The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Building HR Competencies (and Solving Problems) Through Group Think

CoP artIn 2015, the University of Wisconsin System implemented its own human resources function, separate from the State of Wisconsin. This new autonomous way of doing HR changed a number of dynamics and gave the university the opportunity to rethink a whole range of policies and procedures and how it could best administer them.

Out of this HR redesign was born the HR Communities of Practice office. Located at UW-Madison, the office serves to foster the development of learning communities through which HR practitioners can build their knowledge, skills and abilities to enhance their work in service to the campus community.

For an article in the current issue of CUPA-HR’s The Higher Education Workplace magazine, we spoke with Harry Webne-Behrman, interim director of this new office, to learn more about the communities of practice concept and how the model is being applied at UW-Madison.


Q: What does the HR communities of practice concept look like at UW-Madison?

A: The communities of practice (CoPs) within UW-Madison human resources have formed around various HR-related competencies, challenges and needs where individuals can share resources and knowledge with an eye toward building those competencies, finding solutions to those challenges and addressing those needs. The CoPs help ensure a common base of knowledge, especially around our identified competencies.


Q: What is the role of the CoP office?

A: The CoPs are largely peer-organized and peer-led, but our office (which consists of three FTEs) supports these groups by coordinating training, providing resources and creating learning pathways.


Q: What was the impetus for implementing the CoP model at UW-Madison?

A: Prior to the university’s HR redesign, the human resources model was very much rooted in transactional functions and central control of those functions. There was no learning program in place for our HR people that supported delegation of authority and the whole notion of “partnership.” So we wanted to create a program that would nurture the development of those business partner/consultative skills, and do so in a way that was contextually relevant and specific to what the campus needed.


Q: What communities of practice groups are currently in place?

A: There are currently several CoPs on campus, with about 200 individuals participating in one or more. The HR Design/Academic Units CoP is currently looking at how we’re implementing the new HR system in the various colleges. They also formed a “Welcoming New HR Professionals Working Group” that created an onboarding program for new HR professionals. Other CoPs have formed around payroll and benefits, social justice issues, global professionals and more.


Q: What benefits and outcomes have you seen since implementing the communities of practice model?

A: We’re seeing a whole different attitude and mindset and a spirit of collaboration emerging among our HR staff across campus. The concept of learning and development is also gaining new status on campus with our HR staff — they see that they can and should be learning in order to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Read more about UW-Madison’s HR Communities of Practice.