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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shared Services Part I

By AnonStaff

Over the past three years the Bain report and the creation of Operational Excellence on the Berkeley campus has been responsible for a large amount of unease among lower level staff.  For years now, “OE” has been doling out information drip after drip.  They have hired a PR team to control communication.  While staff suggestions are welcomed, even anonymously, our comments are not made public.  Only those questions that allow OE to give reassuring responses are ever posted on their webpage.  The flow of information is all top-down, alternating in tone between resolute (in the face of inevitable budget cuts,) perky (staff will now have a clear path to better themselves; the campus will live up to its reputation as a center of academic excellence,) and self-congratulatory (look at what we have done so far; look at our wonderful new committees; this Power Point presentation explains it all.)

The tone at every meeting I have ever been to, even those sponsored by staff groups whose stated goals are greater efficiency and productivity on the part of campus staff, has had an undertone of suspicion and resistance.

OE has been consistently evasive as to the scope of the changes planned, assuring us that their committees are working out the details; I am positive that the scope was long ago suggested by Bain.  Over the past year it has become clearer to us which levels of staff will be included in the planned, campus-wide reorganizations.  But until recently I never heard anyone respond in a definitive manner to where these new Shared Service centers will be located, even though location seemed to be the lynchpin needed to hold this whole idea together.

Initially there was talk of campus “hubs”, maybe four of them, situated to serve regional needs.  But where could these hubs be squeezed in on a campus with not enough classroom space or faculty office space for its needs?  On January 31st an article appeared in the Daily Cal, which provided us with a clue to the solution.  A new OE report, apparently not yet publicly released, mentions a new plan to house all of the new Shared Services (with functions including aspects of HR, Payroll, Purchasing, IT) in one building.  There is nowhere on campus that this is possible.  My guess is that it will be in the Power Bar building next to the Berkeley BART station, where Research Enterprise Services (RES) staff has already been relocated.  As the university is making plans for online request systems and faxing of documents, hubs are no longer necessary for the kind of processing that will be done.  A large office building filled with cubicles would be sufficient.  It is also convenient for dropping off any remaining hard copy required at the last minute, as the remaining department dwellers head for home on BART.

What has brought us to this point, when such a wholesale reorganization seems necessary?  Over the near quarter century I have been worked on campus there has been a trend for many central departments to find ways to add new processing duties to decentralized academic departments.  The trend became obvious with the roll out of the Berkeley Financial System (BFS) around the year 2000, but as early as the 1990s my wise predecessor had a file just to keep track of duties that had been dumped on departments by the central offices.

Today we have a multitude of online acronyms that we must interact with in order to get anything done: BFS, HCM, OPTRS, DARS, BETS, DSAS, and more.  A few of these systems are elegant and actually provide reassurance that we have processed something correctly.  Others work well enough to get the job done.  A couple—those systems we use every day to make purchases or hire people—are absolutely Byzantine and require frequent downloading of task-specific manuals, visitations to several websites, and multiple conversations with more knowledgeable staff on campus.

Those staff who work together to solve problems on these systems are often not seeing the same thing on their computer screens, as there are different levels of access privilege.  As systems have to feed into each other, often we have to wait for several days to make several rounds of corrections on one transaction, so it lingers unfinished as new work comes in.  Even when you think you have completed a transaction successfully, the system lets you make mistakes and it may be years before you get a communication from a central office letting you know that you have been processing something incorrectly all along.

Various OE projects like (Organizational Simplification) have at last acknowledged these issues and I have to admit that some of their solutions sound promising. To the extent that they actually work with a wide range of real life, front-line processing staff, lasting improvements to system processing may be possible.

Currently there seem to be two work models on this campus.  In some departments as the workload has increased staff have, often with their departments’ cooperation, learned to perform triage on the many tasks that come our way.  We decide what can get done in our allotted eight hour day and try to save the rest for summer and winter break “down time”.  Exceptions are largely due to pressing departmental needs: admissions, hosting of events, the things that matter most to the faculty and students who we see on a daily basis.  Other staff on campus now seemed plugged into the Exempt Time trap: in theory, on Exempt Time (which applies to more and more of us,) you are responsible for completing your assigned duties and, during times when requirements are lighter, you might be able to come in a little late or leave a little early with the understanding that you will work as long as it takes when your duties are more pressing.   But as any staff member on campus can tell you, something is always unfinished and something is always pressing.

In the past few years I have noticed staff from certain departments send me e-mails at 9:30 at night (when I asked one such staff member if she was on flex time she said no, she was just lucky enough to have a computer at home so she could keep working on things after dinner.)  I know staff that are given last minute research projects by their supervisors at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon and expected to come up with required data by Monday morning.  When people retire, their duties are shifted to co-workers.  New systems continue to be flung out for campus use without adequate debugging or training because the campus no longer has staff dedicated to such things.  At this point, even before the planned reorganization and reductions, the campus is in need of increased numbers of lower level staff—not decreased.

The Organizational Simplification team has been trying to have us quantify what we do.  I have mixed feelings about this; it’s nice to have a measure of what you do, but what most departments do is far too complex to break down into numbers.  In reality it is all a complex balancing act, developed over the years to fit with departmental needs.  We complete longer projects while under a steady barrage of short term interruptions.  We decide what can be dealt with immediately to get it off our plate and what needs to be put off for a free hour in a couple of days; all the while we keep plugging along on our long term projects.   Some times of year we work practically 100% on one thing for a month or so, putting off all other distractions until we can handle them again.  What we do is highly personal and intertwined with our fellow staff member’s duties.  If what we do works well, the people who are being “served” by department staff aren’t even aware of our efforts: mailboxes get moved, computer directories get updated, event food gets served, and all is well.

Some days a significant amount of time may be spent on an unexpected opportunity.  A couple of weeks ago I spent part of a morning setting up Faculty Club reservations and sending out an introductory e-mail to faculty and students for an unplanned visitor, sent our way by a loyal former trainee who was never even one of our students.  This visitor does a kind of work related to but not familiar in our department.   I used my knowledge and belief in my department’s mission to make sure that this visitor will become known to those who may benefit from her knowledge, and to make sure that she in turn feels welcomed to participate in departmental activities.  All of this was done on the spur of the moment, not measurable by metrics—in fact, I’m sure it interfered with some things where my progress might have been more accurately measured.  This is what academia is about.

As things get outsourced, there is a problem.  Loyalty and local coordination are gone and we must now take time to explain to strangers what we need.  Research Enterprise Services (RES) has been designed to absorb research support work that used to be performed within the departments.  In fact, I have been told that departments are no longer even supposed to do anything that RES has been designed to do.  This is potentially a relief for us; less so for RES staff.  They have been told to “never say no,” to take on any new assignments from the departments cheerfully and reassuringly  and find a way to get them done.  But RES is not us and they need reassurance that our requests are fully compliant with all regulations and have been approved by the right people; thus there are new forms, created by RES, which we now use to describe fully what we need them to do.  RES takes the information off of these forms and in turn submits it to the correct campus systems.  Department efforts aren’t measurable; therefore they are not really of interest to central offices.  What RES does is designed to be measurable, according to new metrics, and they get the credit for the information that we have fed to them.

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