Taking Your Institution's Pulse on HR
Sometimes it helps to go outside. Getting out of your own head, your own department, and your own institution to test your thoughts and experiences against those of your peers can help you identify your top priorities so that you keep your institution’s leaders and your own staff focused on what matters most.
For the past three years, I have been part of a network of human resource professionals from 25 small, four-year liberal arts colleges located primarily in the Northeast. Some of our institutions are in direct competition for student admissions and faculty recruitment, but we also represent a fair amount of diversity in such areas as academic programming and endowment size. What we all share is the need for a sounding board to help our institutions better manage their human capital.
As members of the Colgate Group (named for where we held our initial meeting, at Colgate University), we gather twice each year to discuss macro issues and challenges and to exchange best practices. During the interim, we e-mail each other informally for advice or recommendations about routine projects or mini crises that emerge. At our semi-annual meeting last month, I polled the group’s members to get their insights on what their primary HR-related concerns are for the next year and the decade to follow. What I heard did not surprise me, but it did confirm several of my own conclusions:
- My colleagues are thinking as strategic partners. Campuswide drivers are now analyzed and solutions developed using innovative HR strategies. Human resource leaders are concerned about, planning for, and having an impact on many areas of their institutions, including technology shifts, institutional financial planning, and cost reduction.
- HR professionals at these institutions are seeking creative solutions for balancing the institution’s needs and shifting employee demographics through alternative recruiting strategies, technology training, leadership development, and by changing benefit delivery for employees and retirees.
- Business officers and presidents can benefit by asking their HR professionals for recommendations, proposals, and ideas in connection with key institutional challenges and priorities.
Read on for the full compilation of responses from my Colgate Group colleagues.
Barbara E. Beck is associate vice president for finance and administration and director of human resources, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .
More Heads are Better Than One
The following compilation is based on the collective brainstorming of a network of higher education human resource officers from 25 small, U.S. liberal arts colleges located primarily in the Northeast during the group’s September 2006 meeting.
What external driving forces will most affect the human resources function at your institution during the next 10 years?
- Competition from other private liberal arts colleges.
- Changing student demographics, especially the projected decrease in college-bound students in 2010 and thereafter.
- Projected shortage of qualified faculty and staff to fill critical staffing needs due to an aging workforce and retirement of baby boomers.
- Competition for future financial resources to fund important programs and projects.
- Salary market competitiveness that requires increasing our pay levels.
- Government cutbacks in financial aid and other funding as well as pressure to slow tuition increases that will affect our ability to retain and recruit and may result in staff reductions.
- National/regional economy and their affect on our ability to keep up with rising health insurance costs.
- Exploding legal climate.
- Continued changes in technology that make it harder for older workers to adapt.
- Multigenerational workforce with differing needs and motivations.
Specifically, how will these forces affect your role and the human resources function at your institution?
- We must continue to foster innovation without significant expansion due to limited financial resources; therefore, the quality of services our faculty and staff provide is critical for future success.
- We must continue to recruit and retain the most qualified faculty and staff available in keeping with projected budget costs.
- We must increase resources to meet cost challenges for both benefits and supervisory and staff organizational development.
What do you consider the top concerns on your plate for this year?
- Technology training as we move toward having all staff with computer access and using our database for all business work needs.
- Work-life balance and family-friendly policies.
- Ensuring that all staff members feel that participation is central to the college's mission and that their work is recognized.
- Presidential transition.
- Updating policies and procedures.
- Redesigning wage and salary programs.
- Financial concerns while continuing to maintain internal equity.
- Recruitment, including diversity concerns.
- Union contract negotiations.
- Union avoidance.
- Redesigning retiree health care to make it portable and economical.
- Leadership development, specifically for our senior management group, and creating a managerial philosophy so that we can develop leadership programs and impact the culture in a positive way.
- Providing better training and development opportunities to staff.
- Management of escalating health care costs.
- Employee wellness and consumer education to help change behaviors and impact health care costs.
- Ability to attract/retain staff in areas of stiff competition for talent, such as advancement.
- Resources needed to keep up with technology changes (e.g., online application process, upgrades to complex databases, system development, etc.).
- Energizing and motivating staff amid political and global unease.
- Employee retirement and financial planning and considering options for access to retiree medical insurance coverage since the lack of access and coverage has employees concerned about their ability to retire.
- Remaining an all-female institution, as this structure denies the college the economies of scale enjoyed by many of our peers. Additionally, our female-only applicant pool is smaller than our typical coeducational peer, making our recruitment efforts more challenging.
- Bringing in new talent.
- Retaining historical perspective in the midst of turnover.
- Improving organizational effectiveness.
- Refocusing energies on disease management, wellness, and consumer education to help modify spiraling health care costs.
What concerns are you monitoring for the years ahead?
- Continuing to promote the institution as an employer of choice within our local area labor market.
- Functioning as a catalyst for change in helping faculty and staff understand why change is needed.
- Managing total compensation costs at an appropriate level; maintaining competitive compensation and reward programs; wage and salary competitiveness; benefits costs; competitiveness of pay schedules; relationship of pay and benefits.
- Promoting human resources as a key resource in helping the board and senior administration attain institutional objectives.
- Investigating outsourcing options that will mesh with the college’s mission and goals.
- Management and leadership training.
- Continue to develop HR as a strategic partner.
- Financial concerns (internal equity).
- Recruiting top talent and retention.
- Potential for more labor/faculty unionizing.
- Managerial sophistication.
- Departmental effectiveness.
- Appropriate staffing levels.
- Performance evaluation effectiveness.
- Legal issues and changes in the legal landscape.
- Growing reluctance of employees to retire due to perceived or real financial pressures; employees are staying longer, being paid more, and some are perceived as not as productive as peers earlier in their careers.
What is the biggest disconnect in how you perceive your role and how you think others at your institution perceive your role?
- Primary role of human resources is perceived as recruitment. We see our focus as being on employee and labor relations and as a strategic business partner.
- Others often do not see the contribution we can make to improve departmental and institutional effectiveness, but instead tend to see us more in traditional terms (compensation, benefits, hiring).
- We are primarily seen as a benefits and policy-police office by our previous administration; our new administration seems more open to having HR involved in some planning initiatives, but we are not yet fully at the table.
- My role, in my view, is to make sure the college has staff that are ready, willing, and able to contribute in meaningful ways to the mission of the institution and to be a resource to the entire institution on the topic of organizational effectiveness, leadership, and culture.
In what areas do you think you and your human resources team could offer value to your business offices?
- Articulate a comprehensive management philosophy and work to enact its principles in the daily operations of the college.
- Be the voice of staff—a sounding board.
- Training and development, if appropriately staffed to do so.
- Cost-reduction strategies related to retention and efficiency.
What do you most wish that your chief business officer would ask of you and your human resources function but too often does not think to ask?
- How can we find better and more effective ways to encourage and reward teamwork, innovation, productivity, and excellent service?
- Can we as an institution do anything different in the areas of our diversity management and initiatives?
- How do we best integrate faculty and staff priorities?
- If we could invest money in staff and benefits, where would you recommend that be done?
- What is the likely nonfinancial effect of this decision? What is the impact of this idea on staff?
- What is the most effective way to make this change happen smoothly within our culture?
- How should this be communicated?
- Are there other ways to achieve this?
- What are our options?
- How can we engage staff in our vision/plan?