By the Numbers

By Bill Roberts Feb 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, February 2008 Isaac E. Dixon mixes people skills and metrics in a recruiting role at Oregon's Providence health system.

Soon after his father retired from the Army and settled the family in Los Angeles, Isaac E. Dixon received a lesson in the importance of numbers. Ten-year-old Dixon and his younger brother started a lawn-mowing business, signing a contract to make monthly payments on a mower they bought from an uncle.

"The contract said if we reneged on a payment, he would take the mower back," Dixon, SPHR, and former Society for Human Resource Management board member, recalls with a laugh. "We missed a payment--and he did take it away. We had to pay interest and sign a new contract to get it back."

Four decades later, as regional director of employment at Providence Health& Services in Portland, Ore., Dixon pays closer attention to numbers. "Providence is becoming much more data-driven," he says. "Metrics require us to dig deeper, ask more questions and partner more effectively with stakeholders."

Business Sense

Despite the emphasis on numbers, Dixon sees himself--foremost--as a partner with managers. He spends half his time talking to managers to better understand their issues and how HR can help them. "I think of myself as a businessperson first and as an HR person second," he says. "Too often, HR is a roadblock."

At Providence, a five-state, nonprofit health care system, Dixon leads 30 people who recruit for nearly 16,000 positions at 10 Oregon hospitals and clinics. Recruiting and workforce planning have become crucial for Providence. Like most hospitals, it faces the double whammy of baby boomers retiring and needing more health care.

Before Dixon arrived 14 months ago, the employment center had launched programs to promote careers in health care, including one that lets high-school science students watch surgeries. Few community residents knew about these programs, so Dixon was the catalyst for communication. His staff members revamped their intranet and web site, launched an electronic newsletter, developed media strategies, and now push information to managers through formal meetings and informal "gripping and grinning." "Isaac has a lot of business experience and really gets how a business runs," says June Crissman, his boss and Providence's chief HR officer in Oregon. "He understands exactly what operational leaders are up against." His metrics bent had appeal. "We're trying to understand our metrics and then plan strategically and tactically how to move the numbers," she says.

Getting the Facts

Dixon works with the HR controller and three other regional employment directors to develop a metrics "dashboard" addressing turnover, retention and recruitment. "Dashboards are the genesis of fact-based HR decision-making," he explains.

Dixon expects to roll the dashboard out to managers in late 2008. Among the data being collected: vacancy rates as a percentage of totals; annualized voluntary turnover; voluntary turnover as a percentage of total; average tenure for voluntary turnovers; requisitions closed per month; internal transfers; cycle times for recruiter reviews, background checks and manager reviews; and total cycle time for hiring. Staff members and managers use these data to benchmark regions and the system against the health care industry, improve the results and identify areas for improvement. As an example of the latter, Dixon wants to determine the optimal number of job candidates to show a manager, with the goals of saving managers time and shortening the recruiting cycle.

Despite his facility with metrics, Dixon presents himself as a people person in the classic HR mold: Colleagues describe him as a compassionate, consensus-oriented leader who respects individuals and looks for conflict resolutions that benefit all parties. He wins high marks as a listener, a skill he attributes to his maternal grandmother, who taught him that "everybody has a story." "I've learned more from listening to people talk about their lives. You hear what they need from you," he says.

A big influence, Dixon's grandmother graduated from college, sang professionally and taught school. "She also taught me perseverance," Dixon says. After high school, Dixon spent three years in the Army, where he got a taste of personnel work. His father, a World War II combat veteran, had been one of the first black military policemen after the Army was integrated in 1948. The family's nomadic military life taught Dixon to be adaptable.

Inquiring Minds

Dixon, who studied research methods in graduate school and spent more than a decade in the financial industry, understands that many HR professionals aren't comfortable with metrics. "Not all the things HR does are easily measurable," he admits. "I learned what to measure." He figures about 10 percent of HR professionals "get" metrics. "Most undergraduate HR programs don't include metrics," he says. He's doing his part to change that by including measurement in an HR fundamentals course he teaches at Portland State University.

To improve his team's way with numbers, Dixon reassigned a workforce planning manager as a full-time analyst. The employee had some finance knowledge, but inquisitiveness is his strength, according to Dixon: "He sees a pattern or trend and wants to know why." Dixon also encourages staff members to continue learning. "He's focused on continuing education for all," says Lisa Marie May, director of HR employment services.

Dixon doesn't expect every HR person to become a metrics expert, but he does expect HR people to be curious. "Develop a culture of inquiry," he advises. "I try to come to work each day with that culture in mind." Bill Roberts is contributing editor at HR Magazine.

Bill Roberts is contributing editor at HR Magazine.


Isaac E. Dixon

Education: Doctoral candidate, School of Business and Technology, Capella University, Minneapolis; Master of Arts in interdisciplinary studies, Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Ore.; Bachelor of Science in business administration, Warner Pacific College, Portland, Ore.

Current Jobs: December 2006-present, regional director of employment, Providence Health & Services, Portland. September 2006-present, adjunct faculty member, Portland Community College. September 2000-present, adjunct faculty member, Portland State University.

Career: 2002-06, vice president of human resources, Unitus Community Credit Union, Portland. 2000-02, staffing manager, Nike Inc., Beaverton, Ore. 1994-2000, vice president of human resources, Colonial Pacific Leasing, Tigard, Ore. 1993-94, HR director, city of Gresham, Ore. 1988-93, manager, Career Services Department in the Department of Administrative Services; regional personnel officer, Department of Transportation; personnel officer, labor relations officer, secretary of general staff for adjutant general, National Guard 218th Field Artillery Battalion, Oregon Military Department; state of Oregon. 1983-88, HR manager, Nike Inc., Beaverton. 1975-83, general manager of franchise operations, Manpower Inc., Portland; 1978-83, branch manager, Manpower Inc., Pico Rivera, Calif.

Personal: Age 56; born in Los Angeles; married, no children.

Diversions: Gardening; travel; community service, including work with the Urban League of Portland.

Connections: Isaac.dixon@providence.org.

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