In 2016, the presidents of Augsburg University and Luther Seminary decided to start exploring shared services, because, as President Paul Pribbenow wrote to the Augsburg campus, “through rethinking and improving our operations, we will be able to deliver on our distinct missions and allow both schools to provide exceptional teaching and learning for our students.” Augsburg is an urban university of nearly 3,500 students in Minneapolis, and Luther Seminary educates 500 students in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Information technology was a natural area in which to start looking at shared services. By 2016, we had been doing co-location of equipment for disaster recovery for six years and were talking about sharing help desk services. The work ahead for the shared services alliance would involve aligning software platforms, increasing sustainability and supportability, and improving the user support experience. In this post I want to touch on three main aspects of the shared services work through a leadership lens: joining two departments, working differently at two locations, and the challenges of serving two distinct organizations.
At the time the departments joined, there were 18 IT staff at Augsburg and 5 at Luther Seminary. Within 6 months, through attrition, those numbers were 17 and 4 respectively. Augsburg has three traditional teams: User Support, Systems and Networking, and Enterprise Systems. Each team has a manager and, at the time, I managed the enterprise team. At the Seminary, a single team of four was supplying those same functions, with individuals having certain roles.
Early on, it was clear that our language needed to change. It was easy, and not unexpected, to refer to issues and people at the other institution as “theirs” and “them.” So my managers and I began changing our language and helping our colleagues to do the same. Problems went from “their problems” to “our problems.” For this endeavor to succeed, we needed everyone to feel accountable for the success of both institutions. My managers exemplified this and helped organizational change to occur.
There was also the practical nature of bringing the teams together. This had to be done carefully, as the natural inclination is for the larger group’s structure to overtake the smaller group. It was clear to us that we needed to join together the groups while not losing either’s distinctiveness, so over time we merged the members of the Seminary team into the corresponding teams at Augsburg. We expanded the team meetings to include staff from both schools. At the same time, we wanted to retain the distinctive character of the smaller Seminary team, so we kept an existing Monday team meeting that served to coordinate intersecting work in the small Seminary office. We made sure that the managers attended that Monday meeting to help coordinate the broader work.
The schools are just over four miles and a short drive apart but going between locations takes more than just travel time—there’s packing up a laptop, finding parking, and dealing with unexpected traffic. This is a situation where platform alignment played a role. Augsburg had recently moved to Zoom for video conferencing. The adoption was going well, so we moved the Seminary to Zoom as well. Zoom provided the means to easily meet across campuses, and over time its use has expanded beyond IT team meetings to be an option when meeting with staff outside IT.
One danger of leaning too much on a video conferencing platform is that the ease of connecting can lead teams to be stationary and not visit the other location. For leaders especially, this is a trap to avoid. Early on, I decided that I would spend at least one afternoon a week at the Seminary, and some weeks I spend more time there for meetings. I felt that was important not only so I could learn what was going on but also so I could get to know the newest members of my staff. My afternoon at the Seminary coincides with the Monday weekly meeting so that I can be present to lead that meeting. My managers also spend time at both locations, working with their extended teams. Building the relationships and trust takes time and is accelerated by talking face-to-face.
Serving two organizations comes with a host of issues that you can likely guess—different decision-making processes, new stakeholders to learn from, different expectations, and varying strategic priorities. Like with the work within the IT department to build trust and relationships, the same work is needed broadly at the Seminary. Early on, my staff and I were meeting with about one hundred Seminary employees face-to-face to understand their job responsibilities and concerns. Getting input from all these stakeholders was essential to developing an IT plan in the context of shared services. As time has passed and as more staff are comfortable with Zoom, we have a way to join meetings remotely if schedules prohibit the travel time.
Having different decision-making processes means that decisions are made at different speeds at each institution. This is of course good and bad. Having decisions land at different times requires greater coordination of projects, and work requires flexibility as some staff are involved in projects at both locations. While strategic priorities may differ, the commonality of being student-centered organizations aligns well. The IT department has historically been a student-experience-centered department, so the alignment is strong again.
There are also many practical differences among the mundane, day-to-day operations. There are different procurement processes, different budget planning processes and deadlines, and even different fiscal years. All of these are quite manageable but are reminders that we are working in two systems.
Since starting the shared services agreement, Augsburg University and Luther Seminary have expanded it to include a shared Marketing department and a shared Controller. Again, building relationships and trust, especially from the beginning, was essential for managing such an organizational change—both within the department and across the larger organizations.
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