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Don't Stop Thinking About the Future

Surviving budget cuts to keep professional development and the institutional mission moving forward.
University Business, Feb 2011

With furloughs, layoffs, and slashed budgets becoming a "business as usual" occurrence in higher education, professional development is taking a hard blow. In some cases, it has been dramatically cut or eliminated for the foreseeable future. Yet, even in these trying times, a few proactive leaders have found new tools and creative tactics to keep people learning and growing. They are energizing their teams and raising morale with minimal expense. By providing opportunities to achieve in ways that advance the institution, the team, and the individual, they keep employees connected and committed to the mission and to making a difference.

Technology offers a cost-effective way to engage employees in continuous learning. "In the past, our system-wide office used to travel to campuses and deliver professional development seminars," says Gail Brooks, vice chancellor of human resources for California State University (CSU). "Now we deliver information via highly interactive webcasts specifically geared to HR professionals. People across campuses can hear the information simultaneously and share their best practices while enhancing their skills. We've had very high marks for these webcasts and they've kept interest high. A virtual lobby allows people to exchange information before or after the webcast or participate in online polling." The webcasts are converted into e-learning and kept available on the web as just-in-time information. Similarly, CSU's academic support staff used to hold annual in-person conferences, but are now conducting many of their conferences on the web using interactive technology.

ACE's Office of Women in Higher Education (OWHE) understands the need to offer cost-effective ways to provide professional development opportunities for its members. Karen Haynes, president of California State University, San Marcos, and presidential sponsor of the Southern California region for ACE OWHE, worked with two other women to create webinars for nationwide delivery. "Rather than holding one conference a year, we can now provide two or three mini-conferences every semester," says Haynes.

A welcome way to create "white space" on a busy leader's calendar is to delegate tasks to direct reports that provide them with portfolio-building opportunities.

The challenge of dealing with California's budget crisis has prompted innovative "synergy projects" at CSU that encourage campus administrators to partner with each other. This has led to both cost savings and new professional development opportunities. Shawn Bibb, vice president of administration and finance/CFO at California State University, East Bay, explains, "CSU's 23 campuses work independently under the guidance of the Chancellor's office and don't usually share resources. We sought out expertise, experience, resources, and excess capacity on other campuses we could import to CSUEB. San Jose State University, for instance, has its own cogeneration plant and a great deal of expertise in energy management and conservation. The corresponding department on our campus consists of only one employee whose role is limited to program management. Applying San Jose State's expertise to CSUEB is allowing us to develop one effective program across campuses. In the process, our energy manager is gaining exposure to San Jose State's best practices and methods and has grown in her role." While San Jose State University is ahead in energy management, CSUEB has greater expertise in environmental health and safety, which will be leveraged at San Jose State to help it grow its own EHS program.

In another synergy project, CSUEB collaborated with California State University, Northridge to pilot a virtual computing lab. They are scheduled to close 20 of the 60 computing labs at CSUEB by the end of this June, at a savings of $225K a year, and the project offered innovative opportunities for IT staff to design and implement this virtual lab. John Charles, CSUEB's chief information officer, says, "We expect that as other campuses observe our efforts, they will also want to participate and share in the savings and professional development opportunities for staff."

"Although every campus tends to believe it has its own systems and processes, they all have administrative work that is transactional," says Mohammad Qayoumi, CSUEB's president. "Through synergy projects, employees can build their portfolios by enhancing their core competencies. This means they have to be willing to leave their comfort zone and think out of the box to change their paradigms."

At the University of California, too, campuses are sharing best practices, especially around cost control. "We initiated a payroll project, for example, because we have at least 10 divergent approaches to payroll," says Dwaine Duckett, vice president of human resources for the system. "Twenty administrators from our campuses met to brainstorm how to adopt common practices related to automation and the need to provide training if a new approach is adopted. It is also a portfolio-building opportunity for the administrators to have this type of enterprise systems implementation experience under their belts." The exchange of information and practices will defintitely poise the project for success.

Several years ago, CSUEB moved from an embedded IT team structure in each college to a shared services model, an effort that saved money and provided professional development opportunities. "Specifically, many of our IT professionals had never worked in a shared services model," says Charles. "They had to learn to be held accountable by a professional IT manager and also received mentoring. Further, when the new shared services team began comparing best practices, they were shocked to learn that some of them had more innovative practices and more effective tools than others. This was quite a learning experience."

Another level of learning: All 100 IT staff were sent to ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) certification training, Charles says. "The training introduced them to a set of best practice standards for delivering services. While many of the IT staff had computer science degrees and on-the-job experience, they had had little professional training. Passing the certification test was a life-changing experience and a source of pride for many."

At UC, all out-of-state travel has to be approved at the vice president level, and even travel within the state gets scrutiny if it exceeds $500. "However, local travel is not an issue and we have many hot beds of training and development activity on campuses," says Duckett. "In HR, conference attendance and travel are restricted to one or two events a year. The approach is judicious, ensuring that the learning experience is linked to a strategic objective. For example, my conference attendance this year will be limited to benefit and pension program design, which ties in with one of HR's strategic objectives."

