Leveraging HR Talent Within a Decentralized Community
The University of Michigan Human Resources team has implemented an innovative learning platform for its HR professionals. This learning initiative is called the U-M HR Community of Practice (CoP) and is in its second successful year of implemented activities. A primary purpose for creating the HR CoP was to engage the university's HR professionals across the institution and harness their collective intelligence.
Prior to this initiative, U-M HR professional development had focused on providing ad hoc training offerings and general courses such as Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification. Absent the HR CoP initiative, many U-M HR professionals were seeking their own informal networking and development activities, not necessarily looking "centrally" for partnership in their development.
The combined talent of newly hired HR professionals in recent years and those who have long-term knowledge of university HR practices is spread throughout many functional areas of the U-M system, totaling more than 150 HR professionals in 40 units across three campuses and the U-M Health System who are performing at the generalist level and above. Within the university's decentralized model, strategic priorities vary by unit and campus. A primary benefit of the HR CoP is its support of a shared vision in HR knowledge creation and transfer throughout the university. Likewise, by tapping into the wealth of knowledge possessed by community members, U-M is better able to lead and advance the HR profession and is better aligned to help the university achieve strategic outcomes.
Community of Practice Creation
The initiative began with selecting a unit HR leader to lead the project. In partnership with a central university HR leader, this creative staffing model has allowed for planning and implementation synergy with the units and provides a clear link to unit needs and priorities. Additionally, unit and university HR leaders play a hands-on role with design and implementation work as a result of a unique steering committee framework that drives the initiatives. These committee members, representing HR leaders from across the institution and health system, have broad HR knowledge that allows them to lead the strategic direction of the CoP.
The steering committee established the initial set of CoP activities and monitors program attendance along with member feedback to identify and implement necessary improvements. Additionally, the committee reviews unit strategic objectives, HR strategic plans, and member feedback annually to drive programming and content. Prior to launching the first year’s set of initiatives, focus groups and surveys were conducted to gather data to assess current strengths and gaps; map the community to better understand the spread of talent throughout the institution; and identify exemplary and desired competencies for development based on need and interest. While participation in the U-M HR CoP is voluntary, we achieved strong participation from the outset by making sure we rolled out the program with high-quality content focused on topics of great interest and need identified by our initial surveys and focus groups.
Key Components: Year One
At the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year, the first set of initiatives were launched that included a HR CoP wiki collaboration portal, a three-session HR competency development program, and a real-time framework to share professional practices in the new wiki.
Collaboration portal: The HR CoP collaboration site was built using wiki software called Confluence. It uses discussion threads and other features for successful collaboration. The technology enables HR professionals to learn from one another, share HR practices, and better connect with professional development activities.
Competency development program: Based on benchmarking feedback, a majority of the HR professionals surveyed (84 percent) expressed a strong interest in professional development opportunities that include interactive classroom experiences. Interactive, classroom, and case study HR CoP development opportunities were conducted on the following topic areas:
- What it means to work strategically.
- How to leverage business intelligence.
- How to use innovation and creativity to advance HR.
More than 30 HR professionals from U-M’s health system, regional campuses, university (central) HR, and throughout many units participated in each of these three sessions.
Sharing practices: Using the HR CoP collaboration portal, HR professionals began sharing best practices and useful information in the practice-sharing section of the wiki. Knowing that many within our community have expertise in a particular subject area, this Web 2.0 portal provides a secure intranet environment to share information collaboratively. U-M recognizes that this model for professional networking and learning is new and so we continue to monitor participation and feedback to better advance our HR community through technology.
Key Components: Year Two
After the first year’s set of initiatives, the HR CoP steering committee reviewed feedback to inform the development of 2010-2011 academic year initiatives. Sub-committees for e-learning and on-boarding were established based on community feedback.
HR consulting skills development series: Developed in partnership with U-M Health System (UMHS) human resources, this program is designed to help develop knowledge, understanding, and HR consulting skills to assist clients and partners in achieving unit and organizational goals. It incorporates elements of the performance consulting training that has been offered in UMHS HR. The program is being delivered in four half-day interactive sessions during four consecutive months, November through February, with an optional networking lunch following each session. Participants attend all four sessions, since the content and on-the-job application of skills build upon each other through the series.
E-learning professional development pilot: Our original benchmarking and focus group feedback showed strong interest (73 percent) in using Web-based tool kits. A pilot is currently under way giving 20 HR professionals access to an on-demand learning tool with learning resources for self-development. The pilot group is using a tool called ThinkBox, which has a collection of on-demand expert tips, e-coaching, short videos, and other resources linked to organizational competencies. With this easy-to-navigate Web-based tool, individuals can search for resources, create customized development plans, access custom learning packs, and see what they have viewed for future reference. The 20 individuals participating in the pilot have access to the Web site and tool for six months, through April 15, 2011. Participants provide feedback midway through the pilot and at the pilot’s conclusion. Currently we are measuring the effectiveness and use of the tool to determine how best to use technology for professional development and whether this particular product or others may be best suited for our needs for an on-demand learning tool.
HR professional on-boarding program: Based on the interest expressed by our professional community, we have launched a program designed to help newly promoted and hired HR professionals learn about the U-M culture and how we work, make connections within the HR community, and learn about available tools and resources to help them quickly develop credibility in their new roles. Our on-boarding program, which launched in January 2011, includes three half-day sessions covering:
- University mission, structure, and culture.
- Financial acumen for the HR professional.
- Overview of staff and academic HR structures, services, and partnership models.
- Review of exemplary HR competencies.
- HR technology at U-M.
- The student culture at U-M.
Conversation on HR performance excellence: Designed as a capstone experience for the 2010-2011 HR CoP initiatives, a special session will be held in March 2011 to engage with experts in HR performance excellence. Laurita Thomas, U-M’s associate vice president for human resources and chief human resources officer, and David Ulrich, professor of business at U-M’s Ross School of Business and a partner at the RBL Group, will host a question-and-answer session with the institution’s HR community. This special session is designed for HR professionals at all levels to connect with two prominent HR thought leaders.
Measurement of effectiveness in terms of increased knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as on-the-job application is important to the long-term success of U-M’s HR CoP initiative. As mentioned, we conducted thorough research and benchmarking prior to launching the community and have used pre- and post-survey methodology throughout the past two years to develop and fine-tune offerings and resources and to gauge competency development. More of our members are reporting that they are applying new knowledge on the job and more have been actively engaged in strategic planning, providing feedback through meetings and focus groups. Throughout this process, U-M HR CoP initiatives have focused on quality experiences, including customized competency training and development opportunities identified as high-interest and high-priority. Along the way, other positive, albeit unintended, consequences have emerged. For instance, the HR CoP has been identified as a platform to move projects and planning efforts forward within our decentralized world.
The CoP platform has become a tremendously effective way to leverage talent in our decentralized environment—something that could be replicated at other multi-unit organizations. The fact that unit HR leaders have been spearheading initiatives creates a synergy and connection between university central and unit HR individuals and departments. The initiative has also formalized a network that has been used for our current strategic planning efforts this year, and community members have come forward asking for the opportunity to launch additional projects through the model. Based on our current strategic planning efforts and the community needs and interests we’ve identified, next year we expect to focus some of our HR CoP offerings on leadership, including workforce planning and talent management for our HR CoP professionals. New knowledge in this area will likewise prepare UM’s entire HR community to better address the workforce planning and talent development needs of the university as a whole.
Jeff Evans is director of human resources for the University of Michigan, Dearborn, and senior consultant, university human resources, Ann Arbor; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.