The Role of Strategic HRD in Establishing Employee

The Role of Strategic HRD in Establishing Employee Engagement Initiatives: A Case
Study from Higher Education
Submission from Brandon Sullivan, Kenneth Bartlett, and Sowath Rana
University of Minnesota
Stream 4: Employee Engagement
Submission Type: Full Paper
Submitted to the 16 International HRD Conference in Cork, Ireland
3rd – 5th June 2015
Brandon Sullivan, Ph.D.
Director of Leadership and Talent Development, Office of Human Resources
319 15th Avenue SE, Suite 100
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455
[email protected]
Kenneth R. Bartlett, Ph.D.
Professor of Human Resource Development
Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development
College of Education and Human Development
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455
[email protected]
Sowath Rana
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development
College of Education and Human Development
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455
[email protected]
Purpose: The purpose of this paper was to examine the establishment of an organization-wide
employee engagement initiative with a case study from higher education.
Design/methodology/approach: We employed the case study methodology to examine the first
two years of a multi-year effort to establish a strategic program to measure and enhance
employee engagement at one of the largest, most comprehensive research universities in the
United States.
Findings: This study emphasized the important roles of the various key stakeholders within the
institution: the university leadership, deans of the colleges, faculty, and staff. The findings
suggested that designing and implementing such a large-scale initiative require support from all
of these constituents. In addition, this paper explicated the process of designing a university-wide
engagement survey, in which input from the various key stakeholders was taken seriously into
consideration. Finally, the study elaborated on the significance of the survey results to all
members of the institution and explored future actions to be taken based on these findings.
Originality/Value: This paper offers valuable insights to researchers and practitioners on the
establishment of a long-term employee engagement strategic initiative at a large institution. In
addition, it focuses on the notion of employee engagement within a context that has been rarely
examined in the literature: higher education.
Keywords: Employee engagement, work engagement, higher education, organization
The Role of Strategic HRD in Establishing Employee Engagement Initiatives: A Case Study
from Higher Education
Employee engagement has emerged as an increasingly important construct for the field of
human resource development (HRD), with individual and organizational outcomes, such as job
performance, financial performance, customer satisfaction, and organizational citizenship
behavior linked to engagement (Harter, Schmidt, and Hayes, 2002; Macey and Schneider, 2008;
Rich, LePine, and Crawford, 2010; Saks, 2006; Shuck and Reio, 2011; Wollard and Shuck,
2011). In addition, research has uncovered many HRD-related antecedents, mediators, and
outcomes related to engagement, encouraging many organizations to adopt strategic actions
designed to enhance levels of employee engagement. For instance, Shuck, Twyford, Reio, and
Shuck (2014) found that employee participation in HRD practices is positively associated with
cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement, and that engagement is inversely related to
employee turnover intention. Shuck and Rocco (2014) proposed various strategies for developing
employee engagement through utilizing organization development, workplace learning, and
career development initiatives. Rurkkhum and Bartlett (2012) found support for the positive
relationship between engagement and organizational citizenship behavior. These findings
provide evidence to support the idea that employee engagement is a valued strategic issue for
Problem Statement
Despite recognition of employee engagement as an important issue, there remains a
paucity of research to examine the ways in which employee engagement initiatives can be better
informed by HRD theory and practice. In a recent analysis of the science-practice gap in
employee engagement, Meyer (2013) concluded that, although there are many areas of
established research that support, guide, and inform engagement, there is a need to more directly
connect academic findings and theories with organizations’ real-world engagement initiatives.
This issue presents an opportunity for evidence-based HRD practice to bridge the gap between
academic research and industry practice.
In addition, existing research on engagement tends to focus on business organizations,
whereas engagement in higher education settings has received far less attention from researchers
and practitioners (Rothmann and Jordaan, 2006). This apparent lack of interest is puzzling, given
that higher education institutions also face the forces of globalization and change that greatly
influence many other business organizations. Higher education institutions are situated in a
national political, regulative, and governance system, which significantly shapes their structural
and organizational characteristics (Vaira, 2004). These institutions, therefore, are directly
influenced by the forces of globalization and technology, and must transform their role,
relationships, policies, priorities, and structures in order to adapt to these changes. Research from
across the social sciences shows that the ability of an organization to solve difficult social,
political, and economic problems and to successfully address challenges depends upon individual
participation, motivation, and investment in working together toward common goals (Sullivan,
Snyder, and Sullivan, 2007). Moreover, the development of human resources in higher
educational institutions remain of utmost importance because of the need to maintain qualified
teaching and non-teaching staff in order to provide quality education (Deligero and Laguador,
Purpose and Significance of the Study
Framed in theory and research from organization development (OD), this paper examines
the establishment of an organization-wide employee engagement initiative with a case study
from higher education. The overarching research questions for this study are:
1. What evidence is there to suggest the suitable application of an employee engagement
strategy to the context of higher education?
