowledge and memory, a web of existing relationships, and a tendency to take the long view. Likewise, the group succeeds in keeping costs down and retaining the leveraged value of lessons learned in the institution. From its inception, BMAG has been a wise economic and strategic investment, providing insightful analysis and multiple perspectives of core business functions.
"The beauty of BMAG is that it can assist customers with particular situations, applying skills and knowledge not only from a technical standpoint, but with a keen understanding of how to meet the objectives in a university environment," says Louis Katz, GW's executive vice president and treasurer.
True to Its Roots
Even as BMAG has expanded its suite of service and support offerings, the group has remained true to its roots, continuing to provide short-term, quality replacements for key financial positions throughout the institution, which in turn helps to keep staffing costs under control.
"When a school or division at GW loses a finance director, BMAG members seamlessly fill the vacancy until we can recruit a permanent replacement," says Richard Cosentino, assistant vice president for financial management, who leads the university's financial directors. "These jobs cannot be left vacant for any length of time. It's extremely valuable to have a dedicated university resource like BMAG that provides us with a ready pool of savvy professionals to step in and fill these positions on an interim basis without missing a beat. BMAG professionals are very familiar with our enterprise systems, procedures, and personnel across the institution, and they hit the ground running."
Cosentino has called upon BMAG professionals to help out on a variety of other projects. In one recent venture, the group helped him create a methodology for projecting a critical financial metric to guide key business decisions. "We also deployed BMAG to help us study and develop financial procedures for a division too small to have its own finance director, and we tapped a BMAG professional to develop a comprehensive job description for a finance director position in a large and complex division."
It's important to recognize that there will always be a need for outside consultants and the specific expertise that they bring, notes Cosentino. "What BMAG does is lessen the need for external consulting services while making us more effective and efficient," he says.
The Inner Workings of BMAG
Requests for BMAG assistance are vetted and prioritized based on strategic importance, impact on business continuity, and resource availability. Project management resource demands are filtered and assigned during the chartering process within our project management life-cycle program, which takes into account the strategic importance of each project idea before allowing it to proceed.
Position support engagements are considered for their impact on business continuity and for the level of expertise required. Some position support requests are declined if business disruption would be minimal in the short term, resource availability is scarce, or the engagement expertise is readily obtainable elsewhere.
BMAG typically does not charge for project management services, provided projects do not require full-time commitment of BMAG resources over an extended period. Position support engagements typically carry an hourly rate charge, which is billed monthly through an internal accounting entry. This charge applies an incentive for customers to find permanent replacements for their open positions more quickly and avoid having internal resources on assignment longer than necessary.
As for assessing expertise, the group employs both formal and informal means to solicit feedback from its customers. During engagements, BMAG managers contact customers at standard milestone points to assess progress and ensure ongoing customer satisfaction. At the end of each engagement, the customer is asked to complete an online feedback survey to measure the extent to which the engagement met service and project expectations. The survey also assesses the customer's view of BMAG's institutional knowledge and functional expertise and whether the customer is likely to use BMAG in the future or recommend the group to others. BMAG staff are required to attend annual customer satisfaction workshops and related customer relationship training and refresher workshops. In addition, each BMAG associate's goal agreement contains a customer satisfaction element that is used to evaluate annual performance.
"It's been a great decade for BMAG," says Green. "The most important factor for sustaining this momentum has been having the right individuals on the team." Meanwhile, requests for internal assistance continue to grow in number and importance, adds Green. "That's the greatest testament to our success."
DAVE LAWLOR is senior associate vice president for finance for the George Washington University, Washington, D.C.