Reinventing HR

Spring 2019
Roman Agrela

Change within an organization isn’t easy, but when the old way of working isn’t working anymore, it’s time to do things differently.

The University of California, Irvine’s HR organization recently underwent large-scale change in order to turn a fractured HR infrastructure into a collaborative, strategic, service-driven HR model. While the change was not without its challenges, the benefits realized from reinventing HR have far exceeded expectations. 

An HR Evolution

Historically, HR services had been provided to University of California, Irvine (UCI)’s three business units — a medical center, a health sciences organization and the main campus — in “silos,” with no common oversight or accountability. Costs were above industry benchmarks, technology was deployed and leveraged unevenly, and services were not coordinated (and were in many cases duplicative). When a new chancellor came to the university in 2015, bringing with him a focus on innovation and service, HR saw an opportunity to think differently about how it is organized, the services it offers, and how those services are delivered.

HR leadership’s vision for a “new HR” included unifying its independent operations into a more efficient, responsive and consistent function. A unified HR would enable the organization to interpret and apply policies and practices consistently, reduce redundancies, leverage best practices, and respond quickly and nimbly to change, thus elevating its value to its clients.

Applying change management best practices (see sidebar), HR leadership led the organization on a change journey.

A Focus on Strategy

Phase I of building a new HR included hiring executive directors for each of the three HR units and creating a strategic HR center of excellence, dubbed the Partnership for Strategy and Innovation. The Partnership is staffed with individuals who are responsible for planning and implementing strategic initiatives for the benefit of the university enterprise.

The HR team at UCI, comprised of approximately 100 staff members at the time, soon fell into a rhythm with the new model. The executive directors led their teams through change and established a trusting rapport. Subject matter experts were making connections and sharing best practices with their counterparts across the three business units. The Partnership was a high-functioning team taking strategic burden off the individual units.

HR leadership anchored this change by highlighting the positive impacts resulting from the new model. In the old days, organizational procedures, systems and structures were established to support the status quo. But if you don’t address the old way of doing things, change cannot occur. To this end, HR actively worked on developing new processes and procedures that highlighted the HR transformation and the positive impacts the transformation could have on the enterprise.

The new HR model has cut transaction-focused activities nearly in half, allowing UCI’s HR organization to focus more on programs and strategy.

A Focus on Service

After a year of working within the new model, it was time to evaluate its effectiveness. Every HR staff member had the opportunity to weigh in, and the organization worked through a list of pros and cons regarding the model. In that review, the organization learned that it was still duplicating tasks in each of its three units, and that specialized staff was still spending an inordinate amount of time handling questions and issues that could be resolved through self-help tools and/or a call center. As a result, the HR model was refined and enhanced, and the People Services unit was created. Thirty staff members were transferred from the three HR units into the People Services unit.

People Services offers an improved consistency in HR services across the enterprise while creating a “one-stop shop” for candidates, employees and managers. In this new structure, HR services such as benefits, talent acquisition and onboarding, temporary employment services, HRIS, people analytics and operations are provided more efficiently and cost-effectively by centralizing administrative processes from the three HR units into one unified service center.

By consolidating self-help and HR generalist-level-services within a single service center, HR has experienced a savings enterprise-wide. In addition, the creation of this unit has enabled HR to assume administrative processes currently being performed by staff in the schools, units and departments throughout UCI, thereby saving money and mitigating risk. Creation of the People Services unit has also freed up unit leaders, HR business partners and Partnership staff to focus on strategic concerns and assist clients with requests and issues requiring in-depth knowledge of HR functions.

The new five-tiered HR service structure looks like this: 

Tier 0 – Self Service: An enhanced, easy-to-use, searchable HR website is the primary source of basic HR information for employees and managers.

Tier 1 – Talent Support Center: A case management system currently under development will be used to route and track issues, providing accountability and appropriate routing of escalated issues and ensuring resolution. Talent Support Center staff receive training, reference materials and access to perform system lookup to address a span of customer inquiries. These staff members are knowledgeable about common HR/payroll topics and know when to escalate to tier 2 or 3 support.

Tier 2 – Case Managers/HR Generalists: These staff members are the contact for general HR knowledge and for more complex processes requiring professional HR judgement. They primarily support supervisors and managers, walking them through HR issues like starting a recruitment, employee relations issues, performance management and other general issues.

Tier 3 – Functional Experts/HR Business Partners: These functional experts within central HR address issues that have been escalated from tiers 1 and 2 and that typically require a resolution outside of normal processes.

