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Here, SUMS Consultant Emma Ogden reflects on the CUPA-HR Conference in San Diego that she attended in October 2022. She shares best practice from across the pond through case studies and offers her suggestions on how HR leaders can ensure a connection between the expectations of employees and the HR service being offered.

Back in October 2022 I was fortunate enough to attend the CUPA-HR Conference in San Diego. CUPA-HR, the US-equivalent of UHR, had a huge attendance of delegates representing the entirety of the United States. Their two-day conference brought fantastic opportunities to see the differences and similarities between US and UK institutions and how we can learn from some innovative practices which are being championed on the other side of the pond.

In this first of three thought pieces, I am focusing on Employee Value Proposition (EVP), Talent, and Engagement. This is based on four case studies shared by the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, California State Monteray Bay and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Institutions in the UK HE Sector are recommended to consider these examples of innovation and consider how they might apply within the UK.

SUMS is a membership-based higher education consultancy, a registered charity and not-for-profit organisation that provides expert consulting to universities across all professional service areas.

Why Employment Value Proposition, Talent, and Engagement Matter

Employment Value Proposition (EVP), Talent, and Engagement are of critical importance in helping with staff retention, positive engagement, and creating a boosted employer brand for attracting future talent.

The case studies shared in this paper highlight the importance of looking internally at talent and the employee / candidate experience.  They all demonstrable return on investment, often through enhanced experiences and more collaboration with staff. Only one of the case studies involved any form of significant cost-investment, with all other examples being created in-house and without any financial commitment other than staff time.

Improving the Candidate Experience with Artificial Intelligence – University of Virginia

The University of Virginia is a top ranked public university which includes hospitals and clinics within their Group. In total, they have over 28,000 employees. They introduced a new Human Resource Information System (HRIS), Workday in 2019, to help address a need to improve their administrative pain points and provide greater visibility and trust in HR support across the institution and hospitals.

Their aim was to improve the candidate and new hire experience through more intelligent automation, while relinquishing the arduous and labour-intensive administrative processes within their HR team. The result was the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and specifically a Chatbot which is used across the candidate lifecycle, for example, identifying job matches for candidates, interview scheduling and tracking new starter compliance.

To complement the new system, the University introduced different tiered HR services (‘Tier 0’ is self-service and AI, through to ‘Tier 4’ which is critical support). Over 3,400 conversations were  held using the AI functionality in the first four months.

Key benefits realised from the introduction of AI include:

  • Enhanced user experience.
  • Reduction in application ‘abandonment’: from 26% to 5% through pre-populating applications for candidates based on minimal questions.
  • Better identification of talent and matching to job opportunities, apprenticeships, and training programmes.
  • Multilingual support for candidates.
  • High quality governance and compliance through source verification (e.g., matching social security details with the national dataset).
  • Improved HR talent and development pathways, with HR to providing specialist support.
  • Answer success rate of 86% through use of the Chatbot.

While this was a costly investment (the University spent over $1 million on this project), they wanted a high value system that was able to integrate with other systems and included new functionality, one that would help enhance the digital culture across the group. To ensure success, they recognised there was a need to create an appetite for innovation. The project was coupled with detailed reviews of customer journeys, user testing and Chatbot development.

Key lessons learned from the systems implementation include:

  • Engage in as much user testing as possible.
  • Embed a culture of innovation across the Executive.
  • Be clear who the technology / system experts are and have a full awareness of the IT and information security landscape.
  • Define success and design principles.
  • Understand and map the customer journey, and roles and responsibilities.
  • Track benefits.

The future for AI at the University includes use in scheduling health appointments, benefits selection, exit interviews, and pulse surveys.

Talent Review Process: Reinvesting in Talent – Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Kellogg’s School of Management at Northwestern University have created a home-grown, talent review process which is not reliant on any system investment but creates internal talent pipelines. Their aim was to increase visibility of talent, make introductions for those ready to develop and provide opportunities to share examples of high performance across the School.

Staff feedback preceding the project indicated that there needed to be:

  • More transparency in career development.
  • A mechanism to understand internal pipelines.
  • Dedicated talent and development conversations outside of the appraisal process.

Participants complete a voluntary survey against the School’s competency model to understand their career drivers and receive a tailored talent portrait which identifies their capabilities and aspirations. Each unit leadership team receives a full talent portfolio for their team and meet to calibrate the results to ensure accuracy, reduce biases and share portraits across the School to raise visibility of high performance and discuss development opportunities.

The process has no ranking or rating, is not aligned to any formal measurement (e.g., the 9-box grid) and does not guarantee automatic promotion, but instead highlights areas of high performance for more proactive talent management and succession planning through ongoing monitoring and leadership accountability.

The result of this has been:

  • 53% of staff participated in the programme, with 22% subsequently having internal moves in the last 12-months.
  • Strengthened engagement and retention related to career development.
  • Increased diversity of leadership.
  • Provides an opportunity for development discussions outside of the performance appraisal process.
  • Intentional investment in people.
  • Provides a mechanism for identifying candidates for their internal development programmes (almost half of attendees in the development programmes for emerging and high potential leaders were identified through talent portraits).
  • Enabled aligned leadership on development commitments, areas for investment.
  • Peer learning opportunities through pairing up learners based on their career aspirations.
  • Gained insight on the skill sets which colleagues were most interested in development (project and people management) and the key career drivers (flexibility).

