Ben Browne, Chief Operating Officer at De Montfort University (at time of interview)

[Extracts taken from a May 2021 interview]



Why do you benchmark?

Having spent 12 years in Further Education, I found Tribal’s Benchmarking to be the most comprehensive and invaluable source of benchmarking information that was available within the sector. So, when I came to Higher Education it was a very easy call for me to promote the suggestion internally that we should access the equivalent Higher Education service, the reason being because it provides that holistic information. There's invaluable information there in terms of the size and cost of teams relative to benchmark and salary levels, etc, that data can prove to be a valuable source of data alongside other pieces of information and help inform the decision-making process. I'm always clear internally - I don't use Tribal’s Benchmarking to give me the answer – it is one source, and I admit it's one of my better sources, but one source of information alongside a plethora of all other sources of information that will inform our decision making.

On how it has helped…
I remember in one of the colleges, we found that a particular team was bloated and we were going through hard financial times, so we were thinking, we had to cut this team. Completely wrong - the team wasn't bloated; it was the absolute opposite; the team was under-resourced. And I think we needed to know the relative perspective compared to other organisations.

I'm really keen on benchmarking because when you do an internal assessment - let's say, marketing costs this year against marketing last year - internal relatives are interesting, but they only get me so far - they're not even half the story. You could argue they're 10%, 20% of the story. What I need is that external perspective – our university, wherever possible, compared against similar institutions. And so I like benchmarking for that perspective.

Also, we're in a very fast-moving sector, and we are making ongoing decisions. So, I think it's appropriate, and the university has bought into Bechmarking for a number of years. There's obviously the financial cost, but equally important for us is the time we invest in the process - there's never been dissenting voices as to its value in terms of us putting the time and effort in to get the valuable source of information. And so now is an interesting time. We, as institutions, will be having to potentially make difficult decisions depending upon what the comprehensive spending review may come forward with. And it's interesting to go and get another set of benchmarking information. Yes, there's always something going on in the sector which skews your results, and at the moment, they're skewed by COVID, but you have to take that into consideration. Benchmarking can't be the sole determination of decision making, but it is one piece of vital information that will go forward as part of the decision-making process. So, we do it every two years.

There are some things that change. So, for example, internally, some of the things may shift in position (against sector benchmark); sometimes Tribal will identify something and we say we want to do something about that. And so, we would hope that the next Benchmarking exercise, that will change for the better. So, we want to see cause and effect. Tribal told us X. We weren't quite happy with that. We've carried out X, Y, and Z strategic interventions, and we're hoping next time that we will have changed our position. But equally, it will be interesting where the sector is going. The internal relatives are interesting, but also, external relatives are interesting as well. So, if for example, there is a big shift in the sector in terms of diversification of income and we're not doing that, well, what tricks are we missing? Why is everybody else doing something and we're not?

Personally, as COO, what does it mean for you?
It gives me an edge in decision making. We had the information come forward just before the annual planning round, the budget round. So, for example, I hear somebody saying they are way understaffed, but I can see this isn’t the case according to the benchmark. So, it has helped me in that regard. Equally, it has helped others if they are genuinely way understaffed compared to the sets of benchmarks. And then there's a debate to be had whether or not we can afford to make the investment. So, it definitely helps decision-making, and I think it helps conversations - conversations with individual directors, many of which report to me in my COO role; or conversations with senior academics, when there is that fight for resources. We can talk about relatives - we can talk about them compared to benchmark. We're having more informed, honest conversations. Rather than me debating a position from what I think, with little foundation of evidence, at least this way, we are having informed conversations, and more informed decision-making processes.

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