The challenges facing chief operating officers – and how to address them

The role of chief operating officers must be tailored to support universities as they transform their operations and pursue strategic priorities

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31 Aug 2022
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Zac Ashkanasy speaks at THE Campus Live ANZ
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Speaking at THE Campus Live ANZ, Zac Ashkanasy, principal and global higher education lead with management consultancy Nous Group, shared the findings of a survey of university chief operating officers.

The session, titled “Building the plan while flying it: the challenges of a contemporary university COO”, considered the complex role of the COO, particularly during the pandemic. Operational leaders had to enact incredible change at their institutions while also managing day-to-day operations, Ashkanasy said. “It was an extraordinary effort that we saw across the world.”

The survey identified that the COO role has changed from being largely administrative to encompassing institutional risk management and strategic partnerships across the executive team.

The survey found that COOs’ priorities were improving service effectiveness, developing staff capacity and driving the digital overlay of process improvement. But role design was less of a priority. Role design allows universities to better set and manage consistent service expectations and more effectively leverage technology investment, Ashkanasy said.

Ashkanasy said a big shift was some universities “beginning to invest in leadership development”. By developing leadership programmes tailored to the institution and its priorities, these inaugural formal programmes demonstrate that leadership development is not a dirty word, he said.

Ashkanasy also highlighted a move towards “informed decisiveness”. Historically, universities have consulted a lot. “During the pandemic, decisions were made, and sometimes without consulting everyone. Now that obviously comes with a consequence, but it’s just getting the balance right,” he said.

In support of rebalancing decision-making in universities, the survey asked COOs about their changing priorities over the next five years. “Stakeholder engagement declined quite dramatically,” Ashkanasy said, noting that evidence-based decision-making improved during this time.

Data governance would pose serious issues if not handled correctly, Ashkanasy warned. “Informed decisiveness requires good data. Most universities we talked with say they’re already overwhelmed by data…And it’s only going to get bigger.” Getting data governance sorted is going to be complicated, he added. To tackle this, institutions need to develop role clarity, with data ambassadors in place to ensure that technology platforms can be used effectively and securely.

Investment is also high on the agenda, with universities spending large amounts on IT infrastructure and systems. This spend must happen alongside attention to roles, Ashkanasy said. “To get the benefit out of technology, you need to make sure you’ve got your operating model and job design right. That’s why it’s fascinating to see the results show that job design was so low [on COOs’ priorities].”­

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