CSUSM remains committed to semi-annual working retreats for the senior team, but limits travel. "The retreats provide individual professional development and help us develop as a team so we can work together more effectively," says Haynes. "The sessions always focus on moving the university forward, keeping up the energy and creating synergy on the campus even when the financial outlook is dismal. We reexamine our strategic priorities and discover ways to utilize communication strategies and tools more effectively."

A welcome way to create "white space" on a busy leader's calendar is to delegate tasks to direct reports that provide them with portfolio-building opportunities. "I give people new challenges that require research and keep them engaged as they learn to perform tasks outside their daily routines," says Brooks.

Haynes strategically delegates the delivery of core messages that represent development opportunities and portfolio building for her senior team while increasing her own productivity. "The president is not the only one who can address the external community," she says. "For example, we've developed a basic university message to service organizations like Rotary and AAUW that can give vice presidents and deans presentation skills and visibility."

As part of this strategy, CSUSM has created a unique "Chamber of Champions." "The institution joined 11 regional city chambers of commerce," explains Haynes. "We asked for faculty and management volunteers to be spokespersons to chambers and the university's eyes and ears at chamber meetings. Every year about 60 people have eagerly volunteered, which has greatly expanded our visibility in the region and proven effective in developing skills and commitment among our ambassadors."

California's severe budget crisis has forced state-funded institutions to implement staff furloughs of two days per month.

"One way to continue to deliver our services on limited staff schedules was to put academic advising, tuition payment, scheduling meetings, and getting help with financial aid online, which students prefer anyway," says Bibb. "The campus is also moving toward more online classes, for which there is a huge demand. Our staff has to learn new technical skills to deliver services online rather than face to face. They have to plan, and planning always improves the end product. In the process, staff members also gain a better awareness of how their jobs impact the campus and individual students."

"Despite the fact that we have a number of fiscal and finance challenges, the university and the president are convinced that we have to continue to invest in human capital," says Duckett. "In particular, with regard to training and development, we want to develop our next generation of leaders and to ensure great employees report to great managers and leaders. Therefore, we are creating a new generation of training experiences, one of which is the Business Officers Institute, which just ran in November. It was totally revamped to reflect managing in today's complex environment at UC. The president's Leadership Series and Academy will also begin later this winter. It will emphasize building a greater service orientation and leadership competencies for administrative leaders at the Office of the President."

At its senior leadership retreats, CSUSM has used mind mapping?a non-linear process for generating ideas?in two ways.

"We used the technique prospectively to examine issues and create strategies going forward," says Haynes. "We explored how different constituencies?such as student affairs professionals, faculty, facilities staff, or alumni?would view an issue differently. This allowed us to create a multi-step communication strategy, for example, to target messages about the university's budget to different stakeholders. We also used mind mapping retrospectively to do a post-mortem on a less than successful course of action."

Also at CSUSM, 25 people from across campus participate each year in a nine-month "Campus Connect" program, which resembles in purpose and structure a city leadership program.

"They spend six hours one Friday a month looking at the university from a 30,000-foot view," says Haynes. "This makes them wonderful internal ambassadors as they network and meet new colleagues across the university. It's not traditional professional development, but it certainly is an effective way to educate people about the breadth of the institution."

CSUSM has also created a leadership academy for middle managers?a yearlong, one-day-a-month, internally delivered training program?which builds talent, keeps commitment high and generates excitement. In addition, specific middle managers participate in a highly directed mentoring program. "We clearly identified a set of tasks these individuals could learn to enhance their experience base and repertoire of skills," says Haynes.

Effective leaders understand that they have to build for the future even as they are slashing budgets. It is not an either/or proposition.

"Bad economic times are precisely the time when you need to enhance development opportunities," says Brooks. "There are more demands on employees, fewer resources, more uncertainty and more stress as people take on increased responsibilities when we don't fill positions. It can decrease an employee's sense of self when they feel that an organization does not invest resources in their development. Today, most U.S. organizations are people intensive. In fact, 85 percent of our budget goes to payroll. When we enable our employees to be maximally proficient, and when we help them grow so they can move into positions of greater responsibility and authority, the organization benefits."

When professional development takes a back seat, serious unintended consequences can take root and grow. One is turnover. "The best and the brightest" talent no longer believe their career aspirations are achievable and they are likely to look for greener pastures. This in turn affects morale since, often, these positions are not filled. The work is incorporated into the portfolios of those who remain, who are already feeling overworked due to hiring freezes and layoffs.

Uncertainty about the future also engenders a short-term tactical focus that inhibits employees from taking risks and trying new ways to approach challenges and opportunities. They become risk averse and security driven while administrative leaders are asking for innovation and creativity to slay "sacred cows." Actively and energetically planning for the future is no longer a top priority.

Finally, people find it difficult to maintain a sense of loyalty or affiliation when they question whether the institution really cares about them. In the current economic climate, low-cost or no-cost professional development is a vital strategy to keep employees growing in their professional lives and to keep everyone committed and focused on building for the future.

Barbara Kaufman is president of ROI Consulting Group, Inc. ( An executive coach and educator, she specializes in leadership effectiveness and organizational development strategies for private and public sector leadership teams and boards. Contact her at