Institutional efficiency in higher education has never been more important than in our present and often turbulent environment. Indeed, the news is replete with stories of institutional rollbacks and the elimination of academic programs. Perhaps more than ever before, academic programs are expected to maximize resources to produce student credit hours efficiently and to increase overall student success. Concurrently, non-academic units are under increasing pressure to ensure that essential work is accomplished using staffing levels appropriate to the size and complexity of the changing institution. Toward that goal, this blog outlines a process for benchmarking non-academic staffing—positions not directly associated with producing student credits hours as part of a program such as an academic major.
Introduction to Staff Benchmarking
The goal of benchmarking is to gain a better understanding of staffing type and level compared to that of similarly situated institutions. Because positions are housed in organizational units, we will often speak in terms of unit staffing. A complicating, albeit useful factor in a unit-based position analysis, is that similar positions can be situated differently among comparison institutions. This matter will be considered more closely at a later point. With that said, one tool in your toolbox that can be used to understand the extent to which staffing is appropriate in a given unit is comparing staffing among peer institutions.
For instance, let us imagine an institution experiencing declining enrollment that has responded by reducing some and eliminating other academic programs. Having done so, the institution wants to ensure that the library staff is sized appropriately to match the changing enrollment and academic profile. The benchmarking process described below can be a useful tool toward accomplishing that goal.
Staff benchmarking generally includes four Action Steps. Common to all Steps is engaging relevant stakeholders in the process and sharing outcomes transparently. As is the case with most important undertakings, ensuring buy-in from those most impacted by the work is critical to success. Moreover, decision validity is enhanced by engaging those familiar with the positions and work under review. The first several benchmarking Action Steps are not presented in any particular order. Indeed, work associated with these steps can be conducted simultaneously.
Step 1: Identify a representative comparison group
Key characteristics of the comparison group must reflect those similar to the institution conducting the review. These characteristics may include but are certainly not limited to enrollment size and mix, mission, region, and financial profile. For instance, a regional comprehensive institution engaged in benchmarking may consider for inclusion other institutions in the same region with a similar mission and enrollment profile. To help mitigate the impact of outliers and associated problems, including a large but operationally manageable comparison group of similarly situated institutions is useful.
Step 2. Identify positions and where they are assigned
Be certain to use the actual in-use position titles and descriptions for analysis. Using our ongoing example, ensure that each position title and description associated with the library is included for review. The importance of including in-use position titles and descriptions is described more fully in Steps 3 and 4. Position titles and descriptions are often retained in human resources and/or intuitional research.
Step 3. Consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics SOC
Once the positions to be considered are reviewed fully, consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics SOC (Standard Occupational Classification https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_stru.htm) to align the in-use titles with those of the Bureau. The key point here is to establish a level playing field so that accurate comparisons can be made. My experience is that in-use position titles are often the same as those listed in the SOC. However, there may be instances in which in-use position titles do not match the SOC database. In this case, use the position descriptions (often updated as part of benchmarking to reflect present circumstances) to help identify and assign the appropriate SOC position titles for benchmark comparison.
Step 4. Compare SOC titles among the comparison group utilizing IPEDS
Once Steps 1-3 are completed, use IPEDS data to compare SOC position titles among the comparison institutions. As stated previously, the focus is on examining position titles, not necessarily the unit in which the titles are housed. Indeed, it may be that a given position title is situated differently among comparison institutions. An important outcome associated with staff benchmarking using comparison analysis is determining where present and future positions might be placed moving forward. Practically, however, an institution is likely to discover commonality among SOC position titles and where they are housed among the comparison group. In this instance, conducting an “apples-to-apples” staffing analysis is possible. Returning to our library example, the number of and types of SOC staff position titles identified for the library can be considered relative to the comparison group. Keep in mind that looking for trends among the comparison institutions is key to an effective benchmarking analysis.
A few limitations seem prudent to note at this point. Although using a similarly situated comparison group is a key to success, be mindful that some institutions may not have kept current with or otherwise revised their position titles relative to those of the SOC database. Thus, using a sufficiently large but manageable comparison group is necessary to achieve a satisfactory outcome. The importance of engaging relevant campus stakeholders in the process bears emphasizing again as well. Benchmarking efficacy is likely to be seriously compromised without stakeholder engagement and process transparency. Modifying the Action Steps described previously in a way that best captures the culture and interests of an institution is also often necessary to achieve success.
Using appropriately gathered institutional comparison group data can be a useful tool in making informed staffing decisions. My own experience suggests that campus stakeholders are often surprised by the benchmarking results. On the one hand, comparison analysis can support maintaining and, perhaps, increasing staffing (sometimes accomplished by moving existing positions). On the other hand, comparison analysis can yield evidence for lowering staffing levels. Returning to our example, imagine that library staffing levels had declined over the years immediately prior to the benchmarking work. Not surprisingly, leadership in the library advocated for increased staffing to meet institutional needs and to keep pace with competitors. The benchmarking results, however, showed that even with recent declines, staffing in some key functional areas of the library was considerably higher than among comparison institutions. Yet, the data also indicated that staffing in other key areas of the library was lower than in the comparison group. In this instance, a reasonable response could be shifting personnel lines within the library to yield greater alignment with comparison institutions.
Done correctly, establishing benchmark data in the way generally presented in this essay is a useful tool that can be used effectively to establish a clearer understanding of non-academic staffing levels and the alignment of staffing with the changing needs of an institution.
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