A basic but important distinction between types of shared services is that between those that result from ‘Top down’ directives and those that grow in a ‘Bottom up’ way.
The introduction of common services across multinational organisations and some of the services mandated in the public sector are examples of the former. Such initiatives typically require significant investment and formal planning.
For potentially collaborating organisations, it is not as simple as demonstrating net financial savings through shared services. Organisations have to want to collaborate in general terms (strategic alliance), which means developing and maintaining cite personal relationships and trust as well as robust contractual agreements.
Helass project 2011
Many of the developments in the education sector however have grown in a much more organic way. The FEAST report (Clark et al 2011) notes that the many membership organisations in the sector are a ‘natural spawning ground’ for discussions that lead into the piloting of shared initiatives and services. The report also cites a number of very significant initiatives that started in a ‘Bottom up’ fashion and were later adopted on a much larger scale supported by top sliced funding including:
- Janet – the network originally developed out of research-intensive universities;
- UMAL – a mutual company created by universities to cover specific financial risks;
- CHEST – a service to negotiate software licences for further education (FE), higher education (HE) and related bodies;
- Athens and later UK Access Management Federation – a service to identify users as being members of a specific home institution in order to access external resources
It goes on to identify ways in which institutional ‘closeness’ may develop:
Within the tight confines of a city, there are opportunities for sharing many types of services which require close proximity – such as cleaning, catering, security, accommodation etc.
The Bloomsbury Group of colleges in London have provided numerous examples of sharing of services and resources within a tight geographical area as have the Stoke-on-Trent University Quarter HE and FE support services. Within a city, student accommodation and other physical services may well be shared between the students of several institutions.
Within every region institutions have regular meetings for a wide variety of purposes. These meetings engender a degree of familiarisation and trust between the various institutions which enable them to have regular dialogues about common issues and problems.
These discussions can often spawn a variety of services to the regional members. The MANs (Metropolitan Area Networks), which were created to manage the regional data networks on behalf of Janet, have spawned many shared services – eg NorMAN’s ‘Out of Hours Helpdesk’ in the North East, EMMAN’s Shared Information Security Service (ESISS) in the East Midlands etc.
All institutions tend to have ‘comparators’ – those institutions which they believe are similar in various ways – e.g. the type of institution, size, academic interests etc. Mission Groups (eg Russell Group, 94 Group, GuildHE, Million+ in HE and the Mixed Economy Group in FE) are examples of large groupings of like-minded institutions – but less formal grouping may include medical schools, agricultural colleges, specialist arts institutions etc.
Within these groupings, there are numerous opportunities for collaborations and sharing of academic or administrative services. They may even collaborate to acts as a pressure group or as a think-tank.
Often services can be developed for institutions which are not natural bed-fellows due to geography or institutional profiles but which share some other characteristic – and are willing to collaborate with other institutions. Examples may include institutions which utilise the same application vendors (Blackboard, Moodle, Sungard, Tribal etc).
Many administrative services – eg payroll, recruitment, email etc – can be discussed and shared between almost any groups irrespective of geography and institution type.
Within the same city/region, it is possible for FE/HE to consider sharing services with collaborators from different sectors – eg local authority, health service, commercial entity etc. A ‘learner’, ‘patient’, ‘passenger’, ‘citizen’ are the terms used by different authorities to refer to possibly the same individual.
There are many opportunities available for sharing services – eg wifi networks, procurement, local information services, regional smart-cards etc – for the benefit of the customers of each organisation.
It appears from a number of recent studies (see quotes below) as if the bottom up type of shared service development flourishes more readily in the HE part of the sector than in FE. It may be because the colleges have had a shorter period of operating independently of local authority control although KPMG (2010) feels that both culture and governance structures contribute to making this kind of sharing difficult and notes that in this part of the sector mergers are a more common means of generating efficiencies even though government policy has done much to promote alternatives to merger.
The focus on individual accountability is a major contributory factor to the lack of trust between colleges, and their willingness to share data and delegate strategic decisions to others. It particularly inhibits the development of Federative activity which could be a useful alternative to merger and a basis for the development of shared services.
… not all memories of shared services (whether so named or not) are sweet. It is noteworthy that FE colleges have largely disentangled themselves from services shared with local authorities.
Duke & Jordan 2008A
Our review indicates that the current legal and regulatory framework for FE colleges militates against the success of shared services and federations.
There was a great emphasis on shared services as a means of increasing value for money, but little expertise in how this should/could be achieved. [referring to consultation on ideas for improving value for money in the FE sector]