Business Practice Improvement office helps devise solutions through campus collaboration
By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | June 13, 2012
When Emory administrators sought ways to streamline the University's sprawling system for handling employee travel and expense reimbursements, they didn't turn to an outside business consultant.
Nor did they approach the issue with predetermined cost-cutting goals.
Instead, the University kept the challenge in-house, calling on a team of internal consultants within the relatively new Office of Business Practice Improvement (BPI) initiative — a structured approach to campus-wide problem solving that crafts solutions in collaboration with University employees.
After nine months of external benchmarking, internal data analysis, focus groups and interviews, the project is yielding recommendations that should save time, money and productivity across the University, says Project Manager Sarah Pearse, senior associate for BPI and an Emory alumna.
The added bonus? Not only will campus stakeholders benefit, they were pivotal in suggesting solutions.
"I was skeptical at first — but it didn't take long for many of us to realize this was very different from what Emory has ever done before with business process improvement," says Drew Smith, director of finance for the Office of Development and Alumni Relations who volunteered to lead a sub-working group on the project.
"It wasn't a typical working team, it drew from so many corners, people from across the University. And they weren't just asking for our feedback — we were the team helping drive the project," he adds.
Travel reimbursement project a blueprint for change
In the face of economic uncertainty, pressure is growing at universities across the nation to increase campus efficiencies and improve business functions, says Pearse.
"There's probably not one university out there that is not dealing with this," she says. "We all face constrained funding and everyone is looking for ways to be more streamlined."
Some institutions have responded with severe cost-cutting mandates, often made hastily in the midst of a financial crisis, observes Bill Dracos, associate vice president for administration and chief BPI officer.
By creating a BPI office, Emory strives to "be ahead of that problem — to address issues while they are important, but not yet urgent," he says.
At Emory, the BPI office tackles broad, complex topics, such as ways to improve electronic content management or fiscal roles and responsibilities. It doesn't necessarily launch projects with directives to reduce costs or bolster revenue growth — though any savings that result from improved efficiency is certainly a desirable outcome, Pearse adds.
"We're not just driven by the bottom line," she explains. "We come at this through benchmarking and data analysis and collaboration."
For the travel and expense reimbursement project, Pearse assembled a 15-member team representing most Emory schools and units. The team evaluated best practices at 23 universities and 10 private companies, solicited campus-wide feedback and suggestions, and invited 450 staff and faculty to participate in focus groups.
"That is truly part of the Emory culture — you have to take the time to talk to people for months, give them a chance to weigh in," Pearse says. "If you skip that step, you won't get anywhere."
Key issues —booking and reimbursement frustration, burdensome expense reports, and inconsistent travel policies — were identified and repeatedly vetted with stakeholders, as were the team's final recommendations, which will be phased in over the next 18 months in conjunction with the rollout of new corporate and purchasing cards during the 2012-2013 academic year.
The recommendations include:
• Replace missing and inconsistent policies with uniform, sensible policies.
• Promote the benefits of Visa corporate card adoption — less paperwork and quick, easy expense reporting.
• Reduce and streamline documentation required for travel and expenses paid for using the new Visa corporate card.
• Eliminate duplicative approvals and implement smarter audit.
• Deliver a service solution for international travelers.
• Improve travel agency service.
Next up: Review of research administration
This summer, the BPI office will also release recommendations on a second campus-wide project to examine Emory's research administration activities — a considerable task emerging as one of the group's top priorities over the next three years.
"Externally sponsored research funding is an important part of the University's mission and a large portion of Emory's revenue," explains Kimberly Hyde, associate manager for BPI, who is managing the research administration project.
As one of the nation's leading research universities, Emory is awarded millions of dollars annually for research, which engages students, faculty and staff in schools, departments, research centers and institutes from across the campus.
Though the job is immense, the time was right for a "holistic, systemic review" of Emory's research administration function, with BPI guiding a process again fueled by faculty and staff, says Hyde, who acknowledges the outcome will have a broad impact.
"With the sheer volume of individuals this touches, we want to be comprehensive and inclusive," she adds. "It's critical to have efficient administrative processes so faculty can focus on research."
Following its established formula, the BPI office again asked the campus community to help pinpoint issues and solutions, with University employees serving on executive committees, a faculty sounding board and a 34-member working group.
Faculty and staff who've been involved with the research administration project can expect to learn more about the outcome. "We'll be reaching out," Hyde says, adding that those seeking more information may visit the BPI website (bpi.emory.edu) or contact BPI directly.