Central versus local: Getting the right staff in the right places

Thea Gibbs | Director of Operations | Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations

My university has a preference for centralised professional services, combined with a drive for consistency and standardisation across different functions.  Sometimes this can be at odds with local needs of academic departments, which demand bespoke, flexible and embedded support.  Working in an academic department and responsible for organising support for academic staff on the ground, my role involves balancing the contributions of our local staff with centrally provided support.  Institutional policy affects every interaction between the central and local staff, who must continually negotiate their working relationships so that no-one drops a ball. Having worked in both central and departmental roles, I recognise the pros and cons of both centralised and devolved staffing models.  Whatever model or combination is used, it takes good communication, a bit of imagination, and the right people in the right places to make it work.

So how should I navigate the inherent tension between institutional policy of centralisation and our need for local resource? I must ensure that the needs of my department are met, whilst at the same time recognising that centralised departments must cater for the whole university, and may not be able to provide the level of dedicated support we might prefer.

My approach to this conundrum includes the following tactics:

  • Benchmarking: Fact-finding will help me to make a business case for the level of resourcing we need to support the scale of our activities.  What is the optimal ratio of PS staff to academic staff?  Are we under or over-resourced compared to other departments?  Benchmarking against comparable departments in other universities will generate a range of ratios and a sense of what is reasonable, although the diversity of the sector probably makes a definitive answer impossible.
  • Scoping our local needs: Evaluating the current situation, identifying gaps and duplications, and clearly articulating responsibilities and functions of support staff both within and outside the department will help with mapping business needs. Delineation between academic and support function tasks may need to be clarified to ensure the right resource is proposed in the right places, so that all staff can use their time to best effect, whatever their role.
  • Understanding the limits of centralised provision: If we have a clear understanding of the remit and reach of each central service, then local provision can be designed to start where the central support leaves off.  Often central services provide guidance and advice on how to do something (e.g. Marketing will recommend how to conduct a social media campaign; HR will advise on recruiting staff), but they won’t actually perform that function. And that’s when you need local staff on the ground.
  • Knowing when local makes sense: Local staff can be essential in responding to changing needs across a varied workload, free from functional silos or competing agendas.  A dedicated, loyal team that identifies strongly with the department and whose prime aim is to support staff and students there can make a big difference to departmental performance because they can identify issues early and use their initiative more proactively. Some centralised services deploy their staff into departments, so that these colleagues have the benefit of both their professional peers centrally as well as the sense that they are part of the fabric of the department they serve. This ‘centrally managed, locally delivered’ model is a good compromise, but even then it depends significantly on the maturity of individuals involved to operate within complex matrix management structures.
  • Being open to different ways of working: If you have highly competent people who invest in understanding the needs of their customers and are committed to responding to them, then it shouldn’t matter whether they are managed locally or centrally as long as they have the capacity to support effectively.  Relocating a role from being locally managed to a central base can sometimes reduce support levels, but this doesn’t have to be the case if managed carefully and sensitively.
  • Investing in co-operative relationships: Whether staff are positioned centrally or locally, their working relationships with their colleagues are vital in delivering effective support for a well-functioning, high performing department.  With relationships based on trust and effective communication, even a limited staff resource will achieve so much more than a team where members are working to different agendas.  Establishing a collective sense of purpose across all professional services staff supporting my department, underpinned by shared values and mutual understanding of roles, responsibilities and priorities, is the key to making this work.

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