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How one institution transitioned from transactional to strategic HR—and what all business leaders can learn from their story

August 18, 2020, By Brooke Thayer, Senior Director, Research Development

Human Resources (HR) teams have historically performed highly transactional work, like managing new hire documentation and administering employee benefits. But given the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, university leaders are increasingly turning to HR as a strategic partner for planning and executing on institutional goals. This has posed a challenge for many HR leaders and their teams: they want to provide more strategic support, but they are bogged down by transactional work.

The University of Virginia (UVA) tackled this challenge through a multi-year HR transformation project called “Ufirst”—a feat that earned them the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) 2018 HR Excellence Award. EAB’s Brooke Thayer recently sat down with Kelley Stuck, former Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, and Michael Latsko, Senior Director of HR Strategic Initiatives, to learn how this transformation has enabled UVA to engage in more strategic workforce planning, especially in light of COVID-19.

Snapshot of UVA’s HR transformation efforts

University of Virginia

  • Public research university
  • ~30K total employees
  • ~20K faculty and staff in the academic division
  • ~10K in the health system


  • 3 separate Human Resources (HR) organizations
  • Inconsistent services, systems, policies, and processes


  • In 2016, launched multi-year HR transformation
  • Improved the employee experience, increased efficiency, and added strategic value

Key components of “Ufirst” HR transformation

  • Invested in data capabilities and new technologies, including a new HR Information System (i.e., Workday)
  • Created a single HR organization to serve the entire institution
  • Adopted customer-centric service delivery models (i.e., HR Business Partners and Centers of Excellence)
  • Crafted HR goals, services, and initiatives to align with UVA’s strategic plan

Impact highlights

  • Streamlined 300+ business processes and 280+ redundant or conflicting policies
  • Won 2018 CUPA-HR* Excellence Award
  • Improved customer service and satisfaction (4.5/5 stars)
  • Demonstrated value of HR services and role as strategic partner to campus stakeholders
  • Analyzed workforce demographics and trends to improve strategic planning

*College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.


EAB: Prior to UVA’s HR transformation, what barriers did you encounter when trying to make strategic workforce decisions?

ML: We were working in a highly decentralized and fragmented system with three separate HR organizations: the academic division (including administrative functions serving the academic schools, athletics, and auxiliaries), medical center, and physician group practice. Each organization had varying policies, practices, and procedures. Yet, there were lots of crossed lines with faculty working across the organizations. This complexity—and the fact that things were so matrixed—made it hard to make informed and timely staffing decisions. We also didn’t have a clear picture of our workforce (e.g., demographics, employee types) since we had so many HR systems that didn’t talk to each other. This meant even simple workforce questions—like how many staff do we have in a certain position classification—were very difficult to answer.

Redundancies across UVA’s three separate HR organizations

  • 284 conflicting and redundant policies
  • 340 business processes
  • 70 legacy systems
  • 6 learning management systems
  • 3 payroll departments

KS: Another challenge was demonstrating the value of HR as a strategic partner. But the pandemic has helped us show campus what HR can do, even in a crisis situation. As senior leaders were struggling to contain costs in response to COVID, we provided them with several workforce-related levers for reconciling finances. For example, we helped shepherd some furloughs through the medical center and are now investigating early retirement incentives for faculty. I think that’s leapfrogged us ahead of where we may have otherwise been.

EAB: What were some of the critical first steps in transitioning toward a more strategic HR approach?

KS: We started by integrating data from three legacy systems used across the organization (PeopleSoft, Oracle, and UltiPro) into a single accessible system for managing all HR-related work (Workday). From my perspective, that was the launchpad for more robust workforce planning.

ML: We also invested heavily in our data team and required staff to earn various Workday certifications so they’d gain a thorough understanding of the system’s powers and capabilities. And we implemented Salesforce as the customer relationship management (CRM) system for our Solution Center, which has paid off in spades, especially by helping us transition to a more service-oriented organization. Since we now have a centralized record for every customer interaction, we don’t have to ask folks to reexplain their situation if they call back, and we can easily follow-up on unresolved cases. We’ve also used CRM data on case resolution and customer satisfaction to identify staff training needs. For example, if our team is slow resolving cases on a specific topic then that becomes a training priority.

EAB: How have these technologies and enhanced data capabilities informed your understanding of UVA’s workforce and broader HR strategy?

ML: Having one employee system of record allows us to get a snapshot of the entire workforce at any point in time, which has helped us identify shifts and trends. For example, we’ve been able to analyze our workforce’s demography, including things like generation, gender, and ethnicity. Now we can have conversations about whether our workforce reflects the demography of our student body, or whether our HR demography reflects that of our employee or community population. So it prompts conversations we just couldn’t have before.

