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Driving Competitive Advantage for Your University With Talent Management

University administrators are faced with many challenges, from better financial management to streamlining operations to staying competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining both staff and students.

For the majority of universities, talent management is a relatively untapped opportunity, and it offers both HR professionals and leaders of higher education institutions a proven and practical way to drive competitive advantage.

Talent Management Defined

Talent management refers to the overall process of developing, managing and retaining employees. It includes a wide variety of functions, including recruiting, learning and training, compensation, employee performance management, and succession planning. Talent management is based on the idea that employees are an organization’s most valuable asset. This is particularly relevant for universities – both public and private – as there’s a drive toward efficiency and delivering top quality service to students, both inside and outside the lecture hall.

Universities and colleges simply cannot afford to lag behind in their talent practices and then expect to recruit and retain the workers required to drive the organization’s success. Putting in place a talent management strategy which focuses on creating a culture based on performance helps drive efficiency, reduces turnover costs, fosters employee development and assures a high level of services are delivered to students.

Making Talent Management Work

While the idea of talent management has increased in popularity, many universities are not addressing talent management proactively or continue to rely on ineffective, outdated approaches. For talent management programs to have a measurable impact on the bottom line, they need to be clear, consistent, and offer top administrators, employees, and managers ongoing value.

A best practices-based approach to talent management puts employee performance at the core of all talent management functions. This approach enables the organization to ensure that all talent management functions are based on actual data from the performance management process and make better business decisions based on actual employee and organizational needs. Putting a talent management program in place requires careful planning and understanding of how all of the elements work together to drive results. An increasing number of universities are implementing web-based solutions that streamline the administration of key talent management functions for all involved, ensuring HR, managers, and employees can focus on higher-value activities such as employee coaching and goal setting.

Cases in Point: Leading With Performance

Purdue’s Division of Housing and Food Services was using an inefficient employee performance management process. Performance appraisals were conducted on paper, creating an administrative burden for human resources, managers, and employees alike. But the bigger problem was the inconsistency in the process and a lack of strong competency management. In taking the first steps to bring the performance management process online that same year, the department was able to first automate and relieve the administrative headache. Since automating the process, Purdue has developed a robust talent management program where performance is at the core and drives other key functions such as employee learning and development, as well as coaching and succession planning. The organization has successfully aligned training requirements with key competencies for improved performance, effectively tackling the challenge of measuring training impact.

Purdue’s experiences serve to reinforce the value of a best-practices driven approach to talent management where performance management acts as the core of all talent management functions. By developing a talent management strategy centered on performance achievement, universities and colleges are able to ensure all talent management activities are fueled by fact, and the tight integration creates a full lifecycle for each employee.

Often, organizations create a talent management strategy where decisions are made without fact-based data, or in isolation. For example, pay-for-performance or succession planning decisions require up-to-date data based on actual performance to allocate compensation and create talent pools. When decisions are not fact-based, instead of being motivated by a bonus or future career opportunities, they can become quickly frustrated, leading to retention issues.

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) modernized its performance appraisal process and quickly saw a major improvement in many of the performance-related decisions being made. “The reality is that, with our old system, steps and important factors were overlooked or not considered. Now, performance is at the center of everything we do, and we have the data to back up decisions, including merit increases,” explains Tomas Turrubiates, Manager of Talent Management, Employment Services and Operations, University of Houston-Downtown.

With an approach where performance management drives talent management, expectations are clearly set, competencies established and employees have a solid understanding of what is expected of them, and how that equates to learning/development opportunities, career growth, pay-for- performance and more.

Dave Jones, Organizational Development Specialist at Purdue explains, “In mapping out our talent management strategy, we decided that performance, with a specific focus on creating a competency-based framework would be our number one goal. Appraisals and competencies are the linchpin for everything else in the talent management domain and enables both HR and managers to drive value from our process. The end result is a workforce that is engaged and focused.”

Employee Coaching and Development for Success

For talent management programs to be successful, it is important that both the organization as a whole and managers understand that conversations about performance and employee development opportunities are not a once-a-year event. Performance improvement through coaching and development should be ongoing providing employees with opportunities to continuously improve. This is particularly true in the university and college setting where a focus on learning is expected to extend to the institution’s employees.

To make coaching and development a priority, managers need to clearly understand that working with employees on performance and planning/executing on development opportunities is what is expected of them.

The University of Houston-Downtown has had a strong performance management program in place since 2006 and has experienced a number of organizational benefits from this focus on employees. Turrubiates elaborates, “Our performance management program has been very well received by employees because most can clearly see the value in the process. One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is around how managers and employees now are having conversations more frequently about performance. Performance appraisals are seen as a valuable tool for both employees and the organization. This has put UHD at an advantage, as we are on the verge of investing our efforts to build a strong talent management program. Our performance management system is providing a solid foundation to connect all the dots and create a strong talent management system pipeline that begins with hiring and onboarding to training and workforce planning.  Now we are all working together to achieve the university’s mission and increase our competitiveness when it comes to attracting and retaining both employees and students.”

Succession Planning

Over the next 10 years, universities and colleges will be faced with a high number of retiring workers and a resulting knowledge gap.  Now is the time to address succession planning so that there are highly skilled employees ready to transition into more senior roles as key employees retire.

For succession planning to be effective, organizations need to move beyond the traditional “org chart” replacement model where a specific employee is identified to replace another employee. This approach is fraught with issues on multiple levels. Often too few positions are identified as requiring a successor, and the focus tends to be on management and leadership skills development for too few successors.  If an employee tapped for a specific position leaves the organization, the organization is left unprepared and with a hole that likely will be hard to fill.

The best practices approach to succession planning leverages talent pools – where organizations identify the skills and competencies required to support short and long-term strategic plans and then cultivate them in high potential employees.  The idea here is to use performance data and then establish a large number of promotable employees for all key areas in the organization.  As a proven best practice, the talent pool model enables universities and colleges to increase employee engagement and retain key talent, while being ready to fill key roles in the organization on demand.

Succession planning is a key priority for Purdue, and performance and competency management data are the basis for establishing talent pools. “With our talent management processes, we have the data we need to create talent pools and plan for the future of our organization.  Universities need to be ready for the onslaught of retiring workers in the coming years, and a talent pool is an insurance policy that ensures we’ll have the right employees and skills when we need them.”


For universities, talent management offers the opportunity to improve overall organizational execution, and drive a competitive advantage. A well-executed strategy with performance at the core and key programs such as employee coaching/development and succession planning provides employees with a valuable connection to the work they do and the organization’s success, while preparing the organization for the future.

Adam Cobb is regional manager, Education with Halogen Software. He focuses on helping higher education leaders and HR administrators optimize their employee evaluation approach and overall talent management practices. He is a frequent author and speaker on talent management trends and issues. He can be reached at