Expert-ease – Shared Services in Scotland

Shared Service centres are not just efficient and effective for institutions, they are also the preferred choice for staff. Angus Warren, CEO of APUC (Advanced Procurement for Universities and Colleges) argues that procurement could be a model for other professional services. APUC is the procurement centre of expertise for Scotland's universities and colleges.

Readers of this blog are well-aware of the benefits to higher education of well-managed shared services. They generally provide our institutions with efficient and effective ways of doing common things in common. Sometimes, however, they generate negative perceptions. In particular, there is a belief that staff are less keen to be employed by shared service organisations than they are to be on the payroll of individual universities.

In Scotland, Advanced Procurement for Universities and Colleges (APUC) is turning that perception on its head. Staff and potential staff are increasingly seeing the benefits of working as part of an organisation that delivers key professional services to a wide range of institutions, exposes them to a variety of challenges, and develops their existing expertise. These in turn enhance their job satisfaction and improve their career prospects.

From 2009 onwards, after a bumpy start, APUC gradually established itself as a fully inclusive Procurement Centre of Expertise (CoE) for the Scottish Higher and Further Education sectors. It blended some quite conventional activities, such as collaborative contracting as a procurement consortia, with a number of much more innovative activities including the development of a national centre of expertise in advanced procurement for the HE sector.

By 2011, APUC had in this way generated a high level of trust amongst its client institutions, and subsequent discussions have now enabled APUC to enter a new phase of development. APUC has moved beyond the provision of support and advice through a remote “Centre of Expertise” and into providing professional staff that are directly embedded within institutions to deliver shared services in procurement.

The very first “embedded” shared service commenced in 2011 at the Glasgow School of Art, despite the fact that APUC was not at that time empowered to market or promote such services. The Board did not wish APUC to be seen as a potentially “hostile” organisation, trying to mount a “take over” of institutional procurement teams. Nevertheless, APUC was happy to respond to demand where it arose naturally from the universities and colleges.

Similar services, directly managing local procurement activities, are now in place at over 25 institutions (and rising), each tailored to the individual needs of the host organisation. The largest of such teams comprise as many as four people.

This new model is proving popular with staff as well as institutions. The reasons are plain to see.

For staff, the range of opportunities that this offers over time enables them to develop varied and interesting careers by gaining experience in an assortment of roles both in different types of institution and across the work undertaken by all of the APUC core teams. For institutions, the benefits include the stability of service that comes from planned staff development, including rotation, being managed in a coordinated way by a single supplier of expert services. The alternative can often be gaps in provision as staff leave to develop their careers (although this can still happen, the likelihood is much reduced). This can be especially difficult for smaller institutions where only one member of staff is employed in procurement. Gaps of this sort can become a single point of failure for the whole organisation.

This model has also enabled APUC to innovate. One example has been the creation of regional procurement teams of which there are now three. In each one, institutions manage their local resources jointly as one team. Key transactional activities and category management are centralised, but relationship management remains local. Another example has been the development of a highly-successful graduate development programme. Three trainee managers are recruited on a cyclical basis and developed through an intensive 18 month programme after which they can hit the ground running working either in one of the core APUC teams or as part of a front-line institutional team. We are now commencing the third cycle. All of the trainees to date are now developing successful careers in procurement management, either with APUC or within the sector.

There is another clear indicator of success. APUC is now an employer of choice. Faced with an opportunity to work for APUC or an individual institution, procurement professionals now often favour APUC. Individual institutions have to pay more than APUC to attract the top talent. Procurement professionals are thinking hard about their long term prospects.

Looking ahead, procurement could be a model for other professional services too. Across UK HE there are significant numbers of support services where professional teams are very small with little room for development within a single institution. They might also present the risk of being single points of failure. The APUC model clearly offers improvements to resilience, efficiency and effectiveness for institutions. Increasingly, it also offers employment opportunities that can be more desirable for staff.