Connecting the dots

15 December 2022      Emma Brookes, Strategic Projects and Research Manager

UHR’s Strategic Projects and Research Manager Emma Brookes recently returned from the CUPA-HR Conference in San Diego. A year into her time with UHR, what has Emma learnt about our members and how did the US experience help her think about projects on the drawing board for 2023?

The first twelve months in my role at UHR has flown by and there is no doubt that one of the highlights was the opportunity to attend the CUPA-HR Conference in San Diego. CUPA-HR are the equivalent of UHR in the US and I attended their October conference excited to learn about what is different over there. Instead, I came away recognising how much we are the same, and that on both sides of the Atlantic, it is by connecting with others that we become stronger and better placed to help our teams, our institutions and, ultimately, our students.

Connection was a core message from Baratunde Thurston, one of the conference’s keynote speakers. With passion, he explored the concept of citizenship as a verb: elaborating that being a true citizen requires us to act, to show up, to participate and to invest in relationships in order to benefit our collective. He set the challenge for people practitioners to really “see” all parts of our institutions, including the broken parts, and to stay engaged with them, setting an example every day at the micro level and practicing democracy in even the smallest circles. The challenges we are facing in our sector need all voices to be heard, even the quietest ones. One example you can apply is to make space for anonymous brainstorming activities, with the principle that people can speak more freely and support ideas (or, perhaps more importantly, challenge them) when identifiers, hierarchies and egos are removed from the equation.

Throughout the conference, there were lots of examples of how connection can make a huge impact in the difference between success and failure. The University of Virginia demonstrated how they had transformed culture through stakeholder engagement, embarking on a large-scale finance software change by using data and tools to fully understand the employee experience, measure change readiness, leverage strengths and make the change happen as a collective journey. One takeaway for me from this session was the way they applied Deloitte’s “Business Chemistry” solution (other team profiling frameworks are available!); new starters receive their “Work Style” insights with their offer letter alongside the profiles of their team mates, allowing strengths and preferences to be integrated into a smooth onboarding experience.

In the current labour market, connecting with your higher performing people is critical for talent retention. There was one case study in particular that I felt had huge potential to easily transfer to the UK’s HE sector. Kellogg’s School of Management at Northwestern University have created a home-grown, grass-roots talent review process that does not require any costly software or other significant investment but gives a picture of the internal talent pipeline and ensures transparency in career development. Colleagues wishing to participate complete a voluntary survey and the responses are used to create an individual “talent portrait” and a team “talent portfolio”. Then divisional leadership review panels discuss the cases and seek opportunities that help team members develop the requisite skills to meet their career aspirations (with a moderation stage to ensure fairness and equality). No ranking, no rating and no promises of promotion. Just a way to invest in those high performers who are seeking career advancement whilst improving talent retention and succession planning. Their data showed that 53% of colleagues participated and 22% of those have seen internal moves within 12 months. Kellogg’s accept there is work still to do, for example, enhancing inclusion and increasing managerial capability, but as a low-cost, high-impact solution, I can definitely see the potential in such a scheme operating over here.

Digitisation vs human interaction is a balancing act and we are often tasked with making processes more efficient but there is a critical aspect of connection that needs to be maintained. I was very impressed by a presentation from the University of Virginia who worked with EY to improve the candidate’s experience of onboarding by applying artificial intelligence. Not only did the project streamline and simplify a historically complicated process (new starters used to receive a 7-page email with dozens of links) but candidates found it welcoming, they could access the service at any time, and the team got to focus on value-adding activities or the more complex cases. A key lesson learned in this project was to ensure that any virtual agents match the tone and brand of the institution so they can authentically connect with the target audience.

I had such an energising experience in San Diego, and in so many ways this was due to the connections that I made. Mind-blowingly, my LinkedIn post got a reply from Dave Ulrich and I’ll dine out professionally on that one connection alone for a long time! It’s Ulrich’s closing statement that I want to reflect on finally; that now is the time to re-invent HR in Higher Education, underpinned by the principle that HR is not about HR, but about creating value for others.

Here at UHR, we’re a membership organisation and my job must create value for our members. I’m proud that in my first year I have been able to do this in many ways, by creating networks for you to share and learn from each other, by creating resources that pull together data and insights from across our sector and beyond, and by creating events that help you develop into the people practitioners needed for the future of work. In short, my job is to connect the dots and, in doing so, to connect you with each other. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts and to face the challenges in front of us, we need to be greater than ever. I look forward to making many more connections in the year ahead and I hope you will join me. As part of that watch this space for more details of our new “UHR Connects” in-person, regional events.

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