2. How does OD theory and research inform the development and implementation of an
employee engagement strategy in the context of higher education?
Our paper employed the case study methodology (Yin, 2014) to examine the first two
years of a multi-year effort to establish a strategic program to measure and enhance employee
engagement at one of the largest, most comprehensive research universities in the United States.
The case study was selected as the most appropriate research approach to examine “how” a
phenomenon occurs and focus on a real-life context (Yin, 2014). In addition, we relied on
multiple sources of evidence (surveys, interviews, and reports) to support our findings.
The significance of the study is two-fold. First, it offers valuable insights to researchers
and practitioners on the establishment of a long-term employee engagement strategic initiative at
a large institution. Second, it focuses on the notion of employee engagement within a context
that has been rarely examined in the literature: higher education. In this paper, we begin by
reviewing the theoretical and empirical connections between HRD and employee engagement.
Next, we discuss evidence that common engagement practices are not yielding strong results and
evaluate gaps in research on effective engagement practices. We propose that additional linkages
between HRD and engagement can address these gaps and inform a more scientifically robust
and practical approach to enhancing engagement in real-world organizations. We then present a
case study from one of the largest research universities in the United States to illustrate and test
these ideas.
Theoretical Background
The concept of employee engagement began to appear in the organizational and business
literature around two decades ago and started to gain prominence in HRD research within the last
decade (Shuck and Rocco, 2014). Two theoretical frameworks serve as important conceptual
foundations that undergird much of the existing research on engagement: Kahn’s (1990, 1992)
theory of the psychological conditions of engagement and the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R)
model. First, Kahn (1990) defined engagement as the “harnessing of organization members’
selves to their work roles” (p.694). When engaged, employees “employ and express themselves
physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performance” (Kahn, 1990, p.694). Kahn’s
(1990) framework emphasizes the interplay between a person’s individual, group, and
organizational contexts, and postulates that one’s psychological experience strongly influences
their attitudes and behaviors. In essence, Kahn (1990) identified three main psychological
conditions – meaningfulness, safety, and availability – as essential to driving a person’s
engagement level.
The second approach, the JD-R model, postulates that job burnout and engagement are
influenced by two specific sets of work conditions: job demands and job resources (Schaufeli,
Bakker, and van Rhenen, 2009). Job demands are the “things that have to be done” and refer to
the aspects of job that require “sustained physical and/or psychological effort” by the employees
and therefore may lead to certain “physiological and/or psychological costs” (Schaufeli and
Bakker, 2004, p.296). Job resources, on the other hand, refer to all aspects of the job that reduce
job demands and their associated costs, that are essential toward achieving work-related goals,
and that can enhance an individual’s growth, learning, and development (Schaufeli and Bakker,
2004). Job resources may include things such as physical resources, performance feedback,
supervisor and co-worker support, and supervisory coaching.
Existing research has shown that engagement significantly predicts various important
outcomes such as organizational citizenship behavior, discretionary effort, commitment,
performance, and retention (Macey and Schneider, 2008; Saks, 2006; Rurkkhum and Bartlett,
2012; Wollard and Shuck, 2011). Given these documented benefits, the growth in the number
and expenditure of employee engagement initiatives is noted as a key organizational trend (Alfes
and Leloglu, 2014; Macey and Schneider, 2008; Shuck, Rocco, and Albornoz, 2011).
