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Is HR-driven software the wrong tool for faculty committee decisions?

As with large employers of all kinds, most academic institutions use some kind of campus- or college-wide human resources information system (HRIS) to handle the administrative details surrounding all their personnel. They rely on these broad-scope systems to store, update, and export information about benefits, promotions, payroll, vacation time, medical leave, worker’s compensation claims, and so on, for all employees at the institution.

The academic decisions of faculty appointment, tenure, and promotion, however, demand a deliberative process that generic personnel tools are ill-equipped to replicate. Such processes virtually always call for collaborative review, involving a series of reviewers who must sign off in their turn. These decisions involve far more coordination than simply showing up to a particular meeting on a particular day.

 Unfortunately, the current technology built to serve the needs of the human resources office simply does not provide for the scholarly workflow. Users are left frustrated and piecing together their committee process over email, shared drives, and printouts. Sometimes you just have to ask whether you’ve got the wrong tool for the job.

Here we identify five specific needs of the faculty committee model that most lowest common-denominator HR systems leave unmet.


Reason #1: The committee member experience.

Broad scope HR systems are lacking in “signposts” throughout the software to direct committee members clearly to their work. Instead, the interface often presents users with a busy-looking screen filled with text, or drowns them in features or information not relevant to their role in the process. If each member of a particular committee needs to access a shortlist of ten applicants (out of two hundred) to one faculty position, or if a divisional assistant needs to pull the assembled packets for three separate promotion candidates in different departments, it takes an unnecessary amount of legwork.

In addition, an HRIS typically doesn’t offer a good way to view dense academic materials and supporting documents within the platform. Committee members end up downloading piles of individual PDFs. Moreover, the software doesn’t make it easy for various committee members to be confident they’re reviewing the same materials—let alone record their evaluations, or sign off that they have done their part. Because the system is oriented toward administrative management, committee members waste minutes every time they sign in just sifting through irrelevant records and verifying that they’re seeing all the right documents, trying to pick up where they left off.

If personnel software more clearly directed committees and support staff to the records and documents they need to review, and gave them easy review and markup tools within the platform, it would start to be an asset to the committee model—rather than an obstacle.

Reason #2: Control over workflow.

Most business software is prohibitively challenging when replicating the detailed rules around review sequence and user permissions that are of critical importance in decisions like tenure review and faculty promotion. In most cases, it’s not for lack of clarity about what the rules actually are. Most institutions have detailed handbooks that codify which parties need to review which materials, and in which order.

As a workaround, many institutions turn to rather simple filesharing platforms. When using typical filesharing software, however, it’s quite hard to be confident that certain documents will be available only to certain people at certain times. And in order to really leverage a digital platform for this kind of sequential review, you should be able to establish in advance the review pathway and define a specific range of motion at each step. Right now, that’s not something most HR-driven software is built for. In fact, very few academic institutions even attempt to rely in any substantial way on software for tenure or promotion—not because they wouldn’t like to, but precisely because the stakes are too high, and the tools too crude.

In order for a personnel platform to adequately support academic promotion, it should offer a detailed workflow logic capable of matching that institution’s own structure, and very granular user permissions at each step of the way.

Reason #3: Faculty-specific data.

In the typical HRIS, it’s surprisingly difficult to separate a list of faculty searches, or faculty promotion cases, from the general  list of all current opportunities or employees at the institution. Such academic procedures require many individuals in different roles to access the documents and information involved in a particular selection or evaluation. Now, it’s true that from a human resources or business office perspective, there are many scenarios in which you’d want to see a list of employees irrespective of whether they’re faculty, full-time staff, administration, students, or whatever. But from the perspective of academic leadership or faculty affairs offices at, say, the level of an entire college, it’s overwhelming and cluttered.

Here’s a common scenario: when you sign in, you have to hunt through menus and filters to find a list of only the committee-based searches in your college, or only the associate professors who are up for promotion to full across your departments. And you have to do this every time you have a question about those reviews. What might sound like a minor need for elbow grease during a single user session can add up to major friction when user after user has difficulty locating a particular position or case throughout the year. To be sure, the most patient users in higher ed may dutifully attempt to adapt to the tedium of navigating the platform. But does it really have to be that way?

Academic software for faculty talent decisions should make it simple for users to view faculty-specific data throughout a single session, so that they can focus on comparing and considering the distinctive kinds of information involved in these procedures.

Reason #4: Communication tools.

Most HR personnel systems in place at academic institutions don’t really facilitate communication with candidates, recommendation writers, or external reviewers in the way that these careful processes demand. Job applicants need to hear from departments when they’ve submitted their applications and when further documents are required of them. Recommendation letter writers need to be notified when they have successfully submitted their letters (and when they haven’t). External reviewers in faculty advancement cases need to receive the committee’s requests in a clear, compelling, professional manner and receive related notifications.

If you’re required to run your committee work through an HRIS, you’ll typically have to come up with a whole separate system for managing contact with candidates, and shuffle files between the two. You’ll also have correspondence about various individuals’ sensitive career decisions scattered across individual email accounts, rather than accessed by signing into the system where the rest of the application materials are stored.

Could all this happen through dedicated email accounts? Sure. Does that option serve well the needs of busy committees and staff? Not in the least.

Technology that better supports academic decision workflows must include tools that match the kind of communication involved in these workflows. For example:

  • It should enable you to identify shortlists or subgroups of candidates to receive particular kinds of messages.
  • You should be able to set up an automated series of messages to alert candidates about developments in the decision process.
  • The system should offer a record of all the messages sent out concerning a particular decision, or of only those sent to a particular candidate or reviewer.

Reason #5: The candidate experience.

Systems intended for human resources characteristically place little value on the interface and tools for candidates, needlessly piling additional organizational work and communication of small details onto the institution’s staff. With most common HR-driven systems, the candidate has a notoriously impersonal and irritating experience around things like:

  • knowing in advance what they’ll be asked to provide (and how long that might take)
  • checking different versions of the documents and information they’ve submitted
  • making replacements to required materials
  • canceling a confidential recommendation request in order to send a new one
  • verifying that they’ve done what’s required of them

And so on. For one thing, a confusing candidate interface creates a redundant support burden for the department—meaning that the process as a whole takes longer, and staff members’ attention is spread thin. For another, it can constrain pretty rigidly an individual candidate’s opportunity to best present their character and contributions as a scholar. Don’t you want to give strong thinkers and teachers some degree of latitude (perhaps only a little, sure) to arrange their materials? The platform is like the “waiting room” for your committee decision. You want a waiting room that inspires confidence, not resentment.

True academic talent support technology must take seriously the value of an easy and clear candidate experience—and administrators should too when making their technology selections. Useful software for faculty recruitment, promotion, and review will provide the candidate a well-lighted path to requirements, a well-labeled toolkit, and a straightforward way to double-check their activity. distinctive kinds of information involved in these procedures.

To put all this in another light: because of the compliance and liability needs of large employers, the main objective of most HRIS platforms—including those marketed to higher education—is to make it more convenient for a central administrative office to catalogue and retrieve various kinds of records, which is important. But because the system prioritizes this business perspective, its interface and vocabulary frequently get in the way of academic users (rather than being an asset to them) where committee decisions are concerned. Such limitations suggest that the technology that looks best from a traditional HR perspective may in fact be hindering departments’ ability to make faculty talent decisions in an efficient and strategic way.