A Consultancy Within

July 29, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- The list of problems (and opportunities) facing most colleges is long -- figuring out how to do more with less, setting priorities for investing time and money -- and some of those same challenges make it harder for institutions to solve them. As staffs and budgets stagnate or shrink, day-to-day demands often push aside the sort of strategic thinking and analysis that might pay dividends in the long term -- work for which institutions often turn to outside consultants for help.

Business officers looking for advice about how to find that strategic assistance in difficult times crowded into a meeting room this week at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. There, a group of administrators at George Washington University described the institution's creation, nearly a decade ago, of its Business Management and Analysis Group, which was established to provide accounting help to the controller's office but has evolved into what is essentially an in-house consulting group for the entire university.

As the group has expanded from a focus on financial analysis to managing roughly two dozen projects a year for a wide range of campus departments, from the Board of Regents to the registrar to the academic services office, its full-time staff has grown to a dozen and expanded to include experts in business processes and technology as well as financial analysts. While the composition varies depending on the project, members of the in-house consulting group typically lead teams of senior and rank-and-file staff and faculty members who come at the challenge at hand (conducting a National Collegiate Athletic Association audit, developing an electronic billing process) from different perspectives.

While the university still leans on outside consultants for certain forms of expertise, including real estate and investments, the internal group has a level of institutional knowledge and memory, a web of existing relationships, and a tendency to take the long view that an outside consultant would be hard-pressed to replicate, said Dave Lawlor, the senior associate vice president for finance to whom the business management group reports.

The business management group charges a fee to departments for which it does projects, less to meet the office's costs than to keep departments from overusing its services.

The group's newest major project is providing analytical support for GW's Innovation Task Force, which is charged with finding, over five years, enough savings from current operations that -- when combined with some additional fund raising -- the university can invest an additional $60 million a year in academic and research programs. "It's one thing if you're forced to cut $60 million to balance the budget," said Lawlor. "Telling people you're going to invest an additional $60 million in academic affairs is an easy sell -- there's no shortage of answers to how people would spend $60 million if they could -- and it gives license to a focus on making the institution more efficient."

The internal consulting group provides added benefits from a work force perspective, GW officials said. It has provided a new career path for talented employees who might have skills that they're not using to full advantage in their current jobs, or who have done the same job for a long time and might leave the university if it does not provide new challenges. And when a school or department within GW loses a finance officer, the university has a ready pool of savvy people to step in and fill the job on an interim basis without missing a beat, said Richard Cosentino, assistant dean for administration at George Washington's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who moderated the discussion as what he called a "client" of the consulting group.

A Replicable Model?

Many of the CFOs and others in the audience here were probably salivating over the prospect of having a large team of financial and strategic planning types to call on to help their institutions meet their business and other goals -- and most likely seeing the idea as utterly unattainable. (Lawlor declined to say how much GW spends on its internal consulting team.)

Perhaps recognizing the gold-plated nature of its operation, Lawlor laid out a path that other colleges and universities might follow to experiment with such a group. Identify a problem or project that matters deeply to the president or another senior official at the institution (he called these "insomnia topics"), one that is achievable in a relatively short time period and that "you think you can knock out of the park."

Find a half-dozen or so of the most talented and capable people at your institution, and get them to commit 10 to 20 percent of their time to the project. And commit to the project's patron that you'll solve it without asking for money.

"If you can put together this SWAT team, tiger team, identify a clear and compelling objective, and knock it out of the park, you can start to gain wins and build over time," Lawlor said.

"If you can solve your boss's boss's problems, you're working on the right things."

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