KS: The data has also helped us quantify the value of the HR services we provide. We can point to things like hours our tech team spent supporting a unit, or the number of calls that came into our Solution Center. In some cases, we’ve been able to show unit leaders that they were getting far more value than they were actually paying for (a particularly important functionality in our RCM budgeting environment). It’s also helped us support units when they’re making decisions about things like voluntary retirement programs. We can slice and dice the data to show them who will be impacted and what it will cost.

Quantifying the value of UVA’s transformed HR services*

  • 76,900 documented cases
  • 6,459 customer surveys
  • 400K paychecks processed
  • 550K workday business processes completed
  • 98% case resolution rate
  • 4.5 customer satisfaction (out of 5 stars)
  • 99.7% payroll accuracy
  • 650 real-time reports on demand

*Data from January 2019 to June 2019.

EAB: So enhancing your data capabilities and technology was a key piece of the transformation. How have you changed your organizational structure and staffing to enable a more strategic HR approach?

ML: While we were going through the systems integration process, we were simultaneously standing up a single HR organization under Kelley’s leadership to serve the academy, medical center, and physician clinical practice plan. This structure gave us a much more holistic view of the enterprise.

KS: We also adopted a business partner and center of excellence model. [EAB: HR Business Partners serve as internal consultants embedded within organizational units. HR Centers of Excellence are responsible for providing support in specific areas that require subject matter expertise]. That required shifting units’ expectations and providing lots of training for business partners on how to use data, understand financial drivers, and consult on business needs. We also designed three “Communities of Expertise” that provide specialized support and consultative services related to TalentService, and Decision Support. As a result, we’ve been able to dedicate some staff to things like workforce analytics. I also built a small communications team that HR oversees. They help functional HR areas craft messages that will engage employees and increase adoption of HR programs, as well as provide faculty and staff with multiple ways to receive HR news (e.g., website, newsletter, social media) and liaise with University communications to ensure consistent messaging. We also use data from our Solution Center to determine what info to share with employees. For example, we update the content on our HR website based on the volume and types of calls we receive.

ML: Similarly, we created our own project management office (PMO) in HR after realizing we didn’t have the needed skillsets for things like implementing new technologies. This team provides a range of services, including identifying process improvement opportunities, securing buy-in for change initiatives, and selecting success metrics for HR initiatives. The office has paid for itself fifteen times over by helping us track progress on projects and implement rapid improvements.

KS: Beyond formal structural changes, I meet with a group of finance leaders from across the institution to engage in table stakes exercises. The goal is to address requests from executive leadership, as well as consider what benefits and services we must offer to successfully recruit and retain employees. By bringing together finance and HR colleagues to weigh the value and impact of these decisions, we’re able to deliver a better end product. And it also helps non-HR leaders begin to understand the value of things like workforce planning.

EAB: One hallmark of a more strategic HR approach is alignment with broader organizational strategy. How do the changes you’ve made in HR relate to UVA’s institutional goals?

KS: Our HR goals, services, and initiatives directly support the university’s 2030 strategic plan. We also just wrote our first HR strategic plan, using workforce data to make the case for ten initiatives. I’m hoping when we release this it will help educate stakeholders and prompt executive-level discussion about HR.

How UVA’s HR transformation supported the goals outlined in their 2030 strategic plan

Goal: Strengthen UVA's foundation

HR Initiatives:

Goal: Cultivate the most vibrant community in higher education

HR Initiatives:

Goal: Make UVA synonymous with service

HR Initiatives:

EAB: Where are you focusing your efforts now, especially in light of COVID-19?

KS: I’ll start by saying that if we hadn’t had both a single employee dataset in Workday and the business partner model, we wouldn’t have been able to respond to this crisis and handle furloughs and other workforce impacts in the timeframe we did. Now, we’re talking about different cost drivers and starting to plan for anticipated state budget reductions so we can help units make choices about their finances and workforce once those cuts come in.

ML: Cross-training and reskilling are also top-of-mind. In response to COVID, we created an emergency assistance fund for employees. We then cross-trained administrative assistants to manage the application intake process using Salesforce. They hadn’t used the system before, but this gave them the opportunity to learn along with a sense of purpose and contribution to our organization. It also convinced folks to think about who is trained for certain tasks and begin creating contingency plans, which rarely happened before.

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Brooke Thayer

Senior Director, Research Development

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