Planning for Retention and Succession of Staff

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As new technologies increasingly penetrate all sectors of the economy, educational institutions are finding it difficult to recruit and retain sufficiently skilled staff -- particularly given increasing competition both between educational institutions and with industries now entering education and training markets in a big way. Universities, colleges and schools usually pay significantly lower salaries than industry and commerce for staff with advanced technical skills; which this fact adds to the potential for instability in technology services in education.

Some turnover of staff can be healthy because it can bring in new blood. However, it still makes sense to plan for the retention of staff, and in the event that a key contributor is unavoidably lost, to have planned for that eventuality and for ways of filling the gap created. This must be better than

'firefighting', which means trying to 'bribe' someone to stay because the consequences of his/her departure are too severe. What kind of message does firefighting give, not only to the staff member who is bribed, but also to the rest of the staff? How long before the whole department is ablaze with staff using the threatening to quit in order to improve their standing, or smouldering with the discontent caused by an arbitrary system of preferment?

This article is a product of my fourteen years of experience as the head of educational technology support units where I have sought to create an 'open' environment with good morale and team spirit, often in the face of uncomprehending human resource departments. In my department we now deploy skills undreamed of when I began work there; we also employ courseware developers with postgraduate educations, though once even a graduate was the exception. So In effect, we accept that retention and succession are more important issues today than ever if such services are to satisfy given the increasingly complex demands placed upon them technology support units by educators [and industry?]. , and provide necessary reliability and continuity.


Pressures on Staff Morale

In a series of recent mailings on the AAHESGIT discussion list [gopher:// 9812], Steve Gilbert (1998) claims that support service providers in higher education are now being "punished for their success"; in that they are not being resourced to meet the increased demand they have stimulated for their services. He is surely right that the pressure is growing. Working conditions in universities are now not so different from those in industry, yet university salaries generally have not risen fast enough to reflect the increased importance, the heavier workloads, or even the better qualifications support staff now possess. This is equally true in colleges and large schools with significant numbers of technology support staff. Gilbert suggests some partial solutions to these pressures: better teamwork, student assistants, and more resources. He might have added improved morale. Staff with good morale can better cope with pressure--and do more work in a given amount of time--than demoralized staff who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their managers do not really recognize ["appreciate" a better word here?] their efforts.

All managers probably like to think that they are fair with their staff, and most can easily convince themselves that staff morale is just fine. It probably isn't! Engaging in retention and succession planning enables managers to make sure that the better [better = more encouraging?] side of their nature is not buried under their own workload. It helps managers to recognise the aspirations and contributions of their staff and thus to generate a more positive atmosphere.



Everyone can list features that can attract and retain staff: attractive salaries, conditions of employment, working environments, career opportunities and tools of the trade etc. Managers' abilities to manipulate these will differ, so I will not attempt to list all the possible variations on these themes. However, among the obvious enticements are pay rises above inflation, extra salary increments, increased vacation in return for loyal service, bright and uncluttered rooms offices with plants and pictures, clear routes and conditions for advancement, and regular equipment upgrades.

[Need transition here. We go from a list of enticements to a personal story about staff demoralization.]

For a number of years in the 1980s, I was the secretary of an institutional branch of the higher education teachers [Where should the apostrophe go?] trade union. [Is this a proper name? Caps?] Of course salaries and conditions of employment were regularly debated. What depressed me most about these debates was the apparent thoughtlessness with which individuals and groups could be were treated by managers. Staff demoralization was often tangible, which only made the job for the manager concerned more difficult; who that manager in turn would blame office problems on "uncooperative" staff, thus continuing the cycle of declining morale and poor productivity. The root cause was more often a lack of imagination and sensitivity on the part of these managers. than it was the pressure on resources they used as an excuse for their cursory attitudes [This sentence is long and confusing; I think it’s much clearer if the last half is deleted.]

To illustrate with an example from another context, I once gave a keynote presentation at another institution without charging a speaker’s fee; only my expenses were compensated, and these were small. Afterwards, the organizer contacted my secretary to inquire about my tastes in literature, and later I received the gift of a book with a commemorative frontispiece. I was touched, and the book is still with me long after any fee would have been spent and forgotten. The gift boosted my morale because of the obvious thought and effort that had been expended in thanking me. Naturally I would do something again for that institution if asked. I am sure readers will recognize something similar in their own experiences. Important as Though salaries, vacation time, and advancement are important, they are not the only ways of recognizing staff.


To emphasize the importance of cultivating good morale, staff developers could try the following consciousness-raising exercise at the start of a session on staff retention designed for supervisors, managers, or even a human resources department: "Think of something you once did for which you received a direct but unexpected reward, and on a piece of transparency acetate write briefly (1) what you did; (2) how you were rewarded; (3) how you felt then; and (4) how you feel now." The participants' responses then could be anonymously posted on an overhead projector and discussed freely by all. I bet that they will almost invariably show that the size of reward is only loosely related to feelings of increased self-worth.

