The Specialist Generalist


By Dr Andrew Glanfield, School Manager, Cardiff Business School and Member, Chartered ABS Professional Managers' Committee

This week, at our quarterly Professional Services Section meeting in Cardiff Business School, amongst the usual standing items of Health and Safety, ICT and Equality and Diversity and engaging discussion on away days and personal development planning, I gave a short presentation on 'A Day in the Life of a School Manager'. More on that later, but, while preparing the slides for this talk the night before, I drew on discussions from PMAC2016 where one of the topics of conversation was the emerging role of 'Specialist Generalist' in School/Faculty administration, particularly in institutions moving towards a more centralised structure and approach.

I can't claim that I invented the term 'Specialist Generalist', I think that credit goes to Dr Phillipa Towlson, Chair of the CABS Professional Managers' Committee, but I feel a great deal of affinity with it and it's fit to evolving and emerging structures.  In any case it's better than 'jack-of-all-trades' or 'general dogsbody'. Indeed, it's so much more that those and, I believe, should be considered a 'profession' all in its own right. Let me try to explain.

The conversation is, particularly in centralising institutions, that the enabling 'professionalisation agenda', which often accompanies such reorganisations, recognises Professional Services 'professions' and 'professionals'. Such professions include the traditional ones of HR, finance, marketing and IT but also newer ones such as 'portfolio management' and 'development'. The benefits of professionalisation agendas include structured professional development, often aligned to the appropriate professional body such as CIPD, ACCA or CIM, and indeed sometimes with a requirement for individuals to be personally accredited, as well as a career pathway through the profession. Such an approach also enables professionals to be brought in to teams from outside, bringing new ideas, experiences and ways of thinking.

As these professionals are brought together in central teams or at higher layers in the organisation, what then of the residual staff and activities in schools and faculties? What are those services and how should we resource and develop them. The currently 50 strong Cardiff Business School Professional Services Section has been humorously referred to as the 'rump' and more generously as 'Andrew's Home for Orphaned Administrators'. It contains the tasks that central teams do not seem to want, often accompanied by the somewhat incidental statement 'no, we don't do that, that's a school task'. Yes, we are not as we once were when, with 90 colleagues, we provided the whole gamut of services including HR, finance, IT and student recruitment for the school, but I suspect that we are now something far more distinctive, valuable and useful to both the School and University.

Universal services such as HR, IT and finance are generic and can be outsourced, or more often in our sector, 'insourced', and a key role of a School or Faculty Manager is that of an internal procurement manager, albeit one who does not normally control the terms of the sub-contract and who must obtain the support and services required to meet the agreed needs and activities of their school through negotiation, guile and cunning. With the move of non-discipline specific services to central teams, residual school-based services have now become far more focussed and aligned to the needs of their disciplines, for us 'business'.

Our role is to know a bit about everything, yes, but importantly, to know how it all interrelates and interfaces with the particular needs and requirements of our discipline. We know what will happen over there if we adjust something over here. We intuitively spot impending, unintended consequences of well meaning initiatives and can plan mitigating actions. All disciplines will claim distinctiveness, and that is undoubtably true, however, business schools and cognate faculties have a particular role to play in areas such as income generation and business engagement. These can be large burdens for our often big and complex schools to shoulder. It is only through the development of such discipline specific knowledge, together with an expert understanding of the delicate ecosystem that exists in an academic school, that school-based Professional Services can excel at their new 'Specialist Generalist' role.

Returning to the jack-of-all-trades moniker, this role should not be undervalued by an organisation in its benevolent ambition to 'professionalise' its support services. Indeed, as staff specialise in their profession, aside from those dedicated to working at interfaces or of a particular seniority, their horizons naturally begin to shrink from what they once were when based in the melting pot of a school. Housing such teams in accommodation separate and distant from academic schools reinforces, well, their separateness and distantness and, unfortunately, it's often not just from the academic schools but also from each other......the unimaginable barrier created by a single flight of stairs is hard to imagine! It's not intended and it's not their fault and it's our opportunity, and indeed our obligation, to help.

This is because the Specialist Generalist is above all a team builder. This important extension of 'procurement' requires the assembling of teams of support, and on occasion academic, staff from across the institution to work on agreed projects to the benefit of the discipline. These might be in the areas of research, finance, estates, student recruitment or many others.

For example, a highly successful initiative at Cardiff was the introduction of an Intake Management Group to plan and manage the recruitment and admissions processes and activities associated with Cardiff Business School. This team is drawn from across the School, College and central departments and meets monthly. It comprises recruiters, marketeers, admissions staff, finance and data staff, learning and teaching leadership, equality and diversity representation and importantly also includes those with the authority to make decisions or with direct access to them. They are bound together by a single number - the annual income target, but also share a desire to increase diversity and raise standards. As the School is accountable for meeting its income target, but not responsible for most of the activity needed to achieve this, IMG is Chaired by our Dean and supported by the School's Professional Services. One of the first tasks undertaken by IMG was to create a 'Data Group' which importantly developed a shared set of data up and down the management chain from School to College to the VCO. This Data Group, which I Chair, also meets monthly and includes data professionals from all levels of the institution.

IMG works and I've no doubt that it wouldn't have been created, designed or operated so successfully without the glue provided by Specialist Generalist expertise and approaches. After a year of successful operation of IMG, we introduced a sister, Communications Management Group, and a brother, Estates Strategy Group, is in its infancy. We are currently piloting a possible cousin, more akin to a first response team, in the area of large or complex research grant capture support.

This is just one example of how the discipline-specific knowledge, and team building and procurement expertise of the Specialist Generalist, has created new modes of working within the institution to the benefit of all constituents. The idea is gaining traction and I've been asked to present the Specialist Generalist concept to both college and central professional services audiences.

Returning to my Professional Services Section meeting, what exactly does a School Manager do? Well, as my Dad would say, it's good old fashioned general management. But that sells cheap the expertise of school-based support staff and the developing, and vital, role such colleagues have to play in ensuring the success of institutions with evolving management and support structures and organisational models.

So, is that what I told my section?......yes. But I also gave them the detail behind this role, the many tens of hours of scheduled meetings a week, the task lists, the project charters and SLAs, the action plans and Gannt charts, the 100 emails I receive and 75 I send every day. Daunting? yes, overwhelming? at times, but what a chance to make a real difference to a leading business school.

To finish with a plug. PMAC2016 is now 6 months gone and I thoroughly enjoyed welcoming many of you to Cardiff and sharing Cardiff Business School's Public Value Strategy with you. But let's not dwell unduly on the past as PMAC2017 will be fast upon us. The programme for December in Liverpool is looking to be both exciting and challenging and, following participant feedback, will include a far greater element of good practice and experience sharing between participants and business schools, including new participant presentation series and poster sessions. The early bird discount is available until Friday 22 September so please consider attending.

Importantly, a key tool that can be used to examine your school or faculty team, and its current readiness for this brave new world, is the CABS Professional Services Developmental Matrix. This complements and unpacks the Specialist Generalist concept for the business discipline. The Matrix was launched at PMAC2016 and examples of how it has already been successfully used within business schools will be presented at PMAC2017. I hope to see you there.