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Sorting Out the Data

When University of Iowa Human Resources (HR) staff set out to improve the Working at Iowa (WAI) survey of employee perceptions and engagement, they turned to faculty members like Ken Brown.

“HR reached out and leveraged expertise across campus,” says Brown, professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business. “For me, two things stood out as opportunities for improvement from prior WAI administrations—shorten the survey and reduce the time it takes for units to get their feedback.”

This year’s survey is markedly shorter than its predecessors, focused on questions that can lead to real actions. Now the emphasis shifts to Brown’s second priority—producing timely reports and helping units interpret them.

Campus Advisory Committee

Truly a team effort, the 2012 Working at Iowa survey drew on faculty and staff from across campus:

Judi Brewer, College of Education
Ken Brown, Tippie College of Business
Nancy Fick, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Lois Geist, Carver College of Medicine
Jodi Graff, Carver College of Medicine
Sarah Hansen, Division of Student Life
Steve Hansen, UI Health Care
Cynthia Joyce, Office of the Ombudsperson
Lin Larson, Strategic Communication
Joyce Moore, Evaluation and Exam Services
Mary Noonan, Sociology
Cori Peek-Asa, College of Public Health
Tom Rice, Office of the Provost
Tracy Scott, Information Technology Services
Susan Vos, College of Pharmacy

Results in January

Teresa Kulper credits Brown and other faculty on the WAI advisory committee (see sidebar) for improving the project.

“We’re fortunate to have so many resources on campus, particularly faculty who are willing to give their time and expertise,” says Kulper, director of human resource services for Organizational Effectiveness/Organizational Development. “They’ve helped improve survey methodology and suggested ways to boost participation among their peers.”

Faculty contributions continue once the WAI survey closes at midnight Oct. 30. At that point, a College of Public Health team lead by Jane Pendergast, professor of biostatistics, will immediately start crunching the numbers.

In past years, HR generated university- and org-level reports, and then gave units the option of requesting department-level summaries. Consequently, it took months to provide a full accounting.

This time, project leaders collected all report requests in advance and programmed systems to generate 300-plus reports at once.

UI leaders will review university-level findings in early January. Colleges and departments will receive their reports shortly after. (To help preserve confidentiality, departmental reports are available only to groups with 15 or more respondents—smaller groups will receive org-level reports.)

Data coaching

Brown helped connect the WAI team with outside expertise, too, notably Theresa Welbourne, FirsTier Banks Distinguished Professor of Business and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Theresa provided ideas for how unit leaders can distill their findings into stories that prompt people to ask ‘What does this say about us, and what can we do better?’” Brown says. “The conversation is driven by data—there are no right or wrong answers.”

Welbourne’s data-coaching model emphasizes four steps:

Interpreting and communicating findings: Whenever possible, frame results as stories that illuminate problems or highlight what’s working well.

Engaging in dialogue: Talk about the data with staff—unit leaders may think they understand survey findings, but these discussions get to the truth.

Planning actions: Identify areas to focus attention and strategies to drive change.

Assessing results: Determine what success will look like, and monitor progress.

“In the past, I think we tended to focus on the survey itself, primarily on improving our results next time around,” Kulper says. “In addition, we need to connect survey information to meeting our organizational goals, to getting the work done.”

Just one thing

Along with WAI reports, HR will distribute a companion guide that suggests practices for evaluation, communication, and action. The WAI website will offer step-by-step guides, templates, and examples for units to consider.

Kulper suggests a few things units can do in advance of receiving their WAI reports.

“First, get familiar with the survey—consider what unit functions the questions might shed light on,” she says. “Also, think about information you already have. When you get your results, see how they mesh with what you already know.”

Units should choose their focus—including the number of issues they attempt to address—based on their own circumstances, Brown says.

“Three is generally a good target, since it coincides with the number of things that people can easily remember,” he notes. “But a unit under a lot of pressure might emphasize one area, while another unit that lacks a strong strategic plan might choose up to five.”

Ultimately, every unit should identify what matters most.

“If a work unit makes only one positive change as a result of this survey,” Brown says, “it will have been worth everybody’s time.”


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