Recap of Ask SET Anything: Looking Ahead edition

Todd Gilchrist - 7 April 2022

On March 29, the Service Excellence Transformation (SET) team hosted a final edition of our Ask SET Anything event series to close out the SET program (which officially concluded on March 31) and focus on the future of the university's transformation. Staff were invited to learn more about the continuing work to implement, sustain, and enhance the operating model as well as ask questions about the transition period ahead. We had another great turnout with approximately 160 employees joining us for the live Zoom meeting while another 140 watched the livestream. Thank you to everyone who participated in the event.

I was joined by a panel of university leaders who have been with the SET program from the very beginning:

  • Melissa Padfield — Vice Provost and University Registrar;  Administrative Sponsor and Initiative Lead of the Student Services workstream
  • Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell — Dean, College of Natural and Applied Sciences;  Academic Sponsor of the External Engagement workstream
  • Rob Munro — Executive Lead, Service Excellence Transformation
  • Brian Stewart — Program Director, Service Excellence Transformation

For those who were unable to attend the event, a recording is available for viewing:



I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what we, as a community, have achieved together and what is still to come as we look to the future. I know the end of SET will come as a relief to many and understandably so: the past year and a half has been extremely challenging with restructuring and other circumstances surrounding COVID. We have made great progress, but we also have a significant amount of work remaining to refine and adopt the operating model and truly see the benefits of this transformation.

Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell reflected on the astonishing amount of work that has taken place in the past 20 months as well as the enormous change we've undertaken through a very difficult time. She appreciated that throughout the process, people were willing to ask the hard questions that needed to be answered; their skepticism helped to keep the team and leadership accountable. She also talked about how, through the process, there have been good conversations about what is possible with the new model and that she looks forward to continued conversations about what is possible with a continuation of the hard questions. That will help us to continuously evaluate ourselves and improve how we do things differently, into the future.

Melissa Padfield reflected that SET was really the remedy to what could have been a very bad outcome. She also shared that in her view, the changes coming from SET have been the start of an ongoing evolution to how we do things, not just a point in time transformation. The SET journey that continues is helping us learn and implement better practices for how to take on difficult work and make impactful change. The ability of the U of A, in her mind, to take this on has shown some of the real strength of the institution and the commitment of the people who work here.

Significant progress

The pace and the depth of change that the university has already undertaken have been uniquely challenging and genuinely impressive. From the operational-efficiency data that we have seen, the U of A has doubled the efficiency gains of the change in half the time compared to other institutional transformations.

I would like us all to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made to lay the foundations for the U of A of tomorrow:

  • We have addressed our financial challenges and developed an operating model that maximizes resources for teaching and research, ensures the long-term financial sustainability of the university, and also helps position it for growth.
  • We have restructured and launched new units such as the Student Service Centre, the Shared Services unit and the Staff Service Centre to reduce redundancies, improve effectiveness, and ensure consistency of service across the institution.
  • And we have learned how to collaborate as one university, working together to build on our strengths and discover new opportunities for connection and leadership.

But, as I'm sure you are all experiencing, there is still significant work remaining to refine the operating model and ensure the services provided meet the needs of faculties and units across the university. As a result, the activity started by SET won't stop, but will be transferred either to the appropriate operational unit or to a new unit known as the University Initiatives Office (UIO).

What is the University Initiatives Office (UIO)?

The new University Initiatives Office (UIO) will manage strategic enterprise-wide projects as well as support and build capacity with functional areas as they continue their respective projects beyond the SET program. The UIO will report to the VP USF and have executive sponsorship from the Chief Strategy Officer in the Office of the President as well as the Provost, among others. The principles and practices from SET will provide a useful foundation for the UIO and also afford the capability to continue the transformation in the long-term. It will work closely with other operational units to ensure strategy is effectively formed, executed, operationalized, and monitored.

The UIO has three primary responsibilities:

  1. Planning and strategy: establishing a scalable and systematic approach to delivering major initiatives across the university.
  2. Enabling execution: managing these initiatives end-to-end with progress updates to the Executive.
  3. Institutional change management: building the university's capability to adapt to ongoing, large-scale change.

The team—initially quite small with five staff members—will begin by implementing the sustainment plan developed by SET as well as:

  • Continuing to establish a culture of service excellence through leadership, governance, and measurement
  • Completing the transfer of SET initiatives to operations
  • Delivering the student services vision
  • Supporting the College structure development
  • Supporting faculty and unit redesigns and implementation

Looking ahead at the U of A for Tomorrow

Below, you will find answers to some of the questions asked during the Ask SET Anything: Looking Ahead Edition. Stay tuned for more questions that were submitted after the event; they will be answered in the coming weeks on the FAQ web page. Moving forward, we will continue to share and engage with the university community through town halls, written communication, surveys, and more. Also keep an eye on the UAT Updates page for updates regarding the university's transformation including the release of the SET program final report, which should be complete by the end of May.

To all of you, I sincerely appreciate your hard work, perseverance, and commitment to the future of the university. So rather than think of SET as ending, think of it more as a transition as we continue to support the university's transformation to the U of A for Tomorrow.

Todd Gilchrist
Vice President (University Services and Finance)
Chair, Service Excellence Steering Committee (SESC)



Questions asked and answered

To what extent will the changes from SET be reevaluated to make sure we got it "right" and how can staff be involved as partners within these discussions?

