This improvement came about through a process of change management introduced by Fulcrum, the UK project delivery and management arm of Meridiam, which is the principal (55%) shareholder in the Uliving@Hertfordshire partnership. It was important that Fulcrum worked with the operator, who has responsibility for all operational and maintenance activities on the site through a long-term partnership arrangement. The O&M contractor also holds the lifecycle risk for the project.
A year earlier, in 2012, Hertfordshire University had secured the funding and project delivery expertise it needed by selecting Uliving as its preferred supplier for an ambitious building programme.
The resulting Uliving@Hertfordshire partnership, with the University as client and shareholder, would design, construct and manage a complex of 21 new buildings with room to house 2,500 students on the Hatfield campus. This had been earmarked as an essential – and sizeable – first phase of the University’s Estates 2020 Vision for modernising its Hatfield site. The agreement also gave the partnership responsibility for refurbishing and managing the University’s existing student accommodation on the campus. In total, an estate housing just over 3000 people would be developed and managed by Uliving@Hertfordshire for 50 years from June 2013.
Construction was carried out in three phases, which increased the challenge for the project’s operational team. The University’s existing accommodation had to be managed as new tranches of student rooms were completed and commissioned and while further building work progressed.
As the design and build side of the project got under way, the operational team took over the management of the accommodation for the Uliving partnership. It was during the August of 2013 that worrying signs of a lack of readiness for the coming student intake started to appear, says Fulcrum’s Christian Stanbury: “It became apparent that the operator was unprepared and under resourced,” he says.
“The project and scale of the task in managing the accommodation were set to double over the following three years. It was important that we got it right from the start, but the team on site lacked the experience and support necessary to meet the expectations of the University client. The operator was struggling to meet the significant challenges posed in delivering services to an existing student accommodation estate, which at the time was surrounded by large scale construction activities.
“The September 2013 student intake weekend was the acid test which showed the operator was unable to deliver the expected service“, Christian says.
“This is the time of the academic year when a big influx of students arrives to new and unfamiliar surroundings, needing support with their accommodation and a host of other support services that go with it. It’s very important to the University that everyone arriving finds the experience a positive one, for the sake of its reputation and also because it’s a committed partner in Uliving, which carries the demand risk of the PPP contract.
“Prior to financial close, Meridiam helped renegotiate the project and encouraged the University to invest a small amount of equity in the project. This means we all have a shared interest in making the University’s Estates 2020 Vision a success, in ensuring there is a high demand for rooms available at the Hatfield campus. In this way it’s a true public-private partnership,” Christian says.
The difficulties of September 2013 prompted an immediate reaction from Uliving, its board members and senior managers of the operator. A new leadership team was installed on the ground, which was given additional support from Fulcrum staff to bring about the essential uplift in service delivery that was expected. Further ongoing improvements were going to be needed, however.
It was evident that performance had improved. Operational policies and procedures were better and the University reported the 2014 student intake as markedly better than the previous year. But this was still being achieved with additional support from the University and Fulcrum. By November that year satisfaction levels(1) had fallen back below expectations.
It was at this point that Fulcrum introduced an innovative change management programme. This was delivered by an external consultant, Opsis, which has previously worked with Fulcrum to increase organisational effectiveness. The programme developed for the Uliving team was designed to embed cultural and procedural differences, which were needed to ensure the accommodation service would perform consistently to high standards. Activities of the programme included a series of two-day workshops held over an 18-month period.
“Members of the team were encouraged to think about what good performance looks like. Their answers fed into a gap analysis, considering how the service was performing in comparison to where we wanted it to be,” Christian says.
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