To thank individuals or even whole departments, managers can do so much with just a little: a book token, a meal out for the department, funding to attend a conference or exhibition, a trip to the theater, a bottle of wine or whisky. [Do we need the "or whisky?"] Of course, managers can also just say thank you, but it carries more weight with evidence of extra thought carries more weight. As with any individual recognition, the way it appreciation is presented--the words chosen, the choice of reward, the way a gift is wrapped, the personal effort invovled--counts. The likely outcome: can be that the manager's life will be made easier, and his/her staff will think twice before leaving to work for the proverbial unknown devil for a few dollars more.

We all need to be reminded of our better nature, and retention planning is a method of doing just that. Human resource departments should work to help managers engage in this kind of thinking and to support them in a whole range of options for rewarding and thanking staff, both as individuals and as teams. It is important to note that retention planning is ongoing, not a one-time exercise; as such it has budgeting implications. Clearly identifying the benefits for productivity and quality will be important in justifying the added costs, so this must form be part of the planning.



I first heard of succession planning when I joined the Staff and Educational Development Association ( Such an Organizations like this one, which is based on voluntary and unremunerated activity, have to pay serious attention to succession--to "bringing on" members who eventually may occupy key posts and thus sustain continuity. Such an emphasis figures much less prominently within paid employment because employers can always advertise outside the office for a replacement for "new blood." However, this is not always appropriate, and effectively blocking career advancement within the organization can cause serious damage to staff morale. It is better to develop and motivate one's own staff and also have ready replacements --employees with new ideas born of an intimate knowledge of the institution. This saves on advertising costs and recruitment effort, and it can prevent the disruption usually caused when a replacement is sought.

Bringing on staff means addressing staff development needs, delegating some key tasks to enhance skills and experience, and providing opportunities for staff to show initiative and gain confidence. [I'm not sure what is meant by "bringing on" here.] These steps are all very obvious, yet clouded in fear: fear that if a manager brings on a junior member, that manager will eventually be set aside to make way for this younger and "hungrier" protege. We have all seen the movies and heard the stories. But it can only happen if managers neglect their own development.

In fact, it is odd how few heads of department address their own succession. They spend years building their department, then when they retire it is dismantled --carved-up -- for lack of a credible "champion." They should ask, "What will happen to my territory when I go?" If the answer is that it is unlikely to continue at all, either that territory is not sufficiently recognized as essential by its clients, or there is no obvious prepared successor , such that it is simpler to 'asset strip' to other territories. Perhaps the head feels that this this won't be a worry because it will no longer be the head's his problem; but what about those left behind? Are their interests properly protected by such indifference?

If, on the other hand, [how is this "on the other hand?"] there is only one person working in an institution to develop the use of educational technology, he/she should demand some support. The argument is that the Service must have some continuity if clients are to have confidence; , with a second member should be able to stand in for the head when he/she is ill and to replace that head should he/she leave for pastures new.

In general, succession planning can simply mean trying to avoid a situation where key skills are embedded in a single individual. It may not always be possible to cover the loss of a key member of staff quickly, but even in such cases it is important to be aware of the potential problem and to minimize any possible consequences in advance.



Retention and succession planning are more important than ever in the rapidly evolving field of educational technology. Universities in particular are under pressure to train and retain multimedia and WWW courseware developers as well as computing services staff for the IT infrastructure. This pressure will only increase as seep into colleges and schools as they become increasingly sophisticated in their use of IT. Moreover, the accelerating rate at which technology is being harnessed to education and training means there is intensifying competition--with publishers, broadcast media, advertisers, and marketers, among others--for staff with the appropriate skills and experience. This is compounded by the demand for the same skills from publishers and the broadcast media as well as advertisers and marketers. The millennium bug contributes even more pressure to the general explosion in networked computing: educational institutions are having difficulty in recruiting and retaining comptent staff of an appropriate calibre to sustain their communication and information technology networks because industrial companies are competing with them for key staff to guarantee the robustness of maintain their own computer systems beyond the year 2000.

Retention and succession planning are relevant management tools whatever the profession, but suddenly they have become critically important in the field of educational technology. Institutions and support services managers can only ignore such tools at their peril. It is time that all personnel services in universities, colleges, and other schools offer leadership in this area in collaboration with faculty and staff development officers.



Steven W. Gilbert (1998) Punished for Success, mailings 190, 191 and 192, sent to the AAHESGIT discussion list, 4 December 1998. Available from the archive gopher:// 9812