Running a Technology Station is a balancing act!

Of course you have seen pictures of those intrepid tight-rope walkers! Well, a Station Manager in the Technology Innovation Agency stable of stations has a very similar job to do i.e. balancing a number of sometimes opposing forces BUT while juggling quite a number of balls in the air as well. Much more difficult, hey? This concept of balance is an interesting analogy in terms of making a Station productive as well as successful. And, before you query it: No, this is not self-praise or braggadocio but rather an, albeit subjective, description of the nuts and bolts of Station life. This will help in terms of understanding how the Station operates, especially for those who see us as a sequestered cash cow or a spoilt brat of a unit 🙂

Let’s look at some of the factors in this management process:

  • TIA operational grant – we receive a fixed grant for Opex. Over the years our expenses (including our salary bill for a fixed staff of 8 persons) has slowly grown to match our annual grant. This means we have had to trim our operations to ensure that we remain “solvent, keeping in mind that we operate on a “not for profit basis”. If our opex overshadows our grant (which often happens to me at the ATM), we would be heading for trouble.
  • Costs for services – these costs are divided into two broad categories viz. “full cost” and “discounted/subsidised cost”. Full cost is based on properly costing a service (using a Cost Accountant?) and this is used to charge all large companies. SMMES, as defined by the Entrepreneur’s Toolkit (which in turn is based on that of the Department of Trade & Industry), may be charged a discounted rate based on a formula (this implies a “loss” for ATS). This discount does not last indefinitely but does end after a number of interventions with a client.
  • Discounts/Subsidies – As alluded to above, the discount only lasts for up to 5 interventions with a client. As also mentioned, this then becomes a “loss” to ATS but it is an acknowledged part of our expenditure (rather than income) since this is part of our mandate i.e. assist SMMEs with lower costs up to a point. ATS keeps track of this “loss” to ensure the balance sheet is always understood to have this loss (or potential income) and to put a quantity to it. It is very seldom (and actually discouraged) that 100% discount is allowed.
  • Balanced scorecard targets – this is an agreed set of targets expressed numerically in terms of our annual Service Level Agreement which forms part of the business plan. This contract is signed by TIA and CPUT management to acknowledge that failure to meet these target’s means either a reduction of the Opex grant or even a cessation thereof. Now, one thing you do not do to a Tech Station is touch it on its Opex!!! It is thus critical that the targets are met (more on this later).
  • TIA Monitoring & Evaluation – On a quarterly basis the Stations report to TIA on performance against the targets together with an unaudited financial statement. This includes evidence of performance which TIAs auditors then verify and moderate. Together with this TIA further conducts two M&E exercises per year by means of personal visits to Stations against a set agenda. This agenda interrogates a wide range of performance objectives, data and requirements outside the Service Level Agreement itself. This report is also used to gauge the health of the Station against the annual grant.
  • Advisory Board & Management Committee – These are two bodies that the Grant Agreement with TIA stipulates. The first is just that: an advisory body made up of industry and other external interested parties and meets twice a year. The Management Committee is an internal Committee which meets quarterly to approve any reports to TIA including the annual report, audited financial statement and other items needing discussion and decisions.
  • Reporting – The types of reports required by TIA have been mentioned in previous bullets and are compulsory and critical to assessing Station health. However, beside this, there has been an increase in the demand by the funder to provide more and more information for audit purposes, this in itself creating a lot more “work” in order to maintain compliance with changing requirements.

Now, after just showing you the bare bones of the management and reporting system, this is where the proverbial hits the fan. Keep in mind that the Station is a fully fledged Unit of CPUT funded by TIA and is not a TIA unit in itself only. This means that we operate under the CPUT brand and comply with all its policies and procedures. These in itself change over time and create its own pressures on capacity in the Station. An example is an increasing compliance requirement with financial processes which are being tightened continuously. This is a common frustration for the whole University community. However, we do understand this in terms of ethical use of funds and ensuring unqualified audits for the institution and for the Station itself.

And therefore the balancing act: in a rushed world where clients want things yesterday, TIA wanting us to meet deadlines and reporting requirements, CPUT wanting its own internal compliance, including ensuring that we run in the black and ultimately that we meet our TIA targets. We are happy to say that we balance and juggle simultaneously without having fallen yet. And if truth be told, we do not intend to fall but to grow the Station and its services as well as its outputs. We do need you to wish us luck though and also to understand the pressures we face when trying to serve the industry and academia simultaneously:-)

Larry Dolley