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Planning for a Top Tier Workforce

By Linda McHugh

If it’s 8 or 9 a.m. and you’re reading this story, it’s likely that your work day at American University has just begun. You’ve booted up your computer, scanned a work order, or turned on the office light and you’re about to begin a task you were hired to do.

To do his job, Patrick Bradley, a young writer who joined AU’s Office of Campus Life in July, needed training on the content management system. He was also scheduled to meet the 18 Campus Life directors to learn what kinds of stories and information they needed written for the Campus Life Web page. The site is designed both to attract new students and inform current students about a wide swath of activities and details of living at AU. Those goals are easily set and since Patrick is new on the job, they’re fresh, filled with promise.

For David Hill, a 23-year veteran of AU’s facilities department and HVAC technician, starting the day means scanning a list of scheduled preventive maintenance tasks or responding to an emergency call from AU’s 2FIX phone line informing him that a toilet is malfunctioning, or an office is freezing cold.

Hill and his facilities colleagues’ routines are either preplanned or an emergency. “Our preventive maintenance (PM) chores are scheduled for the year by a PM specialist. The rest of our work is putting out fires. Repair work is not like manufacturing, which is a goal-setting type job, repair work is reactionary,” Hill said. “What helps guys like me do our best work is training to keep up with technology in the HVAC field. Just like every other technology, it’s changing rapidly.”

With its 2,800 full- and part-time faculty and staff at work here, AU is one of the largest employers in Washington, D.C. Shepherding that vast amount of energy toward institutional priorities and progress—a survival measure for any institution in the twenty-first century—is a major management challenge.

So, in 2001, in search of a staff review system that could help deans, administrators, and managers focus their own and their staff’s work energy toward the institution’s priorities, AU implemented a Performance Management Program (PMP).

PMP systems have been around for many years and, while hardly perfect, they remain the benchmark for goal setting and accountability in industry, education, and government. In theory, the program makes sense—an institution’s leaders set goals and all other layers of employees from deans and vice presidents to mail room staff write goals that cascade from the top priorities. In practice, like any system, it has its problems.

Ten-Year Review

In 2010, nearing the 10-year anniversary of AU’s PMP, Beth Muha, then executive director of human resources, decided to look at our program. An HR team convened focus groups of staff and managers and heard that while the basics of the program work pretty well—for some offices and groups it works quite well — it was ready for updating.

For example, facilities’ Hill is on to something. Service employees who keep the campus running, but whose daily tasks are removed from academic goals, and employees with long tenure at the university and whose jobs change little from year to year — struggle with the confines of the PMP process and tools.

Some of those confines are easily fixed:

  • Use plain language, not jargon; for example, change “competencies” to “skills.”
  • Replace the unwieldy Lotus Notes-based paperwork system with something more user-friendly and adaptable.
  • Expand the basic, very general dictionary of skills to reflect more job-specific tasks at AU.
  • Evaluate the skills rating system that is thought too narrow with only two options, developing or demonstrated.

Other fixes will take more concerted effort, but AU is committed to:

  • clarifying the main purpose of its program. Is PMP at AU primarily a planning tool? Is it a tool to assess performance and help managers allocate raises? Or is it intended to be a coaching tool?
  • working to increase managers’ full participation and accountability, and helping them improve their coaching skills

HR Responds

The first step Muha, now assistant vice president of human resources, took was to identify and acquire a new performance and learning management system, one that would be more help than headache to use.

A cross-representational team of managers and staff from human resources, information technology, and several other departments identified Success Factor as the best in-class system. Work is underway to ready this Web-based tool for use by summer 2012. When ready, it will reflect the recommendations and improvements of a PMP project team.

Muha formed that cross-university project team, which will work over the 2011–12 fiscal year to identify PMP issues that, if addressed, will enable the largest possible group of employees to plan for and achieve excellence on the job.

The team meets monthly and thus far has:

  • gathered feedback from focus groups of staff and managers to learn their PMP needs
  • reviewed the concept and benefits of professional development learning plans that would supplement the performance management program (more on that in our October issue)

In the coming months, the PMP team will look at:

  • aligning the goal cascade with AU’s strategic plan
  • creating more up-to-date and function-specific competencies
  • evaluating the rating system
  • supporting a more effective execution of the performance management program including more leadership engagement in the process and availability of a new online system.

Human Resources invites your feedback on this process. E-mail comments and suggestions to:

Make It Work for You and AU

The AU PMP program is helping the organization meet key goals, but we don’t readily see that overall picture in our day-to-day work. This year, in our monthly print issues of we hope to paint that picture with a series of columns and practical tips on how AU offices have achieved their goals.

In October we’ll feature a slice of how a goal cascade has worked well for an office. If you’d like to see your office featured, contact the editor at or call 202-885-5979.