There are many potential benefits in sharing services such as:
- Continuity and resilience of service.
- Raising quality and improving the flexibility and agility of existing services.
- Securing cost savings and sustainable efficiencies through economies of scale.
- Release of staff time from ‘commodity’ activities for more added-value/customer-facing activities.
- Improving the scalability of systems.
- Ensuring improved and more up-to-date systems.
- Gaining competitive advantage.
- Ability to offer otherwise unsustainable services.
- Levering transformation.
- Improved cooperation with other institutions enabling strategic development of cross-institution support services.
- Reducing the environmental impact of IT activities.
- Addressing growing demand for collaborative learning & teaching, research and knowledge exchange.
The list is indeed not dissimilar to the list of potential benefits of cloud computing. In both cases the nature and value of some of the benefits may vary depending on the size and type of institution for example, the ability to offer otherwise unsustainable services may be more significant in the case of smaller institutions. S
hared services, in the form of private and/or hybrid clouds, may indeed be a way to address some of the risks of cloud computing.
Why shared services?
Duke and Jordan’s research in 2008 (Duke & Jordan 2008c) explored the appetite and drivers for shared services and came to the following conclusions:
- The surveys showed that the top ranked driver towards shared services was continuity and resilience of service, followed by quality of service
- Next was cost savings followed by releasing staff for customer facing activities
- Overall therefore, those surveyed were more interested in improving service than in cutting costs
The study identified more appetite for shared service type activity in FE than in HE but suggested this may be directly related to the fact that the level of systems integration was considerably higher in HE, meaning that changing to a different model was a more complex matter.
Generally, FE colleges felt it was more important to engage with nearby education providers and other parts of the public sector to seek opportunities for service sharing than did universities.
Duke & Jordan 2008A
These findings are however contradicted by a KPMG study (2010) which suggested there was very little evidence of, or appetite for, shared service activity in FE. They note the successful shared services for this part of the sector as being those such as Jisc and Janet which were already established prior to FE colleges becoming independent in 1993 and which are managed by a trusted third party and hence do not require individual colleges to work closely together.
The study went on to say:
In considering the FE approach to shared services, it is important to distinguish between the opportunities and challenges of sharing back office services and the potential there is for FE colleges to bring together different parts of the delivery chain by working together to provide better front line services to learners. There are some limited examples of both in the FE college sector. We consider that the latter option offers much untapped potential to deliver increased value for money in a shorter timescale than the former.
Research supported by the Scottish Funding Council and published under the auspices of Higher Education Information Directors Scotland (HEIDS) in 2011 (Kay & Philips 2011a,b) took probably the broadest and most strategic view of shared services in the sector to date and came up with some potential benefits that were much more sector specific and less tactical/operational in nature.
It, concluded that:
Furthermore, the bigger prize might be a single student system for learners from cradle to grave across Scotland that would:
- Underpin lifelong learning – from school, through further and higher education to adult learning, including continuous professional development.
- Enable reuse of curriculum and assessment content – not only supporting Scotland’s uniform system of vocational awards but also enabling institutions to respond quickly and effectively as areas of knowledge migrate to lower level awards (a growing trend in the knowledge economy, as experienced in IT, digital media and bioscience).
- Gather critical mass of participation – using the virtual to provide economic numbers for courses through regional and national aggregation and to facilitate access to subject specialists across institutions.
- Provide access to scholarly resources – ensuring that students are not disadvantaged by the ability of individual institutions to amass local entitlement to e-books and e-journals.
As a result of consultation across the whole of FE and HE in Scotland, the HEIDS study came up with a roadmap which prioritised potential shared service developments for the Scottish post-compulsory education sector. Interestingly, the strongest levels of interest and support were for student-facing services, particularly those directly related to learning and teaching. Other candidate services, such as catering, asset and estates, were also of interest but not to the same degree. The report (ibid) noted that:
… not only did they typically score lower but also they suggested less potential synergies and represented poor strategic value when compared with services benefitting teaching, learning and research.
The experiences of the Jisc flexible service delivery programme (2009-2011) were similar. The shared service opportunities showing the most potential, for example the Bloomsbury Media Cloud, Kindura and the SALAMI project, were strategic, ambitious and focused on activities close to the institutions’ core missions.
All in all it appears that, despite economic and political pressures, the sector is still disinclined to accept potentially simplistic arguments about economies of scale and efficiencies in commodity services (more on this in the section on risks of shared services) and is carving out its own agenda based on a vision for learning and research in the 21st century.
The diagram below shows the shared services value proposition mapped out by the HEIDS study (Kay & Philips 2011a).