There is further work to celebrate movement and staff changes because of the talent programme, align the portrait to their mid and end of year reviews, relaunch their competency model and seek further insight to build associated development programmes.

Key lessons learned through the process include:

  • Being clearer about the “what is in it for me” outcome, especially when it does not guarantee promotion.
  • Ensure the process is fully inclusive through diversity representatives and advocates.
  • Ensure ‘pre-self-assessment’ discussions with line managers to manage expectations.
  • Provide manager guidance and training on career development and talent conversations.
  • Ensure a positive leadership culture to advocate and sponsor the programme.
  • Update development programmes to meet the insights of the programme (e.g., mentoring).

Flexible Work and Employee Engagement: The new Value Proposition – Virginia Tech

While the UK has generally adapted well to hybrid working, it is recognised that some tensions exist, such as how much on-site presence is needed to ensure hybrid working is effective. In the US, the tensions are higher with many institutions post-Covid immediately deferring back to predominantly on-site operations. They are now struggling to make change.

Virginia Tech have recognised the external influences impacting work in 2022, such as the “great resignation”, changing workforce demographics and inflation, and sought to create an aligned employee experience based on enabling flexibility.

To enable this change, Virginia Tech focused on some key activities:

  • Defining what remote, flexible and hybrid work really meant and what the continuum of flexibility looked like.
  • Undertook a deep dive of their space, particularly to reimage it to enable maximised face-to-face opportunities.
  • Ensure intent across the leadership to support hybrid working.
  • Ensure compliance with those working out of State.

Virginia Tech defined some key guiding principles which were co-created among the leadership and staffing teams to define what the future of work should look like. They are experimenting with ensuring face-to-face working is done thoughtfully and capitalises on employee engagement, rather than a collection of colleagues in a room. Around 50% of their workforce is now hybrid or remote. They have also seen the positive impact this has on their EVP and retention strategies.

Collaborating Across Campus to create an Equity Advance Programme – California State University, Monterey Bay

Starting with a pilot programme, California State University, Monterey Bay have built a cross-campus programme which aims to improve diversity, fairness, and Faculty / Professional Service collaboration regarding recruitment.

Recognising the challenging recruitment and talent pipeline for staff, the University wanted to have more diverse applicant pools and ensure internal search committees truly represented the staffing community. Their pilot sought volunteers who represented both Faculty and Professional Services to become Equity Advocates who:

  • Promote the most inclusive search possible.
  • Craft job descriptions and interview questions for roles.
  • Actively engage and partner in the screening and interview process (they are not given the opportunity to select the candidates but are able to challenge and influence the hiring decision process).
  • Provide challenge on potential implicit biases or assumptions.
  • Act as candidate ambassadors (answering questions, providing guidance on what it is like to work for the University and be welcoming advocates).

To enable success, the University ensured full Executive Sponsorship and support as well as investing given significant training on aspects such as recruitment, selection and influencing which helps with personal and career development. The Advocates are encouraged to be “bias disrupters” to challenge norms and practices regarding recruitment decision making. It was important to recognise that this was not a paid role or a guarantee of career progression, therefore further work is being considered through the pilot to ensure recognition for participation, particularly in relation to relinquishing their day-to-day role.

SUMS Recommendations

Considering these case studies is important to ensure that people remain high on Executive Team agendas and that any associated people strategy is relevant and adaptive, To ensure a connection between the expectations of employees and the HR service being offered, HR leaders should consider:

  1. Ensuring their People Strategies are current, relevant, and reflective of internal and external influences.
  2. Defining what the success measures need to be or what wants to be achieved; what is the ‘problem’ being sought?
  3. Ensuring leadership commitment and buy in for any approach; they need to be advocating and supporting any changes.
  4. Culture and training matter; each case study identifies a shift in thinking, working, and behaving. Enabling staff and managers to adapt to these changes are key to ensure success,
  5. Assessing the HR Maturity of HR teams, particularly against some of the key areas of focus (e.g., recruitment, talent, workforce planning)[1]. Do you have the right capabilities to take some of these priorities forward?
  6. Understanding the blockers and enablers to effectiveness, such as system and digital capabilities which might impact candidate experiences or the institution’s culture and its importance.
  7. Communicating new initiatives and approaches, encouraging employee voice and empowering them to own and advocate what their needs are.
  8. Understanding any risks; especially in relation to how you currently operate or cultural mindsets.
  9. Thinking about employee connections and how to keep engagement high, irrespective of work location or pattern. Management capabilities will need to be considered to enable this.

With expertise covering almost all areas involved in Human Resources, policy and employment law, the team at SUMS Consulting would be happy to help in supporting conversations further.

If you wish to discuss further or need any further information, please contact Emma on

[1] SUMS offer a HR Maturity assessment for members and non-members. Please contact Emma Ogden directly if you would like to know more.


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