Tier 4 – Partnership for Strategy and Innovation: From a customer-service perspective, Partnership staff are infrequently involved in the escalation of select issues.

A Focus on Clients

Throughout the change process, HR never lost sight of its clients. While creating a more unified HR, the new way of working also appreciates and values the cultural and business differences across UCI’s medical center, health sciences organization and main campus.

Campus HR supports academic and administrative units at UCI. Many of these units have their own HR support staff who work in collaboration with Campus HR. Health sciences HR supports UCI’s School of Medicine, School of Nursing, pharmaceutical sciences, population health and more, including the university’s physician’s residency program. The medical center HR team supports staff at a major hospital and numerous ambulatory offices throughout Orange County, California. With the highest percentage of represented staff in their constituency versus the other business units, this HR team services nurses, medical technical professionals, dining services staff, facilities staff, administrative staff and the myriad other professional staff it takes to run a healthcare organization.

The teams within each of the three HR units have particular expertise and experience in specific areas of HR, providing technical advice and support to clients and their unique needs. The three HR units are focused on:

  • Organizational design and talent alignment – creating and maintaining the right set of roles for UCI and sourcing the best talent to fill those roles.
  • Organizational effectiveness – fostering shared practices that contribute to collaboration, productivity, resiliency and efficiency.
  • Wellness – developing and delivering programs that support individual health and sustainability.
  • Coaching/performance/learning – engaging leaders and staff to promote a growth mindset and connecting them to the right resources.
  • Employee relations – facilitating interactions between employees, managers and the enterprise to maintain individual effectiveness, compliance and a safe, inclusive workplace.

While creating a more unified HR, the new way of working also appreciates and values the cultural and business differences across UCI’s medical center, health sciences organization and main campus.

UCI’s HR organization also introduced an HR business partner certification program to ensure a baseline level of knowledge and skill for HR staff with frontline responsibility to clients. HR business partners are the point of contact for internal clients within their business units.

Collaborative by design, UCI’s HR business unit model encourages teamwork across units to maximize impact and success for all HR team members. And HR’s success, in turn, creates a culture of success and satisfaction for all UCI employees.

Empowering People Success

In greater numbers than ever before, UCI HR is being consulted by clients across the enterprise and is being engaged to lead departments and units enterprise-wide through key HR initiatives. HR now holds a seat on the executive cabinets for both the campus and UCI Health, and has become a highly regarded university partner. As HR continues to push the innovation envelope, using the new model as the foundation for its success, other UCI units and departments have begun applying the foundational elements of the HR model within their own organizations.

Throughout its change journey, HR used the tagline “Empower People Success” to keep front of mind why the organization needed to change — to better serve its clients. Now, with a new model and a new way of working, HR is keeping that commitment to the UCI community.

About the author: Ramona Agrela is associate chancellor and chief human resources executive at University of California, Irvine.

Tips for Managing Organizational Change

Oftentimes, managing the change process itself is the hardest part of organizational change. Here are some change management steps UCI’s HR leadership team took to usher in a new HR model.

  1. Create a vision. For a change initiative to be successful, there needs to be a clear vision for what the change will look like, how the change will occur, and what the end result will be.
  2. Communicate the vision. Communication is vital for any change process. Before, during and after its change journey, UCI HR leadership was in constant communication with HR staff, stakeholders and clients as to what the change would entail and why it was in the best interest of the HR organization. Through effective communication, people will not only understand the reasons for the change, but are also more likely to agree with it and commit to making it happen.
  3. Identify and recruit change champions. Find change champions — those who understand the reasoning behind the needed change and who wholeheartedly support it — to help rally the troops. A watercooler conversation among peers is usually more effective than a top-down mandate.
  4. Gain buy-in from everyone else. Have milestone celebrations and launch parties. Whenever possible, give people a voice in the change process, and acknowledge people’s efforts often and publicly.
  5. Empower people to act on the vision. Bring people into the fold. For UCI HR leadership, this meant developing a bare-bones framework for the new unified HR organization, and asking HR staff members organization-wide to help define and build out the model.
  6. Put metrics in place to measure success. One of the goals of UCI’s new HR model was to empower the university’s people to drive a culture of innovation, learning and service. To make sure it is achieving this goal, HR has measured (and will continue to measure) the level at which employees feel empowered, energized, connected and committed to UCI; the level at which highly-qualified candidates view UCI as a talent destination; and more.


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