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Dashboard Fever

October 22, 2009

LAS VEGAS -- As pressure has built on colleges and universities to prove their performance to increasingly questioning external audiences, many institutions have realized that they must start by better understanding their own strengths and weaknesses.

That has led increasing numbers of individual institutions, public university systems (like the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities), and state higher education entities (like Indiana's Commission of Higher Education) to collect and organize data from massive and complex data warehouses in easily digestible forms, resulting in an explosion of dashboards and other mechanisms. Most of them relate to things such as finances, facilities and, increasingly, student persistence.

This week's annual conference of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources suggested that the concept might be about to take off in another realm: assessing performance of campus employees.

Several sessions at this year's meeting revolved around efforts on various campuses to bring together in one place reams of data that are often housed in different places and viewed independently; they had titles such as “Workforce and Employee Engagement: Strategies, Approaches and Metrics for Higher Education Institutions” and “HR Measurement in a Community College Environment.”

While the specific objectives of the efforts vary somewhat, they generally are designed to give department chairs, deans and other campus leaders better information about how departments -- and, at least conceivably, individual faculty and staff members -- are performing, to help drive decision making about which programs and initiatives are best suited to help the institutions meet their goals.

At a time when most institutions are confronting expanding enrollments and the likelihood of diminished revenues – creating the need to do more with less – many are realizing that they are going to have to pay more attention to the efficiency and productivity of their staffs. That’s not something they’ve historically done well.

“There’s a real interest in making database-driven decisions rather than going from our guts,” said Laura Gast, senior research consultant for Ohio State University’s Office of Human Resources, who (with her colleague Ken Orr) helped create her institution’s HR Faculty Dashboard.

The Ohio State project was one of three winners of the human resources association’s Sungard Higher Education Innovation Awards this year, and it brought oohs and aahs from many of the HR officials who watched Gast and Orr’s presentation of it Tuesday. Administrators at Ohio State have been similarly won over, Gast said, primarily because it has collected in one easily accessible (and powerfully adaptive) tool an array of information that has been hard to come by in the past.

“A lot of departments did not have easy access to basic information about their faculty,” Gast said. “HR had some” – salary and some demographic data – while information about promotion and tenure, for instance, was housed in the Office of Academic Affairs. By building a single data warehouse that combines individual-level demographic information (including hirings and separations) with compensation data, department chairs can produce reports (with powerfully simple charts) that tend to drive home trends in ways that jar academic administrators.

Orr described the dean of engineering’s reaction upon seeing, in brightly colored bar charts drawn from the HR office’s data warehouse, that “68 percent of his full professors would be eligible to retire within five years.”

“We’re getting data into the hands of the people who need it on a day to day basis,” said Gast.

Based on what’s in the Ohio State database so far, there is little that would be likely to generate controversy among humanists or scientists on the Columbus campus. But one could envision that changing a bit if Gast and Orr carry out their plans to draw in all sorts of other data – about research grants, teaching loads, etc. – that, taken together, would arguably transform the dashboard project from a planning tool into an accountability tool, as well.

Asked if she thought faculty members might be threatened by a system that allowed department chairs to more readily scan their ranks to gauge professors’ productivity on a range of measures, she said perhaps so – especially “the unproductive ones…. Professors are some of the people who want this information the most,” she added. (You could imagine legislators as eager to get their hands on it, too.)

Lest anyone worry that faculty members are being singled out for scrutiny at Ohio State, never fear. Gast and Orr and their colleagues are preparing to roll out an Employee Analytics database and dashboard, too, with as-yet-undefined metrics.

 

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