Ideas at Work

Ideas at Work

Rethinking “business as usual”

Our institutions of higher learning are populated by experts in a wide range of fields—smart people with strong problem-solving abilities. This past year, as a first-time college president, it occurred to me that I should make a concerted effort to harness this brainpower for the good of my institution and its students. I envisioned a program that would motivate faculty and staff at Marymount University (Va.) to engage in creative, collaborative thinking to develop cost-saving, revenue-generating, and process-improving initiatives.

Truth be told, this wasn’t a particularly original idea. In a former life, I worked for a company called Maritz, which provides programs to improve workforce engagement and customer satisfaction, primarily in corporate settings. There, I saw how thoughtfully-planned and strategically-implemented incentive programs could maximize performance and improve outcomes. Wondering whether this kind of thing had ever been tried in a university setting, I contacted my former colleague, Tom Wessling, now the executive vice president of a Georgia-based firm called Performance Plus Marketing. Like me, Tom had not heard of this model being applied in higher education. So we decided to give it a go at Marymount.

Christening our program Ideas at Work, we developed a set of participation guidelines and a rewards structure. Although individual faculty and staff could submit ideas, teaming was encouraged—particularly cross-departmental teaming, because I believe in its potential to create new and productive synergies. Ideas, with rationale and supporting data, were submitted online, and participation points were awarded for the first two submissions from each individual or team. Additional points—equivalent to five percent of the idea’s projected first-year cost-saving or revenue-generating potential—were awarded when an idea was accepted for implementation. Participants could redeem their points through an online “rewards mall,” offering digital downloads, gift cards, and merchandise in a variety of categories.

Thoughtfully-planned, strategically-implemented incentive programs could maximize performance and improve outcomes.

In the three months that the program ran at Marymount, we received a total of 60 submissions from 126 participants. To date, 11 ideas have been approved for implementation, and several others are still under consideration pending additional information.

The approved ideas range from creating a crowdsourcing platform for IT support, to establishing a student Physical Plant assistance crew, to eliminating printed graduate application forms. The ideas that we were able to put a dollar value on represent a modest amount of savings and new revenue—approximately $50,000 per year. I was surprised (but not displeased) to see that many of the approved ideas focused on process improvement. While it can be difficult to affix a precise value to these, they are certainly consistent with the goals of this program in that they move us toward a higher level of student service and satisfaction.

Motivation for Creation

For me, and ultimately for Marymount University, this was a successful experiment. It is one that we are likely to repeat, and one that I would recommend that other colleges and universities try. With financial pressures bearing down on families and institutions of higher education alike, it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to hold the line on costs while ensuring quality and staying true to our missions.

At Marymount, Ideas at Work helped to break down silos and create a renewed sense of teamwork. It motivated our faculty and staff to take a close look at operations and research best practices at other universities. It reminded us that responsible stewardship of resources is everyone’s job—and that, in some areas, this may mean rethinking “business as usual.”

The program also proved to be a morale-builder for employees at every level of our institution. Its success points up two truths that are germane to any organization: People appreciate it when their input is sought and valued, and they support change that they help to create.


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