Employee engagement surveys have become a common practice in the business world,
with an array of validated, well-established instruments and measurement approaches. At the
same time, however, there is skepticism evident among practitioners and business leaders in the
effectiveness of current engagement practices. Examples of this skepticism can be seen in
popular business publications such as Forbes (Bersin, 2014), Fast Company (Crowly, 2013), and
Business Week (Ryan, 2012) as well as in recent HRD research (Sambrook, Jones, and Doloriert,
2014). Furthermore, despite a growing emphasis on engagement in many U.S. organizations,
data show that the engagement levels have remained largely static over the past decade (Gallup,
2013). Data from Europe has suggested that levels of engagement increased only slightly
between 2009 and 2013, after dropping in 2010 and 2011 (Aon Hewitt, 2014).
Framed in OD theory and research, this paper aims to provide an in-depth investigation
of an organization-wide employee engagement intervention within a large research university.
An OD intervention refers to a series of activities, actions, and events aimed at improving
organizational performance and effectiveness (Cummings and Worley, 2009). McLean (2006)
contended that an organization-wide survey is in itself a vital OD intervention. Furthermore,
incorporating aspects of core OD values and philosophy requires the incorporation of employee
input and participation in survey design as well as in analyzing the data and providing feedback
(McLean, 2006). If the organization fails to utilize the information it has obtained from the
survey or fails to meet the expectations of the employees, employee morale is likely to decrease
(McLean, 2006). Thus, this whole “survey-feedback-planning-implementation process” is a very
important intervention for OD professionals (McLean, 2006, p.255). However, there are few
studies that track the development and implementation process of employment engagement
surveys in organizations
The case study has been a common research method in many social science disciplines,
including psychology, sociology, political science, education, and HRD (Yin, 2014). The case
study is particularly effective for research that aims at understanding complex phenomena and
generating new or novel ideas on topics or contexts that are relatively underexplored (Clarke,
2006; Yin, 2014). The case study methodology enables the researchers to focus on a “case” and
obtain a “holistic and real-world perspective” (Yin, 2014, p.4). This approach, therefore, is
considered to be very useful and appropriate in this instance, as the aim of this research is to
enhance our understanding of an employee engagement initiative at a large research university.
One of the major strengths of case study data collection is the opportunity to utilize
different sources of evidence (Yin, 2014). Moreover, case studies using multiple sources of
evidence tend to be rated more favorably in terms of overall quality and rigor than those that use
single sources of evidence (Yin, 2014). Data collection for this study was undertaken through a
triangulation of multiple sources of evidence (Yin, 2014), specifically a university-wide
engagement survey, interviews and conversations with academic leaders, staff, and faculty, as
well as reports at the departmental and university levels.
Structured interviews were conducted with a variety of key stakeholders, including
several senior academic and administrative leaders. These interviews focused on understanding
how faculty and staff experience engagement, identifying factors that enhance engagement, and
describing common barriers or obstacles to engagement. Based on these interviews as well as a
review of the scientific research on engagement and organizational effectiveness, a 33-item
engagement survey was developed. The survey, which included faculty and staff versions,
consisted of 33 items and two open-ended questions measuring employee engagement and a
number of factors shown to influence engagement (e.g., respect, recognition, open
communication, perceptions of leadership). Finally, reports were created and shared with
departments and units that had at least 10 faculty or staff responses. These reports included unitspecific results along with benchmarks comparing responses to each item with the broader unit
(e.g., a department’s report would include the college-level benchmark) as well the campus and
total university.
Context of Organization Development Initiative
The context of this engagement initiative is a comprehensive research university, which
employs more than 25,000 people across five system-campuses. One of the campuses is one of
the largest and most comprehensive research universities in the United States and includes 18
colleges and professional schools. Nearly 4,000 faculty and 19,000 staff work at this campus,
which has more than 30,000 undergraduates and nearly 17,000 graduate and professional
students.. The employee engagement initiative was developed and implemented for faculty and
staff across all five system-campuses.
Our discussion is divided into four sections: (a) the organizational context for the
engagement initiative, (b) the process of designing an engagement survey for higher education,
(c) the survey reports, and (d) the next steps and action plans based on the results of the
Organizational Context for Engagement
The employee engagement initiative was part of a broader set of priorities determined by
the senior leadership of the University and supported by the Board of Regents. These broader
priorities were determined, in part, to address significant changes and challenges facing higher
education. These challenges include greater global competition for top talent, shifts in enrollment
trends, long-term declines in state and federal funding, greater competition for grants, and a need
for more interdisciplinary research collaboration.
