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Back in October 2022, SUMS Consultant Emma Ogden 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 final thought piece, I am focusing on internal HR Capabilities. This is based on four case studies shared by the University of California, Irvine, UCLA Health, Michigan State University, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and highlights from the closing keynote by Dave Ulrich.

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.

Redefining the HR Business Partner for Impact – UCLA Health

UCLA health is an academic medical centre comprised of four hospitals, clinic sites and a School of Medicine. In total, they employ around 32,000 employees.

Following some leadership changes at UCLA Health, they decided to redefine their HR Business Partner role and structure. An internal assessment identified that their technology infrastructure required manual intervention, there was a reliance on single points of failure, and they had an issue with capacity and bandwidth. They were structured through two different HR teams, working to multiple systems and processes, which meant their deliver was not meeting client needs and there was no clear HR value proposition.

UCLA Health’s starting point was to set their future vision for HR and use that the assess their HR maturity. They then defined what they believed to be the key differentiators of high-performing Business Partners:

  • As a coach to business leaders.
  • See themselves as business leaders first, and HR Professionals second.
  • Be the connector between the business and HR.
  • Have unparalleled courage.
  • Model agility and flexibility.
  • Speak the truth as an inspiring storyteller.

Using these principles, they developed a vision for their future, informed in the first instance to merge their existing HR teams and develop competencies aligned to performance metrics. They wanted to ensure highly skilled and trusted strategic partners, a continuous development of HR talent, leveraged technology and enhanced HR value. Through a specific focus on developing the HR Business Partner model, their aim was to:

  • Clarify what their role and scope was and was not (e.g., it was defined by the current realities of the organisation with a focus on the future).
  • Understand the ‘non-negotiables’ in terms of service delivery (e.g., using the same systems and decision-making processes). These needed to be communicated across the centre to ensure expectations were effectively managed.
  • Develop specific competencies for the HRBP (e.g., business acumen, applying HR expertise, consulting, and influencing).

Their implementation was phased and informed by an assessment of change readiness and commitment to the future. The initial change to the HR model impacted around 50% of the School of Medicine so they needed to ensure the right risks and controls were in place.

Key lessons learned from the process include:

  • Make sure the right people are involved in the design and decision-making process.
  • Understand the readiness to change.
  • Build a HRBP model that is effective and act on delivering it.
  • Focus on talent, both internally and externally, and align this to design principles for what the future state should be.

Modern Work: Organisational Success fuelled by HR – Michigan State University

Michigan State University have undertaken an assessment of current people-related challenges in the workplace, to identify key strategies for improvement. These included:

  • A ‘broken norm’ in relation to defining work. The 40-hour, 5-day per week pattern was first adopted in 1926 and has remained relatively similar ever since, despite the many cultural, social, and technological changes which have occurred in this time.
  • Adapting to a post-pandemic landscape, particularly in relation to workplace flexibility.
  • The current labour market (e.g., great resignation, attraction, and retention issues).
  • A need to re-shift thinking to culture, particularly how to ensure positive social experiences (e.g., people and relationships, teamwork), workplace experiences (e.g., control, growth, and rewards), and organisational experiences (e.g., purpose, technology, and physical environment).

As a result of these factors, Michigan State University has embarked on a series of activities, led through their people team, to improve employee experiences. These include:

  • Reconsidering space and place – they have transitioned to hybrid working, informed by principles to support the change. They have employees working in different States and Countries and are considering the 4-day working week.
  • Sought agreement for additional paid holiday for their staff, which can be locally set and directed.
  • Overhauling their job architecture, through thinking about job titles, alternative credentials, and learning and development.
  • Focusing on talent alignment and how to ‘re-recruit’ their top performers.
  • Addressing wellbeing and burnout through parameters of meeting schedules, championing leaders to own real change and considering email ‘blackout’ hours.
  • Re-invigorating the University’s purpose; providing opportunities to for colleagues to share their work, learn what others are doing and have dedicated time for strategic improvements.
  • Improving their appreciation and value framework through peer recognition, field trips and career exploration programmes.

Powering HR for Growth – University of California, Irvine

The University of California, Irvine, have evaluated and enhanced their HR team’s readiness to support growth and change through:

  • Internal evaluation and assessment.
  • Understanding what best practice looks like.
  • Seeking leadership and staff feedback.

Their initial assessment, commenced in 2015, found that their HRBP structure was very transactional, and staff were working to a more generalist role. Additionally, there were siloed and inconsistent practices. Over time, they have shifted this model to having three distinct business areas (People Services, Partnerships and Client Services), supported, and governed by an overarching HR vision and strategy.

Through the change process, they have sought to:

  • Design their structure, ensuring investment in strategic priorities, talent and automation, capability building and creation of new roles.
  • Realign HR capabilities to become trusted partners, drive innovation and enable strategic intent.
  • Create a new HRBP role with new standards, supported through a HRBP certification programme. They engaged stakeholders and customers to provide feedback on talent and readiness to change and applied this to those standards.