Transformations of this magnitude, particularly in the amount of time the U of A had, will most certainly get a few things wrong. We are continuing to improve our processes and we have to adopt a continual improvement approach. This will include:

  • The use of indicator metrics (e.g., client surveys for internal usage; UniForum for external comparison) to understand the effectiveness of the different workstreams and programs. Those measures will improve as we go along as well.
  • A service governance structure to engage service providers and service recipients across the organization to make sure that we're continually moving forward and improving. Committees within this governance structure will include approximately even numbers of service providers and client representatives so the voice of the service user will be heard and acted upon.
  • Service partners acting as a key liaison for providing information and feedback between service recipients and service providers.


When we started, we participated in the UniForum benchmarking surveys as a means to compare ourselves against other institutions. Are we going to continue to participate in UniForum? Or do we envision creating some of our own benchmarks, including satisfaction with service levels as part of University Initiatives Office (UIO)?

The U of A will continue with the UniForum surveys to measure both cost and satisfaction performance. The next cycle of data collection for UniForum will be launched in the coming weeks.

From the data that was captured in the first year of the SET program, we have seen the expected financial improvement from the transition as well as the anticipated drop in service satisfaction. Based on experiences from other universities that have gone through similar transformations, service satisfaction levels initially decline, but return to, or exceed pre-transformation levels within a year or two.


People are still afraid to voice concerns or bring forward issues they see because they're afraid for their jobs on campus. What accountability structures are in place to ensure that employees can have that safe and healthy work environment that we know is going to be needed to carry this change forward?

The success of the new operating model relies on honest and consistent feedback, which includes raising concerns and issues. This feedback is essential in order to move forward and achieve continual improvement metrics. Soliciting feedback from staff throughout the organization will continue to be a priority of the University Initiatives Office (UIO), as it is for the university leadership as a whole.

We encourage staff to talk with their supervisors, but recognize that isn't always possible. Therefore, we encourage them to provide feedback or raise concerns by reaching out to whoever they feel most safe with. Some other examples may include:


Are there plans to send out staff surveys related to mental health, workload, and the impacts SET has had on them?

Yes, an employee engagement survey will be launched at some point in the future, which focuses on the people and culture of the organization as we move forward. We recognize that the organizational transformation has been challenging, especially given the pace and necessary timelines as well as the inability for in-person engagement due to COVID restrictions.


We've heard throughout SET that staff will not be expected to do more with less. However, that doesn't match current workloads and expectations. How is the university planning to address these high workloads to ensure that staff are actually doing less with less?

Unfortunately, we are at one of the most challenging stages of the transformation because staff positions are at their lowest and processes and transitions are still being implemented. Because of this, we know that this is a challenging time for staff in central units as well as faculties and departments.

We cannot expect our support staff to continue to do more work with less support and fewer overall staff. In the new model, we must rethink how we deliver services. This is why we are focused on process redesign to ensure full adoption of the new model.

It's important to recognize that although the SET project is ending, it is still early in the transformation and improvements are continuing. We are continuing to redesign processes, eliminate work that provides little value, and improve upon our technology.


How many staff will be in the new University Initiatives Office (UIO)?

It will grow in the coming months to 5 FTE staff positions. It is intended to be a very small team with concentrated project management and change management expertise that will be supplemented as required—depending on the initiative that they may be working on—through secondment or partnered resources from relevant portfolios.


How will the UIO address high staff workloads moving forward?

Indirectly, the UIO, working with operational areas, will address the staff workload through redesigning processes and fine-tuning the operating model. However, leaders working together with their teams will hone the reduction of workloads, identify activities that can be eliminated, and strive to make processes more efficient.


Could the Nous group comment on how well the U of A did, compared to work they have done with other organizations?

The pace and the depth of change that the university has already undertaken have been uniquely challenging and genuinely impressive. From the operational-efficiency data that we have seen, the U of A has doubled the efficiency gains of the change in half the time compared to other institutional transformations.

Beyond financial outcomes which were critical to achieve, the level of collaboration and new connections that have formed over the last two years has been commendable. The U of A is moving from federated silos to one university—and that will improve and become more natural with time and deliberate practice.


With the SET program ending, are there any more staff layoffs expected?

By the end of March 2022, the phase one and two position reductions will be complete. However, we can't ever guarantee that people will never be impacted by ongoing changes in an organization. The following are some of the areas that will still involve change:

  • The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, one of the university's largest faculties due to its size and complexity, will have ongoing work for the next several years to align with the operating model.
  • Ongoing continuous improvement activities in the organization will occasionally result in restructuring and, therefore, people could be impacted.


Lack of transparency and engagement with front-line staff is still an issue. How will you engage front-line staff concerning the changes yet to be shared with the community? How will these changes be communicated now that SET has formally ended?

The pace of the transformation was a limiting factor for the amount of stakeholder engagement. However the university worked to be as open and transparent as possible, and we will continue to do that. We will continue to share and engage with the university community through town halls, written communication, surveys, and more.


How do we work together to evolve the culture of the university to rebuild morale to rebuild pride?

We are committed to moving forward with a "people strategy" that is centered around moving forward, building greater engagement, and continuing to evolve how we make decisions at the university.



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