Emory Report
May 2, 2005
Volume 57, Number 29


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May 2, 2005
Work in progress

BY Eric Rangus

Kym Harris likes to talk about buckets. Not literal buckets—although her interest there isn’t really explored in casual conversation—but figurative buckets.

“I got that from my corporate experience,” said Harris, director of learning services in Human Resources (HR). Her more than seven years as an Emory employee were interrupted by a recent five-year stint at The Home Depot as a training manager. That Harris would use as an organizational metaphor a receptacle her former employer sold by the gross is probably not a coincidence.

“We always talked about bucketing things,” continued Harris, who returned to the Emory fold last December.
“I’m also a very visual person, and buckets created a nice image for me.”

As it searches for a new vice president, HR is in a state of transition. In fact, the transition started many months before the VP search began earlier this semester. Last fall, HR revamped its training modules, and one of the first things that had to happen was picking a person to lead the way. So, Del King, senior director of HR, made a phone call.

“I knew Kym when she was here six years ago,” he said. “I thought she had the perfect blend of Emory background, higher education and corporate experience. She’s also a very strategic person. Kym knows how to put together an innovative plan and move forward.”

After talking to King, Harris said she played hard to get for “a few seconds,” but the challenge of re-envisioning HR’s training programs was more than enough to bring her back. That re-envisioning is taking place from the ground up—starting with the name.

“My goal is to move us away from a concept of ‘training,’ because it feels so industrial,” said Harris, whose “learning services” title bears the result of this movement. “When we talk about learning, it can take place in the classroom or simply by our providing some job aids employees can use back at work. It can take place through coaching, and it’s outcome-based. We’re talking about changing behavior as opposed to someone talking at people in a classroom and hoping they ‘get it.’”

When Harris’ plan is fully set into motion sometime next academic year, HR’s old training modules will be almost unrecognizable, and the beneficiaries will be staff employees who will experience a new atmosphere of professional development.

Harris’ image of the buckets is central to her idea, but it’s really the contents of those buckets that are most important. Harris’ framework for learning services offers programs in four areas: leadership development, open-enrollment classes, programs and consultation.

Consultation, as the name implies, involves better communication and partnership not only within HR’s divisions but also with the wider Emory community. Open-enrollment classes and programs are catch-all buckets for a variety of programs, ranging from computer training to Mentor Emory, that simply need a shot of adrenaline to get going again. “Relevant, transferable and accessible” is one of Harris’ taglines. Too often, HR’s old training programs were none of these.

Of her buckets, Harris is most attached to the first, leadership development, whose central program has been Leadership for Results, a leadership training module sprung from the remains of HR’s old Frontline Leadership classes.

“We want to provide learning experiences that increase knowledge and build skills,” she said. “We also want to facilitate processes that increase individual and team development.”

Leadership for Results, which will be part of a larger leadership curriculum, is focused on outcomes and behavior change. Communication skills, the giving and receiving of feedback, dealing with emotional behavior, preparing for performance discussions, and coaching are just some of the aspects of the still-developing module. Also a part is a proposed 360-degree feedback process, that would involve performance reviews incorporating comments not only from a manager’s supervisors, but from his or her direct reports, as well.

The 360-degree feedback process is in addition to the full integration of a new performance management system that was piloted in several departments last year.

“Most successful people just want to do better, so they’re always beating up on themselves if they aren’t doing well,” said Harris, adding that Leadership for Results should be ready for release in the fall. “What something like coaching does is help participants get a balanced perspective of their reports. Everyone is a work in progress. None of us are perfect; we all have opportunities to grow.”

Harris has ambitious goals, but her own career track appears to have prepared her for the challenge. A native of Plainfield, N.J., she graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in psychology and soon found out almost by accident she had an interest in (and a talent for) human resources management.

After graduating from college, Harris entered a retail leadership development program and advanced far enough to attain supervisory responsibilities. But she discovered she liked personnel issues (as HR was commonly known in the 1980s). So, she took a job as a receptionist in her company’s HR department—a step down from where she was—so she could learn the business from the ground up. Eventually, she earned an M.B.A. with a focus in human resources management; prior to coming to Emory, she cut her teeth in higher education HR as an assistant director and HR manager at the University of Miami (Fla.).

Harris’ first position at Emory was as HR manager in Facilities Management (FM). At the time (1992), FM had no HR presence, despite the fact it was the University’s largest division. In 1994, she moved to the main HR office as training manager, a position that sounds suspiciously like the reconstituted position she just took. But not exactly.

“The great thing about this role today is that it’s so much broader,” Harris said. She interacts with senior administrators, for instance, which demonstrates the buy-in Emory’s top people have in renovating HR. She also has the freedom to rebuild programs that may have lost momentum or to create new ones from scratch.

The vast majority of these new learning services will roll out in 2005–06. The one available now is computer classes. In partnership with University Libraries, HR is offering basic courses in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. On the surface, teaching basic computer skills appears to be just a small step, but this service also represents a coming wave of partnership between HR and other campus departments and organizations.

“We’re really trying to introduce learning to the entire campus,” Harris said. “We use the library’s facilities for computer classes; we want to make learning more accessible. People can leave their offices and walk to a class rather than get on a shuttle and go ‘down the hill’ [to the HR building].”

When her (second) one-year anniversary at Emory rolls around on Dec. 13, Harris has a lot of goals. She wants to have rolled out the leadership institute; a wide array of open-enrollment classes meeting the needs of everyone from directors to custodians; a revitalized and repiloted Mentor Emory program; and at least a couple certificate learning programs. Most of all, Harris said, she wants to foster a sense of teamwork between HR and staff employees from across Emory.

“I hope people will see an ongoing partnership between learning, divisional HR managers, faculty/staff assistance programming and others,” Harris said. “My goal is for the community to see us as a team of people who come together to address the specific needs of departments. I’m really hoping to have an impact in all my buckets.”