Aligning professional service staffs' performance and training with strategic goals: a case study on using the Chartered ABS professional development matrix

I was introduced to the professional managers' Professional Development Matrix after the 2017 annual appraisal process had completed, but after discussion with my functional team leads. We now all use this in our one-to-ones with our direct reports and will do so in next year’s appraisal process, as the matrix provides a useful structure by which each team lead – and by extension, the head of administration – can get a view of skills gaps to address, as well as strengths to deploy and develop further. The matrix, in other words, is being used to explore the development needs within teams, and to review the alignment between individuals’ competencies and responsibilities right across our multi-function professional services team.

Like many universities, ours espouses to operate an appraisal and professional development system that links each person’s development directly to the university’s strategic plan, but in practice, for many in professional service roles there are few ways to demonstrate clear linkages between goals for the year e.g. high-level ambitions to improve REF performance or increase outward international student mobility. This business education specific matrix offers a helpful complementary framework by which to set and monitor joined-up development objectives, whereby individual staff’s aspirations for progression and a school’s strategy can be furthered in tandem.

In particular, we are using the matrix to ensure whole-team alignment in prioritising reviews of professional support functions and individuals’ training requests in 3 ways:

  1. Professional competence: Managing information
  2. Business school activity: Delivering projects
  3. Professional competence: Strategic planning
Managing information

Our business school has more than doubled in size, by every measure, in under 4 years. Therefore, many of our ways of collecting and reviewing data are no longer fit for purpose given both the scale of our operation and the importance placed upon our activities by the wider university. Ensuring that every team leader addresses the area of professional competence of managing information has helped each team member take ownership of the need to reflect on their skills in this area and on how (and why) they apply these to core business activities. The world already has too many orphaned or cloned Excel files full of data that no one maintains, uses, shares or trusts. By focusing one-to-one and whole-team meetings around the core skill of managing information, we have been able to collate an overview of which data sets are needed by which team for what purposes and thus who owns what, and what can be set up to be multi-purpose (e.g. research output records, for both REF preparations and accreditation work).

Delivering projects

Universities make excellent employers in that entrepreneurial activity, even amongst professional services staff, is often tolerated if not valued, which can lead to project overload. The team in our business school committed to adopting a shared understanding of what a project is, and how a project should be run, with whole-group training in project management. Whilst for most of us in the team there are limited opportunities to run a project significant enough in risk to require the wholescale adoption of a formal suite of techniques for its management, this new shared language is driving two interconnected benefits:

  • Projects are conceptualised and communicated clearly well in advance of any activity that could introduce new risks to student experience, staff workload, school reputation, or to school finances, meaning that timelines are set to minimise disruption and stakeholders are engaged in a timely manner;
  • More junior members of staff are actively volunteering to take on additional responsibilities to increase their experience in delivering projects, reducing the operational pressures on team leads.

There is a shared sense of professional pride that as a School we can design and roll out significant process changes or new initiatives with predictable results.

Strategic planning

Until summer 2016, our professional services team had a flat reporting structure with little delegated responsibility for strategic planning. A review of role profiles recently completed has highlighted where team leads are accountable for developing specific areas of the school’s strategy. Financial planning and monitoring were also not delegated and thus an objective for all budget line holders has been introduced, to engage in a series of informal training sessions with the school’s finance manager, to foster improved accuracy in the budget setting process and thus underpin financial accountability for spend against budget. The scale of the operations of the school are such that investing time in this activity has become a must, to de-risk operations.


Emm Johnstone

Head of Administration in the School of Business and Management

Queen Mary University of London