Workday Community Voices: Managing Change at the University of Chicago

Higher education institutions are dealing with big changes. The makeup of their workforces has shifted, the role of their HR teams has evolved, and many are looking to replace dated processes and systems with modern approaches and technologies. Mike Knitter, interim associate vice president at the University of Chicago, shares his tips and thoughts on change in today’s Workday Community Voices.

How has the role of HR in higher education evolved over the last 10 years?

Mike Knitter, University of Chicago

HR used to focus primarily on administrative tasks, such as hiring and managing benefits programs. The role then evolved into having functional experts in all areas of HR— talent acquisition, training and development, and labor relations. Now, HR is expected to be a partner to the organization and its strategies. We’re expected to understand the challenges, revenue streams, complexities, and external factors impacting higher education, and advise on decisions. We are brought to the table to discuss issues like the impact of tightened National Institute of Health funding on research administration, or how rising healthcare costs could affect fiscal spend on benefits. We weren’t invited to those meetings 10 years ago.

How are employees’ expectations different than 10 years ago?

We currently have more generations simultaneously participating in the workforce than has ever happened before in the history of the U.S. as an industrial nation. Needs and expectations are very different among those generations. For example, many baby boomers have wanted to work at the same organization for their entire careers. The newer generations want to be challenged with interesting work, use modern tools, and be recognized.

To remain innovative, an institution has to adopt new ways of solving problems and the infrastructure to support new approaches. This starts with having leadership that understands these generational differences and how to connect with different kinds of employees. HR plays a key role in helping leaders develop these skill sets.

“We skipped multiple generations of technology, moving from paper-based processes to a cloud-based administrative system. The impact has been incredible, especially in terms of visibility and transparency into our workforce.”

What is the role of technology in adopting these new ways and infrastructure?

By selecting Workday we skipped multiple generations of technology, moving from paper-based processes to a cloud-based administrative system. The impact has been incredible, especially in terms of visibility and transparency into our workforce. Previously, we had 20 messengers collecting personnel action forms from employees. Now employees can enter their data online, and HR and managers can access it in real time.

Having real-time data has enabled us to build actionable plans and measure effectiveness, such as tracking progress month-over-month against our diversity initiatives. Another major advancement is in talent acquisition, and being more strategic in sourcing of candidates. For example, we can now tap into social media platforms to connect with younger workers.

workday@uchicago booth at the Benefits & Health Fair at Ida Noyes Hall on Thursday, October 16, 2014 on the University of Chicago campus. (Photo by Nancy Wong)
The workday@uchicago booth at the University of Chicago’s Benefits & Health Fair, October 2014.

How have you helped employees shift from using paper-based processes to a cloud-based application?

One of the most helpful things I have done to help employees prepare for and engage with change is to brand it. When moving to Workday, we built campaigns of change around themes that reflect the values and cultural norms of the university.

We launched the project with “On Our Way to Workday,” because the idea of a journey resonates with employees. Everything we did—from communications to training to our website—reflected this theme.  Six weeks prior to going live, we shifted to “Discover Workday,” and our final tag line after we deploy our Phase II initiatives will be “Have a Nice Workday,” which reflects our positive outlook heading into the future.

How can HR leaders be successful change agents?

In higher education, decisions are often made by committee, with many stakeholders who like to receive and give a lot of feedback during times of change. HR leaders need to be agile, think innovatively, and be highly collaborative during the process. It’s also important that HR leaders have a strong background in change management, with an understanding of the structural elements of change and how it will be operationalized—from the communications to project management to the structured follow-up.