Defining What Activities Are Truly Critical

Staff metrics and evaluation can be used to incentivize both superior staff performance (by giving managers the rationale and flexibility to reward high performers) and meaningful progress toward the strategic goals of your unit –- if you approach staff metrics in a thoughtful, credible way. This entails:

  • Defining what activities are truly critical to measure
  • Establishing criteria or rubrics for various levels of performance
  • Designing and rolling out metrics through a fully participatory process
  • Ensuring that the metrics inform effective supervision and staff development

There is often need for greater intentionality in deploying staff metrics across both the administrative and academic divisions of an institution. In this edition, we’ll address examples from both sides of the organization.

Focus on Results, not Tasks

First, just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to measure. It may be easy to track the number of service requests responded to by facilities management staff or the number of events organized by alumni relations staff, but these measure tasks completed, not necessarily progress toward that unit’s strategic outcomes.

To take a more intentional approach to measuring performance, identify the outcomes that truly matter to the division (whether these are learning outcomes, retention, engagement, dollars raised), then identify those activities that contribute most to achieving these outcomes -– thus aligning the work with the objectives.

Here’s an example. Overseeing major gift officers as the assistant dean of development and alumni relations for the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Rick Dupree realized that simply recording the number of visits made to prospects or the number of dollars raised was not enough to really measure high versus low performance.

Dupree developed a system based on four core measures –- dollars raised, proposals, contacts, and dollars spent. The key was to measure the cost per dollar raised. Dupree wanted to know how much his major gift officers were spending in order to bring in the funds they were seeing.

If you can measure and quantify the impact of a staff member or a team’s work on one of your unit’s core objectives, then you can justify:

  • Whether to hire more staff
  • Whether and where to invest in additional training and staff development
  • Rewarding high performers
  • Dismissing your lowest performers

“When our staff metrics are focused on outcomes, the blueprint for where we are and what we need to do next is no longer foggy. Staff can see quantitatively what impact they’ve had on the unit’s and the institution’s goals. This builds pride in the institution and in one’s work.”
Rick Dupree, Indiana University

How These Principles Apply to Faculty Work

The academic side of the house faces unique obstacles to the alignment of evaluative metrics with the goals of the department or the college. Often, the existing faculty evaluation policy prescribes a fixed set of weights to the core activities of teaching, research, and administrative service or service to the profession.

For example, one institution might specify that a faculty member’s work in teaching, research, and administrative service are weighted 40, 40, and 20 percent, respectively, across all of a department’s tenure-track faculty. This approach shows a lack of alignment between faculty evaluation, the goals of a particular faculty member’s work, and the objectives and priorities of that department. A department may have hired a full-time instructor who is tasked primarily with teaching and some student advising, while a full professor in the same department has quite different responsibilities, including academic research and some degree of administration.

“A fixed set of weights only works if every faculty member has the same set of responsibilities, the same appointment, and the same resources. This is not the case.”
Raoul Arreola, University of Tennessee Health Science Center

Raoul Arreola, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and author of Developing a Comprehensive Faculty Evaluation System (Anker Pub Co.: 2000), suggests that academic departments need to set clear operational objectives based on the strategic goals or priorities of their college.

It is possible, for example, that at a given institution one department may set objectives that are more focused on bringing in grant dollars and producing substantive research, while another department’s work is key to the institution’s effort to improve student learning outcomes and student persistence to the second year. If the department has explicit objectives that are clearly aligned with the strategic goals of the institution, this provides a basis for defining sets of responsibilities and activities for each individual appointment within the department in the service of meeting those objectives.

This clearly cannot be a top-down deliberation. Each department needs to survey its faculty about what activities they believe contribute most to the department’s goals. Identifying the most critical activities has to be an open and collaborative process between faculty and administration, or it simply won’t be credible –- or relevant.

Assigning Weights to Specific Activities

Once you’ve identified what activities are most critical to achieving your unit’s objectives (whether in an administrative or academic department), assign relative weights to those activities. The weight assigned to an activity needs to be an expression of the importance of that activity to the unit’s goals.

Let’s suppose, for example, that you establish a “point system” for scoring staff activity. Your unit has identified 4-5 key goals, and for a given year, you divide 100 points up among those goals.

For example, your major gift office allocates 35 points to a goal of dollars raised and 15 points to contacts, two of the office’s key goals. You then (collaboratively) assign point values to specific activities that contribute toward those goals. Perhaps amounts in cash and cash pledges are worth a certain number of points, while amounts in deferred gifts are worth a different number. This needs to reflect your unit’s strategy for the year.

Mike Theall, an associate professor at Youngstown State University and a leading thinker on faculty evaluation, notes that the same approach can work in an academic department. There are two steps. First, the college as a whole needs to decide on an appropriate range of relative weights that can be broadly assigned for teaching, research, and service. It’s crucial to allow each department the flexibility to adjust those weights to its specific objectives, and to a particular faculty member’s appointment.

Second, within each department, the chair and faculty work together to arrive at a scoring system that assigns weights to various activities that have an impact on the department’s specific objectives for teaching, research, and service. Perhaps a local presentation (e.g., when a faculty member from the school of education gives a talk to local teachers) or a letter to the local newspaper is worth one point, while presenting a paper at a competitive national conference is worth five points. How many points will your department assign to a peer-reviewed article?

“Rather than make qualitative judgments about each piece of work completed, you set criteria ahead of time that let both faculty and administrators know the relative weight that will be assigned to each type of work.”
Mike Theall, Youngstown State University

Staying Agile

Finally, the process of identifying key activities and weighting them can’t be regarded as a one-time effort. “Your department’s goals,” Dupree remarks, “and therefore the metrics you use to measure success toward those goals, need to be responsive to the changing trends and demands of the environment.”

Theall adds, “The expectations for performance and your department’s definitions of what constitutes adequate or more-than-adequate performance has to be an ongoing dialogue –- not just once in every 10 years when the accreditor is coming. Use annual goal-setting and involve the greatest number of faculty possible in the dialogue.”

Kim Eberbach, who has been instrumental in deploying staff metrics systems and leadership development programs in the corporate sector at Independence Blue Cross, suggests this approach to annual goal-setting: “Sit down with your team each year to debrief:

  • What are all the things your unit accomplished this year?
  • What did you learn?
  • What things didn’t get accomplished that you hoped would, and why?
  • Which of these objectives do you need to put on the plate for next year?

“Use this conversation to get everyone focused on the higher goals of the organization, and to invite an open dialogue about your goals for the next 12 months and how the work of each function within the unit can best be aligned with and support these goals. If you don’t achieve this alignment, it doesn’t matter how well you’re doing the work, because if the work doesn’t further the organization’s goals, then the level of performance is moot.”

For example, during a recession year, one in which donors are especially reticent, perhaps the development office’s strategy shifts — and the weights assigned to the various key performance measures for gift officers shift accordingly.

“In that year, we need to build relationships,” Dupree observes, “so that we can step hard on the gas when the economy recovers.” Perhaps that year, the development office allocates fewer points to dollars raised and really focuses on awarding staff points for contacts.

Articles in This Issue

A Letter from Amit Mrig, President, Academic Impressions

Defining What Activities Are Truly Critical

Rubrics to Measure Satisfactory and Superior Performance

Rollout and Buy-in: Handling the Transition to More Effective Staff Metrics

Using Performance Measures to Drive Faculty and Staff Development


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