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Internal Absorptive Capacity and Successful Process Transfer within an Academic Institution

published on 13th July 2016

During my PhD research I found that the concept of absorptive capacity had a mediating role on process improvement initiatives within organisations that were undertaking large scale transformation programs. Recently when leading a change project, I found that the concept had similar applicability to process improvement efforts within an academic institution. For context, absorptive capacity is defined as the ability of an organisation to recognize the value of new, internal process improvement knowledge, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends.

The importance of absorptive capacity to successful process transfer came to the fore when we sought to move the student tutor allocation process from the Academic Registry to the Senior Tutor’s Office. The main benefits of which were to reduce the turnaround time for initial tutor allocation and responses to student queries.

The process in question was well documented with detailed process maps (‘as is’ and ‘to be’), assigned process owners, a detailed step-by-step user guide and a managed transition period by way of a joint working arrangement. Crucially for me, the receiving party wanted the process transferred and hence had a high level of buy-in.

When then did it become problematic and result in a longer time period for successful replication and standardisation?

The answer to this lay in the implicit assumption that both parties to the process transfer had a similar knowledge base of which to share knowledge on. In that instance the senior tutor was an internationally recognised expert in linguistics, which clearly points towards a high level of ability. However, the reengineered process by the academic registry was based predominately on the extensive use of an excel spreadsheet application to remove manual process steps to reduce the overall administrative burden. The receiving party for the process knowledge did not have the same knowledge base to build a common understanding off, advanced excel skills were not in place hence the process transfer stalled. Significantly the use of the joint-working arrangement helped identify this issue early on and instigate a training initiative for the administrative support in the senior tutor’s office.

The key message then, is that the successful transfer of an internal process improvement needs to consider whether or not a common knowledge base is in place between the sender and receiver of the process knowledge. This is particularly important within academic institutions as those who reach senior positions do so usually based on the development of expertise in a particular niche subject area, not necessarily in the functional skills required for a high level administrative role.