The role of UniForum in U of A for Tomorrow

15 October 2020

In Fall 2018, the University of Alberta introduced the UniForum program, an international benchmarking initiative designed for reviewing university support services such as finance, purchasing, human resources, communications, and information technology. With the active participation of staff across the university, we began the significant effort of coding activities and gathering data to better understand how we delivered all kinds of services end-to-end, from first point of contact to the last. Our goal was to benchmark ourselves in comparison to approximately 50 institutions world-wide and to learn how we could improve our services and better prioritize and allocate administrative resources.

In Fall 2018, we were dealing with a structural deficit and other funding reductions, but we could not have predicted the magnitude of the challenges we are now facing in 2020: an anticipated 33% cut ($216M) to the Government of Alberta grant over three years, with the added impact of a global pandemic. Our current financial reality is forcing us to make changes more quickly than we anticipated in fall 2018. The UniForum data is now more relevant than ever and the information that has been collected over two years is an important tool in developing U of A for Tomorrow and the SET toolkit.

Why are we using UniForum data?

UniForum has strong roots in academia. It was founded in 2009 by Jonathan Blakeman, at that time the sitting VP Finance and Operations at University of New South Wales, and Dr. Edward Curry-Hyde, a former academic. As individuals with extensive first-hand experience working within a university, the two recognized a clear need in university management: a model for improving efficiency and effectiveness that relied on something significantly more powerful than standard benchmarking.

Blakeman and Curry-Hyde understand the particular challenges and opportunities faced by research universities like ours. The U of A joined UniForum to gain a better understanding of our current state, to benchmark ourselves against global peers, and to make evidenced-based decisions about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of end-to-end administrative services. Some of our key Canadian peer institutions — UBC, University of Toronto, and McMaster — are also participating in the UniForum program.

Is it too soon to be using the data collected?

While we recognize that some other institutions have not acted on UniForum results until after two or three years of data collection, we find ourselves in a unique situation among our peers, given the scale of the challenge and the speed at which we must act. We have now gone through two UniForum data collections and this data represents the best information about the U of A's administrative services that we have. It can help us make better informed decisions and we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to address our current challenges.

How is the data being used?

Although UniForum data is collected at an individual level, it is used at an aggregate level to provide an overview of how functions are performed. The data is not being used to evaluate individuals; it is being used to evaluate how services are provided across the university and to help determine how we can do things differently and effectively with fewer resources and people.

It is critical to note that this data is just a starting point. It is only one input we are using. Other internal information is also being reviewed and analysed in conjunction with the UniForum results, such as internal financial and HR data. The SET team is also working with leadership in faculties and support units (31 reviews with over 100 people) to confirm and verify results.

Who collected the data?

The university has this important data set to work with at this critical time in our history thanks to the efforts of hundreds of supervisors and staff across the institution who have worked hard over two years to ensure the data is as accurate as possible and who continue to devote hours to rechecking and verifying results.

These efforts have been key to our ability to develop a detailed picture of the current state of our administrative functions. The information is not perfect and there is no doubt that with each annual collection, the data will become more robust. However, if not for the efforts of all involved over the last two years, we would be working with a much less complete picture of current activity and hampered by a lack of critical data. Previous to our participation in UniForum, none of this valuable information was available.

Thank you

The goal of SET is to improve the delivery of administrative services across campus and to help employees with their work. We can only reach this goal by using every tool available and by working together to find the best possible solutions. Thank you for your participation in the UniForum program and your continued feedback and engagement with U of A for Tomorrow.