The outcome of this process has been:

  • A focus on growth; to ensure an expanded HRBP role and focus on strategic priorities (e.g., talent).
  • More efficient processes and systems.
  • Empowered people to be part of the University’s success.

While they recognise that Covid-19 became a “serious derailer” of the project, they are continuing with their cultural changes, specifically focusing now on new capabilities (e.g., organisation design), talent retention and flexible working.

Transforming Culture with HR Climate Liaisons – University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is part of the University of Texas system and one of the largest public universities in the US. They operate from multiple sites and currently employ around 6,000 employees, including student workers.

The University has been through a period of change, with several institutions being merged into the one unit, all with different cultures and challenges. The result of this was feelings of distribution, blame, territoriality, inequitable resource allocation and different traditions. The University wanted to realign to one institution and one team. They started with a ‘Climate Survey’ (launched in 2018) that resulted in an overall score of 55% positive engagement.

Following this survey, the University embarked on several dedicated activities with the aim of improving staff engagement. These included:

  • Transparent sharing of the results with the entire staffing body, with highlights of areas which were needed to bring things closer together.
  • Ensuring Division and Colleges knew what the results looked like for them locally; discussing this during ‘office hour’ sessions and owned by the Provost.
  • Seeking further response insights through facilitated discussions and ‘climate liaison’ discussions. This resulted in action plans being developed and strategic initiatives defined.
  • Developing ‘Campus Climate Liaison’ staff who led on the action plans, provided progress reports, and ensured transparency of the process and purpose.
  • Specific projects to look at internal changes, such as the onboarding process, a peer recognition programme and leadership development.

A follow up survey conducted in 2021 showed an increase in positive engagement to 70%, with specific increases in:

  • Perceptions of pride (up 13% to 81%).
  • Job satisfaction and support (up 12% to 79%).
  • Line management support (up 11% to 77%).

Key lessons learned from the process include:

  • Understanding the role of HR in the process (e.g., they are not owners, but critical advocates).
  • Challenging the data and analysis.
  • Ensuring engagement with the survey and a perception that genuine change will arise as an outcome.

Reinventing HR in Higher Education: Value creation, contribution, and HR work – Dave Ulrich Keynote

The conference was closed by a keynote by Dave Ulrich, Professor at the University of Michigan and hailed as the ‘father of modern HR’. His session was focused on how to reinvent HR in HE, informed by understanding the business context and its implications for HE (e.g., competitive market, perceived value of degrees, wellbeing, cost etc.)

Dave talked about how HR needs to evolve to human capability, ensuring that:

  • HR is about creating value for others through human capability (e.g., aligning HR practices with strategy).
  • HR ‘upgrades’ their department and people.
  • HR reconsiders their customers and stakeholders (which should include students).

The human capability model for HR is informed by supporting talent, leadership, and organisation:

  • Talent – the focus should be on competence, talent acquisition, management of talent and retention. There should be a commitment to improving and tracking engagement and ensuring a positive employee experience.
  • Organisation – the focus should be on culture, purpose, values, and brand.
  • Leadership – the focus should be on ensuring the right leadership capabilities are in place (e.g., being a strategist, executor of change, talent manager and human capital development).

As HR departments evolve, they need to ensure they have the right reputation through building effective relationships and having the right competencies and capabilities.

Why is it important to think about HR capabilities?

Each of the case studies highlight the importance of shifting the purpose of HR, transitioning from a traditional ‘personnel’ model in the past to ensuring HR is a value-added, strategic player. Dave talked about the three key facets of added value and how relevant influences are driving a need to think more about talent, influence, and culture.

As HR departments change, so will the desired capabilities and skill-sets which sit within it. The case studies at UCLA Health and University of California, Irvine, talk to the importance of considering the HR model and ensuring they align with the overall purpose and value for the future.

SUMS Recommendations

To improve the EVP, help manage and align expectations between the employees and the university, we suggest you consider:

  1. Ensuring their People Strategies are current, relevant, and reflective of internal and external influences; this should include a specific focus on talent management.
  2. Aligning resources d to the people-related priorities (whether that be talent, development, or reward).
  3. Prioritising learning and enhancement to re-engage high performers.
  4. Providing opportunities for colleagues to engage with others.
  5. Ensuring leadership commitment and buy in for any approach; they need to be advocating and supporting any changes.
  6. 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,
  7. 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?
  8. Communicating new initiatives and approaches, encouraging employee voice and empowering them to own and advocate what their needs are.
  9. Understanding any risks; especially in relation to how you currently operate.
  10. Thinking about employee connections and how to keep engagement high, irrespective of work location or pattern. Management capabilities will need to be considered.

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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