How human resources can measure program effectiveness

HR professionals should be analyzing metrics to gauge impacts of initiatives

As HR professionals, you track all sorts of activities—such as onboarding and employee turnover. While these types of production metrics are important, HR needs to start measuring the effectiveness of its own programs and activities.

For example, you may know the number of employees who completed a supervisory training course, but that’s just a one-dimensional metric. You need to determine whether the participants became more skilled at managing others to gauge the course’s true impact in the workplace.

Unless your metrics can help connect these dots, human resources may just as well play ball without keeping score.

Output vs. outcomes

Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a strategic plan for redesigning its HR systems that includes a robust set of metrics, says Bob Lavigna, assistant vice chancellor of human resources at the university, which supports about 17,000 employees.

“The harder nut to crack is knowing whether our HR systems are maintaining or improving the level of talent here,” he says. “Are we hiring and retaining the right people? Are our educational programs helping to improve their competencies? We’re trying to develop a set of metrics to help us measure outcomes and not just outputs.”

Targeting turnover, HR began gathering historical data on employees who quit within the first year of employment. Understanding why they left may reveal vulnerable spots in HR’s recruiting program, Lavigna says.

Likewise, after an employee engagement survey was conducted, departments developed action plans to improve weak spots. Follow-up surveys are also sent to employees receiving counseling through the school’s employee assistance program.

Good for all

No administrative or academic unit should be immune from scrutiny. When gathered and interpreted correctly, data can help HR fix what no one may realize is broken. That’s what Eastern Michigan University had in mind when measuring the effectiveness of its training programs.

James Gallaher, Eastern Michigan’s assistant vice president of HR, believes in using a blended measuring approach. “It’s good to have numbers but sometimes you get valuable open dialogue and feedback with face-to-face sessions or focus groups,” he says.

Regardless of the feedback, changes shouldn’t be made based on comments from just a handful of people. HR has to balance all information and data, prioritize, and never lose sight of what the department is trying to accomplish, Gallaher says.

Improvement and positive norms

“One purpose of measurement is knowing whether our programs have the desired effect,” says Jim Kochanski, senior vice president at Sibson, an HR consulting firm that services higher education institutions. “The measurement itself can cause improvement. It creates accountability and positive norms, which is different than telling whether you’re improving or not.”

Measurements can also set the record straight. At one university, rumors were circulating around campus that new hires were earning more than experienced staff. But after gathering income data that countered the claim, HR published its findings and squelched the rumors, Kochanski says.

Still, as important as communication is, not many schools measure it. After rolling out a new strategic plan, one school asked employees if they knew about the plan and understood its impacts on their departments and jobs. The responses gave the school deeper insight into the impact of its communication tactics, Kochanski says.

The truth is out there

Schools can measure anything, providing the right questions are asked, says Bonnie Pattee, vice president of HR at the Western Governors University. The online school uses employee surveys to measure the effectiveness of its programs and then to implement the changes desired by employees, she says.

Metrics based on employee survey responses prompted the school to simplify the path for employee advancement and also beef up communication from HR and the school’s leaders.

“You have to listen and know what’s important to be successful as a university and not just as an HR team,” says Pattee. “Everything you measure should really help the university, leaders and employees succeed.”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer.


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