NUS Agility Office Director Roy Tan (centre, in grey sweater), with the NUS Agility Office team

Get to know the new NUS Agility Office from its Director Roy Tan

The Organisational Excellence Transformation Unit was repositioned as the NUS Agility Office (AO) at the start of 2023. Collaborating across the administrative, academic and research streams, it aims to address the diverse and complex challenges confronting universities today. In an interview with Director Roy Tan, he discusses the organisation's key focus areas, what it hopes to accomplish this year, and what he finds most challenging about the role.

What is the NUS Agility Office and what does it do?

We are a unit under the Office of the President that takes on various strategic projects with the view to improve the University’s agility in the face of a changing higher education landscape.

This includes evaluating existing processes to see how they can be streamlined, implementing new technology systems that will increase our productivity and efficiency, as well as conducting organisational reviews and restructuring. Ultimately, we are gunning for a culture of continuous improvement and innovation within the University, enabling it to better identify and navigate new opportunities.  

In what areas can the University improve its agility?

Right now, our focus is on three things: manpower agility, financial agility, and space agility. Are we adequately resourced? Are our assets being deployed appropriately? Are our staff skilled in and able to adjust to new technologies that are changing the nature of their work? How can we rethink space utilisation in an age of hybrid learning and work? How do we remain financially sustainable in light of the looming demographic enrolment cliff, and where can we diversify our revenue streams? 

These are the complex questions that require collaborative solutions, and this is what makes our job so interesting. These are also questions that universities around the world are grappling with, which means we have an opportunity for NUS to be at the forefront of demonstrating how these challenges can be met creatively.    

How does the Agility Office build on the Organisational Excellence initiative?

The Organisational Excellence (OE) initiative was rolled out in 2018 to modernise the University’s administrative apparatus in better support to our research and teaching missions. In many ways, our work continues in this vein, but our scope has also expanded to cover aspects of the research and innovation and enterprise streams as well. We are also looking at projects that are longer-term and broader in nature, such as the Co-Creating the Future of Work initiative.

How does the Agility Office contribute to NUS’ talent development goals?

We operate on a yearly secondment basis, which brings together approximately 25 staff from various University departments together in a cross-functional team. This means we are constantly aflush with new perspectives and ideas, and we really benefit from the diversity of our experiences and extended network. 

At the same time, we want to provide each secondee with training in four key skillsets: project management, systems thinking, business process re-engineering and change management. Our hope is that when our secondees leave our office for new positions within the University, they can bring these skills with them and continue to identify and make improvements, serving as valuable change agents for NUS.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to the Agility Office.  

I come from a very humble background, and I struggled in school as a child. You don’t want to know what my PSLE scores were! But I strongly believe in the transformative nature of education and the opportunities it provides. This was a large part of why I wanted to work within the University, as I see it as a form of giving back. 

I'm trained to be a builder + designer + architect (one thing I excelled at in my youth was Legos!) and managed space planning at University Campus Infrastructure (UCI) prior to this role. As for how I came to the Agility Office, just like all the secondees, one day I received a call from the Office of the President in 2021 and was appointed to the job! Within two months, I was hitting the ground running. It's been a rewarding opportunity to work across all aspects of the University and contribute to the changes and reforms taking place. I want to see that I am building relationships between various teams.

How does your training influence your approach to the unit’s work and leadership style?

Building projects often follow project management methodology, and this is something we have incorporated into the office’s training programme and approach to projects to provide clearer structure and guidance.

In terms of how I lead, I believe we build on each other and there is no dominant style that I have. I want my team mates to feel empowered, and to have the freedom and safety to share their views and question my assumptions. I morph into the leader our team needs. I’m a strong advocate for using collective wisdom to arrive at decisions. Bottom-line being, I believe in managing things, not people.

What is the biggest challenge in this role?

The human element. A lot of our projects, especially those which involve organisational restructuring, have emotional consequences: it is an emotional experience to have your reporting lines changed or to be moved to a new unit. While focusing on the structure and not the people enables us to keep bias out of our decisions, we also want to act with empathy. I will be the first to admit that this is something we haven’t always done well in the past, but we have a responsibility to improve. And ultimately, it is easier to effect change if people are engaged and the rationale and benefits are clear. There may be instances where we will have to say, “Yes, I hear you. But we can’t do it your way.” But at the very least we want to ensure that stakeholders are heard. 

What does AO hope to achieve this year? Over the next few years?

We want to do a better job of highlighting existing examples of agility across NUS. Part of our role is to be engaged and connected to all aspects of the University: we don’t know everything, and we can learn a lot from others. So, I hope we can play a part in amplifying the good work that is being done, collating these best practices and serving as a platform to access new ideas.

Secondly, we will be revisiting past projects to ensure that implemented changes are working as intended. An example of this is Shared Services: can it be improved? What should the future of Shared Services look like? Listening and responding to feedback is part and parcel of continuous improvement.

And this feeds into the cultural change I spoke to before. We want to nurture NUS’ ability to respond and adapt to change, to absorb new ideas and innovations, and to be aligned around our purpose and mission as leading global University, shaping the future.    

As part of this effort, we will also be launching the Agility Network this year, which is a community of practice (CoP) for people interested in effecting strategic change within the University. This will be a platform and resource to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, experiences, and best practices, as well as provide access to events and training opportunities. It’s an exciting step for us and we’re looking forward to seeing what we can achieve together!


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