Business (Managing Higher Ed)

Partnering for Project Implementation

partnering FM


Do you have a backlog of campus construction projects that need attention? Are end users frustrated with your lack of speed in addressing their needs? Are increasing staff workloads leading to unhappy employees and compromised project oversight? Chances are you’ve answered “yes” to these questions about your facility department at least once or twice over the years.

College and university facility departments face a number of challenges when it comes to implementing development projects, including competing priorities across campus, staff capacity, demanding policies and procedures, and issues with capital budgets and schedules. Navigating these issues to ensure maximum effectiveness related to implementation of projects—and ultimately help achieve a school’s ambitious strategic goals—is not obvious, nor is success guaranteed.

To address these challenges, many schools seek program management partners to help oversee capital projects while also establishing long-term standards and best practices.

There are typically two approaches to program management partnerships that can benefit a college or university’s facilities department:

  1. If there is a large capital project in the pipeline, a program management consultant can be used independent of the school’s facilities department. In this approach, it is imperative to maintain a strong link with the campus facilities department to ensure alignment with campus standards.
  2. When there are several small- to medium-sized capital improvement projects in the pipeline, a program management consultant can be integrated into the campus facilities team. This approach is aimed at reducing staff workload during short-term influxes in projects. It also increases overall flexibility and collaboration amongst the program manager and the school’s facilities department, while broadening the coverage and making the execution of capital improvement projects more efficient.

Using either of these types of strategic approaches provides several advantages. Doing so can:

  • relieve pressure on existing staff by reducing workload,
  • augment staff to increase the feasibility of the timely achievement of strategic goals,
  • create a safety net for unexpected staff transitions,
  • reduce long-term employment exposure to the school once the projects are completed, and
  • develop or enhance program management best practices within the college or university.

While the advantages of partnering are many, potential pitfalls can undermine the engagement if not managed properly. Poor communication, lack of trust between college and university staff and other management staff, and rigidity or ambiguity of existing policies and procedures can jeopardize the success of the partnership and project. To minimize pitfalls so a campus facilities department can have a fruitful partnership, be sure to make these three crucial efforts.

Establish Clear Roles and Responsibilities

Having clear roles and responsibilities is imperative between the project team, the broader college/university staff, and the outside partner. From the partnership’s initiation, communication protocols should provide clarity on roles and responsibilities, identify who maintains communication throughout the project, and establish the preferred method and frequency of communication. Protocols and expectations around communication eliminate confusion and build trust amongst the project team.

While creating a communication protocol, also be sure to develop a roles and accountability team matrix that outlines the responsibility of each project team member. This document should be circulated within the internal project team and shared with the university team. Having a clear communication strategy and defined roles also would allow for smoother and streamlined staff transitions without disrupting the project.

Align Tools and Project Framework

The alignment of tools and project framework provides consistency and structure to project teams. The tools and framework are opportunities for everyone to get on the same page and implement effective decision-making protocols. A key tool to utilize in these partnerships is project charters. Charters establish the goals and parameters of the project from the beginning and can be used as a reference to maintain scope throughout the project. Charters should be developed together with a school’s facilities department, users, and the program management partner.

Routine touchpoints to increase predictability and maintain communication can also be enhanced when using the appropriate tools. These can include monthly reports, regular steering committee calls, project websites, budget reports, and internal project team calls. It is key that the tools are in place to improve the project team’s process and effectiveness and not hinder the progress of the project. Each type of partnership may require different approaches to tools and project frameworks, and should be discussed with the project team.

Create Integration and Synergies

Integration and synergy with a college’s or university’s project team is essential to any project’s success. As previously mentioned, clear roles and tools will not be effective without collaboration and trust between the partners. Integration starts with onboarding the partner and ensuring that not only staff, but also each organization’s technology platforms and utilization styles will interact effectively. The onboarding and technology plan should be defined as far in advance as possible to avoid project delays.

Although not one of the three keys previously mentioned, understanding the anticipated and/or required involvement of institutional decision makers and the facilities department from the beginning is critical to successful project partnerships. This understanding of the approval process and collaboration expectations provides an overall strategic framework, informs project decisions, and maintains the project schedule—all while ensuring the appropriate amount of project transparency is provided. There should be open dialogue with the program management partner and the college or university before the partnership is finalized. Knowing this up front can avoid project delays and provide the project team with a path forward on developing the roles and responsibilities as well as the tools needed for the project.

Finally, all of what is described here is not only applicable to higher education, but is also transferable to K–12 programs. Facilities departments work tirelessly behind the scenes to create a safe and welcoming environment that encourages learning and ultimately a stronger institution. This work is so important given the mission-driven nature of higher education institutions, the importance of schools achieving their mission and visions, and the value students get out of well-organized and well-run schools and programs. It may seem odd to say that focusing on creating synergies or even literally creating an accountability team matrix affects students’ lives, but that is ultimately the reality.

The authors would like to acknowledge Rebecca Geraghty, director, Brailsford & Dunlavey. Geraghty has been an excellent resource for all things related to implementation.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management September 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.