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Driving Organizational Objectives with Program Evaluation

Use Critical Evaluation and Consultation to become a stronger, more proactive strategic partner

Two businessmen holding a calculator and a folder.

Recent efforts to transform the performance management and appraisal system—a ubiquitous, previously unchallenged "best practice" that many people nevertheless consider an "annual ritual of fear and loathing"—may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The revolt indicates that nearly any HR policy, practice or program is subject to change. But why do such unpopular or flawed procedures persist for so long? For that matter, why do even rationally conceived, well-developed HR policies, practices and programs fail to achieve desired outcomes? More importantly for HR professionals, how can we identify what programs failed or are failing before they get to that point?

People, organizations and the external environment constantly adapt and change. Organizational goals and priorities shift and compete. People don't always respond to policies and programs the way we think they will or should. Stakeholders sometimes rush to implement "best practices" that may or may not fit with the organization's goals and culture. But HR can proactively mitigate these risks. One solution is to conduct a program evaluation.

Program evaluation is a systematic method for assessing the relevance and effectiveness of HR programs in light of changing conditions. Typically a six-step process, program evaluation can help establish success metrics to determine 1) whether a program is achieving its objectives and 2) how it can be improved, replaced or outsourced.

Here are the six steps of program evaluation, as conceived by Jack Edwards, John Scott and Nambury S. Raju in Evaluating Human Resources Programs (Pfeiffer, 2007):

  1. Identify human capital priorities.
  2. Identify program objectives.
  3. Collect data.
  4. Analyze and interpret data.
  5. Report and recommendations.
  6. Implementation.

The process begins by reviewing or clarifying the organization's human capital goals and defining specific program objectives. Data collection is then guided by an evaluation plan that specifies research questions and associated metrics (organized by program objective). The process can be ongoing (e.g., built into the program management function), periodic (e.g., biannually), ad hoc (e.g., when questions arise from stakeholders), or some combination of these.

Program evaluation requires an investment of time and resources but yields a number of benefits. Embedding the process into your HR practices:

  • Ensures that policies and programs are outcome-focused and clearly articulate a value proposition to drive corporate needs and associated metrics.
  • Helps to clarify purpose and goals, which can strengthen communications with employees and other stakeholders.
  • Supports effective management of resources, by arming HR practitioners and organizational leaders with information useful for proactively identifying underperforming practices.
  • Informs future program design, by providing intelligence around current systems' strengths and shortfalls.
  • Enhances effective strategic partnering, by equipping HR professionals with data necessary to address stakeholder concerns (e.g., return on investment).


Despite these benefits, many HR organizations fail to use program evaluation with any frequency. Reasons may range from fear of discovering negative outcomes, to uncertainty about metrics or data collection, to insufficient lead time, resources or partners available for planning and executing an evaluation. The SHRM Competency Model can help HR professionals overcome these challenges.

Two SHRM-defined competencies come into play in relation to program evaluation. Apply Consultation to articulate the benefits of the process. Use Critical Evaluation to design and execute an evaluation plan, or partner with appropriate experts to embed ongoing evaluations into HR program administration. (To assess your current proficiency on these and other competencies and to develop them further, check out the full range of SHRM tools, including seminars, on-site learning and e-learning.)

To be strong, effective strategic partners, HR practitioners need to stay abreast of what's working well and what isn't, keeping solutions at the ready before organizational leaders issue a mandate for change. The application of HR competencies, especially ongoing critical evaluation through approaches such as program evaluation, is one way to make that happen.

A Sample Evaluation Plan

What does program evaluation look like in action? Let's return to performance management and appraisal as an example of a potentially failed or failing HR procedure. The goals of current efforts to transform this system are to 1) reduce administrative burden, 2) improve perceptions of fairness and 3) strengthen performance culture. Pursuant to these goals, an evaluation plan of a new performance management system might include the following questions and metrics to guide data collection:

Goal 1: Reduce administrative burden

  • Question: Does employee administrative burden decrease?
    Metric: Amount of time employees spend on formal administrative processes (e.g., appraisal, documentation)
  • Question: Does supervisor administrative burden decrease?
    Metric: Amount of time supervisors spend on formal administrative processes (e.g., appraisal, documentation)

Goal 2: Improve perceptions of fairness

  • Question: What are employee perceptions of the fairness of performance management outcomes?
    Metric: Employee perceptions that recognition and rewards are based on merit
  • Question: What are supervisor perceptions of the fairness of performance management outcomes?
    Metric: Supervisor confidence in appraisal scores and outcomes

Goal 3: Strengthen performance culture

  • Question: What is the impact of the new program on performance feedback?
    Metrics: Frequency of performance feedback; employee perceptions of quality of feedback
  • Question: What is the impact of the new program on work expectations?
    Metric: Employee perceptions of clarity of work expectations


Shonna Waters, Ph.D., is vice president of research at SHRM.

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