This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 21 Number 4 1998. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

UCSD's Automated Merit Processing System
by Robert Merryman, Judy R. Johnson, and Ron Block

The University of California San Diego (UCSD) is a large research university em- ploying approximately 19,000 academic and staff employees, many of whom are unionized. A major federal contractor, UCSD ranks third in terms of federal research expenditures. In addition to the general campus, UCSD includes a large medical center and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

When UCSD decided to replace its manual staff merit increase recommendation process with an online computer program, the opportunity was seized to custom-design a system to meet user needs, reduce related workloads, and improve the quality of the final recommendations. The new program that was developed:

This effort resulted in a highly successful Web-based system that was enthusiastically embraced by the campus community and was recognized by the National Association of College and University Business Officers as a prize-winning innovative achievement.1


UCSD's merit recommendation process is decentralized to eight vice chancellors. Each vice chancellor has appointed a merit program coordinator to assist with administering this process. Department managers make merit increase recommendations to their respective vice chancellor who has final decision-making authority. Human Resources reviews the vice chancellor submissions to confirm that increases are within broad policy guidelines and campuswide budgetary limitations.


In the past, paper worksheets were generated to display the merit-eligible population and record merit increase recommendations. The worksheets required manual calculations to determine costs and routing around the campus for each approval point to review and edit. Numerous problems were identified with the former paper-based process, including:

Many manual mathematical calculations were required to complete the paper form. Calculations included the annualized increase cost, pro-rated costs for part-time or split-funded employees, the total expenditure by fund and fund category, and adjustments to the merit budget when employees were deleted from eligibility or had experienced a status change since the worksheets were produced. Therefore, users expressed a need for a spreadsheet application to facilitate the merit recommendation process. While downloading the merit-eligible population into a standard spreadsheet application would have met the stated request, other complaints regarding the paper-based system seemed to indicate a need for process redesign beyond simple spreadsheet capability.


Merit program coordinators met with representatives from Human Resources, Budget Office, and Administrative Computing and Telecommunications to define user needs for a new automated system to replace the paper-based merit recommendation process. The group looked at the information that a decision-maker needs when determining or reviewing and approving merit awards to see if system-generated solutions could be developed. The seventeen documented requirements shown below were addressed in the design of the online merit recommendation program.

With the new automated system, the eligible population is extracted from the employee database based upon the criteria for a given merit cycle and is downloaded to populate the online merit worksheets. Once the worksheet is completed online and approved, the new salary rates are uploaded to update the employee database. Time-consuming manual calculations are no longer necessary, and most of the errors inherent in the manual process have been eliminated, thanks to a variety of built-in edits and online help features. Also, the system handles multiple merit increase models required by various collective bargaining agreements, including step-based, rate-based, and evaluation-based increase models.


Employee involvement in the new information system has been enthusiastic, with areas volunteering to serve as test sites during the testing and pilot phases of the implementation. The merit program coordinators continued to serve as a focus group as the program was developed and implemented. This group was instrumental in designing and testing the program to meet the system needs from the user's perspective.

A kick-off meeting was held to introduce and demonstrate the new program, and user's guides were prepared and distributed providing step-by-step instruction. Most users reported that the program was so intuitive and the online help so readily available that they never needed to consult the user's guide. By incorporating training into the model itself, formal classroom training was minimized, which greatly reduced the start-up costs.

During the first year of full implementation, departments could submit the paper forms if they lacked the computer capability to participate in the online process. Vice chancellor office reviewers found that having the recommendations online made their job so much easier that they took the time to key-enter the recommendations received from the few departments that submitted paper forms. This provided reviewers the benefit of complete online costing and report generation capabilities. All increase recommendations were submitted to Human Resources online during the first year of implementation even though the manual process was permitted, which speaks highly to not only the management commitment, but the value and benefits of the new system from the user's perspective. Paper forms were eliminated totally in 1997.

Originally implemented using two-level client/server techniques, the product has recently been redeveloped using a hybrid Web/CGI and Java applet approach in order to integrate it with other campus services and to eliminate the need to actively deploy client software to hundreds of user workstations in as many different campus departments.


The cycle time of the average merit recommendation process has been reduced by 25 percent. Whereas the department user typically spent an average of two hours completing the paper merit increase worksheets, the online worksheets can be completed in a matter of minutes. The vice chancellor offices and Human Resource reviewers now view an online report that readily identifies any departments over budget rather than having to audit individual worksheets to ensure the accuracy of manual calculations. Increases that are out of range and inaccurate evaluation ratings are no longer an issue requiring research and correction. Human Resources used to allocate one full week to review and correct merit increases and now allocates a single day for most merit cycles.


The single most important aspect of the new online merit recommendation process is that it improves merit-award decisions by delivering all relevant information and calculations to the persons making merit recommendations and to subsequent review and approval authorities. Errors are virtually impossible with the program's edit features. The program has been met with enthusiastic response from the users, several of whom have written to express their appreciation of the new system, citing how easy it is to use, and how much time it has saved them.

Need System Solution
Validation of employee merit eligibility Access to detailed employee data screens
Effect of merit on position within salary range Old and new salaries expressed as percentage of range midpoint
Current salary range Display of salary range minimum, midpoint, and maximum
Controls programmed to prevent entries outside of range accompanied by error message
Correct performance evaluation entries Controls programmed to prevent evaluation dates and ratings outside of policy parameters accompanied by error message
Option to enter amount of increase or new annual salary Whichever is entered, the other is calculated
Equity comparisons across department Display of new annual salaries for department
Part-time employee calculations

Part-time salaries pro-rated and calculated by the assigned percentage of time

Vice chancellor ability to reserve portion of merit funds

Decrease merit increase allocation percentage for departments within jurisdiction with automatic recalculation of merit budgets

Dynamic recalculation of merit budget upon elimination of employee from merit list

Budget recalculation based on percentage of payroll base for remaining eligible employees

Monitor awards against budget Costs totaled after each merit is entered
System signals when expenditures exceed budget allowance
Security of confidential records Password access to program
Access limited to individual's scope of authority
Reviewer ability to override recommendations

Vice chancellors and Human Resources staff have ability to override entries

Confirmation of budget compliance and equal treatment across fund sources

Allocations and expenditures automatically tracked by fund number and fund category

Correct step-increase (if applicable) Step-increase options displayed (eliminating above maximum or unallowable increases)
New salary rate automatically displayed upon entry of new step
Correct healthcare bargaining unit merits requiring flat percent of increases based on performance rating

Merit calculated upon entry of performance evaluation rating, limited by salary range maximum

Flexible report generation Online reports by fund number, fund category, department, and vice chancellor area
Historical merit information Closed merit cycle remains online for designated users

Robert Merryman ([email protected]) is Manager, Payroll/Personnel Systems; Judy R. Johnson ([email protected]) is Compensation Manager; and Ron Block ([email protected]) is Online Systems Project Leader, Payroll/Personnel Systems, at the University of California at San Diego. the table of contents

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