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Human Resources

HR and Higher Ed: Same Page or Different Books?

A focus on strategy in contributing to the school's mission is crucial for institutional HR officers.
University Business, Jan 2007

Take a good look at your Human Resources department. What kind of grade does it deserve for helping your school achieve its key goals? At some schools, HR would barely pass, maybe even flunk.

HR officers are rarely invited into the leadership circle that addresses critical issues and makes key decisions about the school's future direction. The reason has little to do with small budgets or lack of metrics for HR activities and everything to do with whether the department's initiatives are aligned with the school's goals.

Much has been written about this topic over the past five years, yet there are still HR departments whose activities don't really contribute to their institution's overall mission. Instead of focusing on strategy, they keep busy with a variety of transactional or administrative issues. While those are important, HR still must learn to speak the language of business.

Human Resources must learn to speak the language of business.

A lot of HR department staff and leaders choose to get so wrapped up in daily administrivia, and then get so bogged down and don't take the time to strategize, says Mike New, vice president of HR at Saint Michael's College (Vt.), a liberal arts school that supports about 500 employees and 2,200 students.

New grew up in corporate America, where HR was typically a big part of the strategy development process. So when he came to the college five years ago, it was natural for him to dive into strategy work. However, not everyone is comfortable with that role, he says.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management "2006 Strategic Management Survey Report," 75 percent of the 427 responding HR professionals (from all industries) stated that their HR department had a strategic plan in place. Of those, 96 percent felt the plan was aligned with the organization's strategic plan. Likewise, about three-fourths of respondents considered their own role and the role of their HR department as a combination of strategic and operational functions. Could we say the same about HR departments in higher education?

HR must take the time to understand business issues in order to develop effective programs that help achieve school goals. For those who work in HR roles, think about it. When was the last time you sat down with the dean of students or head of Admissions to learn about their unique challenges?

As an example, New points to a problem that nearly every employer faces: rising health care costs. While most schools explore different ways to minimize expenses, it's often difficult to achieve. Employees typically balk at paying higher copays and other out-of-pocket medical expenses. Sometimes, it can create strained or adversarial relationships between employees and the school, resulting in low morale and high staff turnover.

Several years ago, New says employees at his school had no idea about health care costs and probably thought someone other than the school paid for their medical expenses. To make matters worse, there was an "us against them" mentality between the administration and employees.

So he began conducting employee presentations across campus, focusing on how the school's health-care plan worked, how much costs have risen over recent years for the self-insured college, how much employees collectively contribute and how these costs fit into the overall financial well-being of the school. Then he addressed how the school's health benefits stacked up against other area employers, which also served as a retention tool.

"My goal was to say, 'We're in this together,' " New says, adding that HR must be patient. Change usually takes a long time in higher ed. "Now when we make changes, employees understand. It makes the process as we go forward much more collaborative," New says.

There are many different ways to go about understanding the business of higher education at your school. One small college designed HR to be an integral component throughout the school. There is no segregation-HR's fingers touch every function or department.

"We take a unique approach that may not fit a traditional university," says Maurine Findley, executive vice president at Neumont University (Utah), who oversees HR and a number of other areas, including finance, student services, and operations. The college offers two degrees-an MBA and a B.S. in computer sciences-to its 290 students.

But even if the college achieved its planned growth-supporting multiple campuses-Findley says HR would still assume a broad role.

Take career services as an example. At many schools, this is a completely separate department from HR. But not at Neumont. One of the school's goals is to increase student enrollment by between 10 and 15 percent each year. On the employer side, demand is high for techies. More than 90 percent of its graduates are typically placed in jobs. However, interest in computer science at the high school level has been dropping.

Develop a "we can deliver" attitude to earn the HR department more credibility.

So HR crosses a border and gets directly involved with career services. Together, they routinely survey employers about the school's graduates. Was their r?sum? representative of their knowledge and job skills? Do they possess the right skills to perform their job?

Likewise, graduates are surveyed about what else the college could have done to prepare them for their position. All responses are shared with other institutional departments. This process not only helps HR learn the business side of education, but enables the college to fill in any gaps, making their school more appealing to both high school students and employers.

"Even if it's just at the committee level, [HR and career services] both have things they can learn from each other in terms of how they're approaching the market," Findley says. "HR doesn't need to work independently as it does."

She believes HR can delve into almost any area. In this situation, HR can't hire the right faculty without knowing what skills employers need from their workforce. Better teachers lead to stronger curriculum, enhanced learning, and a higher rate of quality placements, which ultimately boost student enrollment.

Still, this approach can be difficult for large universities. While common practices at big schools include talking with deans and officers about competitive pressures, HR should also consider attending Board of Regents meetings to learn about administration issues and market factors that are driving their business, says Carol Carrier, vice president of HR at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, which employs approximately 17,000 full-time staff and enrolls roughly 60,000 students.

Other options: Get involved in projects or on committees working on key initiatives. Carrier says HR leaders must go beyond their own little walls and capitalize on such opportunities as well as help managers, department heads, or supervisors better understand what the HR department can bring to the table that will be useful.

"One of the things that I sometimes hear is that [HR] people don't feel that they get invited in until there are particular problem situations, which are at a desperate level," says Carrier. "That's what I hear a lot-'We're not brought in early enough.' One has got to find out what are the doors that are available."

But you may not be able to walk through the front door each and every time. Sometimes, you may need to crawl through an open window. She explains that HR must prove itself by delivering on the small stuff before expecting to handle large tasks or projects. Either way, it's important for HR leaders to develop a problem-solving attitude, an attitude of "we can deliver." The more confident they become, the more credibility the department will earn, and the sooner top management will look to HR for answers, Carrier notes.

Back in 2005, the university launched a huge strategic positioning exercise. It melded six existing colleges into three. The school's executives hoped that the reorganization would strengthen its programs and interdisciplinary work and achieve a greater level of efficiency. The process lasted roughly two years with HR at the helm.

Instead of sitting back and focusing on layoffs, she says HR set up a strategy group that accomplished a variety of tasks. It formed one culture from six, created a communication plan for affected employees, hired new administrative leaders and developed a professional development and coaching program for them, connected with senior administrators who oversaw the operations of these colleges, and gave a presentation on the new structure to the Board of Regents.

Whatever the task, Carrier says the alignment between HR and achievement of goals must be crystal clear. HR managers of each division must be familiar with their school's goals, determine how they can help their institution move forward with these goals in mind, and prioritize their own activities according to the president and Board of Regents' work plan.

"We feel that we are involved in helping the institution pursue these critical initiatives because of this kind of approach," says Carrier. "If [senior officers] feel you've been able to deliver on something that was really important, the next really important thing that's on the table, they're going to say, 'What can you do now?' "

Carol Patton, a Las Vegas-based freelance writer, specializes in covering human resources issues.