American Public University System: Managing across international borders – Marie Gould

It isn't easy to extract positives from the prevailing economic climate. But if there is anything that might be perceived as such, it is the bout of soul-searching the crisis has triggered in many organisations. Serious questions are being asked about what strategy and tools are needed to reap the benefits of a globalised, hyper-connected economy.

"This process of business transformation begins with strategic HR planning and recruitment."

In the view of Dr Marie Gould, director of the management programme at the American Public University System (APUS), the issues are absolutely critical to their future success.

"It's a good thing that these questions are being asked now," she says. "The fact is, industries and related businesses are in the midst of transformation as local and world economies recalibrate. Some of the things we did in the past are just not working anymore, and a shift is needed to better position organisations for future and sustained growth and success."

APUS, which is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, is a leading provider of distance learning, providing affordable, quality online education to motivated adult learners worldwide through the American Military University and the American Public University.

Recruitment and business transformation

"Organisations such as APUS are forging close links with the business community."

This process of business transformation begins with strategic HR planning and recruitment. Right now there is a large pool of potential employees, but this can make it more difficult to draw out the best people for an organisation. To help filter out candidates with the highest potential, organisations can employ the use of tools such as gamification, hypothetical case studies, questionnaires and social media communities. Through these tools, they can identify and engage those with the right skills in a much more efficient way than was seen in the past.

"Sometimes broadcasting an opening is not the best way to go," Gould explains. "You might hear from people who don't have the right qualifications or do not fit into the organisation. It is best to develop a network of people from around the world, all with their own contacts.

"These people know what you are about and can be your ambassadors, speaking to potential employees or clients about what your business has to offer. This can help you make the right decision in good time, more promptly."

The most sought-after qualities are much the same as they've always been. Strong critical thinking abilities, social skills and technological understanding are key facets for employees of any organisation; however, this period of business uncertainty calls for these attributes to be accompanied by a broader, less function-specific perspective. Included among these are soft skills such as emotional intelligence and situational awareness that help establish a strong foundation for leadership and good decision-making in times of crisis and routine daily situations.

"The economic crisis has caused organisations to experience their own crisis of competitiveness," says Gould. "You need people who understand the vision and purpose of the organisation, who can see the bigger picture and then react quickly, with sound judgement.

"By using technology to automate recruiting processes, organisations can allow people to think more strategically and make more effective hiring decisions; for example, the use of gaming or other exercises during the recruiting process helps identify desired soft and hard skillsets based on internal profiles of successful employees. Conducting such an exercise in the beginning of the process lays a stronger foundation for talent and leadership development domestically and abroad.

"Strong critical thinking abilities, social skills and technological understanding are key facets for employees of any organisation."

"Whether looking within your home country or across international borders, it is important to communicate with a global perspective in mind. You have to know which cultures are represented in your organisation and prospective communities, understand the nuances and not take anything for granted."

Even if you know what attributes to look for, encouraging people to come to you can be difficult. Although there are signs of recovery on both sides of the Atlantic, economic uncertainty often causes people to stay put and ride out the storm. In Gould's view, this trend is much less prevalent than in previous downturns. It is, in fact, the optimum time to seek new talent.

"There are some people who are uncertain and do want to stay put, but that's not generally the message I hear from the trenches," Gould explains. "The people who are looking now are often the type that an employer wants. They are not moving out of need or fear; instead, they want to explore the next step. They are taking responsibility for their career development."

Cultivation process

Once the right individuals are on board, it is vital that organisations cultivate and develop their skills base. In Gould's view, mistakes are often made in this area. The motivators and skills coaches are to be found at middle-management level, yet they are often overlooked in favour of senior leadership and those occupying more technical roles. These people need to be sure that the organisation understands their priorities and that the right opportunities are in place for advancement.

"Once the right individuals are on board, it is vital that organisations cultivate and develop their skills base."

"Middle management understands what is going on throughout the company and relays that message to the senior level," she explains. "They can put in place programmes that make sure the talent is motivated and is still buying into the organisation's mission. To do that, you have to ensure these managers are supported and have the right culture in which to do their job. They can be change agents, the ones who react to a crisis before it breaks."

Gould cites an example of the kind of programme that middle management could put in place. It is based around the Great Game of Business, a book by SRC Holdings CEO Jack Stack. It advocates the use of open-book management, whereby employees are encouraged to think more like owners than members of the 'rank and file'. This is achieved through encouraging employees to view work less tactically and more strategically, as one would view a game.

"A company I worked with had an initiative where every employee got to play the 'Great Game of Business'," she explains. "They wanted their employees to understand their own role and how they could contribute. They also understood that middle managers could be the mechanism that made a department work, the people who could identify what a department needed to be successful. There are a lot of simulation exercises that allow you to see what is important and whether your culture provides it."

Network benefits

Organisations such as APUS are doing their part to help others through this period of transition. They are forging close links with the business community, putting in place the right organisational structure to help develop employees with the right outlook and skillsets.

"Educational institutions are reaching out to the business community and asking, 'What can we do for you?" says Gould. "A lot of institutions are forming advisory boards with business people as stakeholders. They can help ensure we have the right learning materials and that our exercises produce the right skillset.

"And there are the students - you might have a class of 30, all from different industries and organisations. All can share their ideas about best practices in other countries, industries and companies."


Since the financial crisis, businesses have been asking about the strategy and tools needed to reap the benefits of a globalised, connected community.
Dr Marie Gould is director of the management programme at the American Public University System.