To address the challenges facing the University, the broader priorities included the
creation and implementation of a new strategic plan for the largest campus. This plan outlined a
direction and action-steps for advancing the University’s academic mission over a ten-year
period. Included in this plan were many action-steps that placed a heavy emphasis on new or
more effective HRD practices. Specific areas of focus included building more consistent
leadership skills, making leadership roles more appealing to faculty, and creating an
organizational culture focused on efficiency, accountability, and innovation. Additional areas of
focus included setting clearer expectations for performance, providing more meaningful
feedback, more support faculty and staff development, more effective recognition and incentives,
and promoting greater interdisciplinary scholarship. Many of these action-steps describe HRD
practices that are strongly related to employee engagement.
Although engagement within the context of higher education has received limited
attention from scholars and practitioner, there is some evidence in the existing body of literature
in support of its relevance and significance. Rothmann and Jordaan (2006), for instance,
investigated work engagement of academics in various South African higher education
institutions and found that job resources (such as organizational support and growth
opportunities) significantly predicted engagement. Van den Berg, Bakker, and Ten Cate (2013)
examined the engagement levels of teaching faculty at a Dutch University Medical Centre and
found that the faculty felt a higher engagement with patient care than with research and
education. Barkhuizen, Mogwere, and Schutte (2014) found positive relationships between work
engagement and talent management practices among support staff in a higher education
Along similar lines, Bland, Weber-Main, Lund, and Finstad (2005) studied the
characteristics of top research-productive academic departments and identified several factors
that are also important HRD practices related to engagement. For example, top departments were
found to have clear and well-articulated goals, strong mentoring, and feedback systems whereby
leaders and faculty members can exchange ideas and make collective decisions, and effective
rewards and recognition (Bland et al, 2005). Together, this research and the current
organizational context address the first research question and support the relevance of employee
engagement, and its correlates, to understanding and enhancing organizational effectiveness
within a higher education institution.
Despite such good alignment between the needs of the University and the science and
practice of employee engagement, a significant challenge was designing an approach to the
measurement and application of engagement that fit within the context of higher education more
generally, and this University in particular. To illustrate this challenge, the University had
conducted five bi-annual job satisfaction surveys in the decade before launching the engagement
initiative. These job satisfaction surveys were sent to all faculty and staff, and measured many
factors related to engagement. However, the average response rate to these five surveys was only
39% and there was little evidence that the data had resulted in meaningful action to increase
engagement or address workplace issues raised by faculty or staff. A successful employee
engagement initiative would require much broader participation and would need to lead to
meaningful action at the local and institutional-levels.
Designing an Engagement Survey for Higher Education
To design an engagement initiative that would be seen by faculty and staff as relevant,
useful, and supportive, a number of steps were taken to incorporate the organizational context
into the survey content, the reports, and the surrounding discussions and process. First, a group
of faculty representing a diverse range of academic disciplines was convened to provide input
into the design of the engagement survey. Importantly, the faculty advisory group included
faculty with expertise in work and the work environment. Second, a series of structured
interviews with academic and administrative leaders was conducted to gather the perspectives of
deans, vice-presidents, and other leaders.
The goal of gathering input from these groups was not to define engagement or to
identify the drivers of engagement, as these are best left to ongoing scientific research. Instead,
the purpose of gathering input from these groups was to determine how faculty and staff at the
University describe and experience engagement and the drivers of engagement in their day-today work experiences. For example, research has shown that the behaviors of a leader will affect
an employee’s level of engagement (e.g., Breevaart, Bakker, Heetland, Demerouti, Olsen, and
Espevik, 2014). Many traditional engagement surveys contain items that refer to a “manager” or
“supervisor”. For example, the Gallup engagement survey contains the item “My supervisor, or
someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” (Harter et al., 2002). It was clear from the
discussions with the faculty advisory group, however, that these types of items that refer to a
“supervisor” would not be seen as relevant, although the underlying constructs may still apply.
In addition, because one of the goals was to create a focused and brief survey, input from
these groups was used to identify which engagement drivers are most important for faculty and
staff at the University. A third purpose of these discussions was to begin a process of educating
faculty, staff, and leaders about the science and practice of engagement so that they would have a
conceptual framework for understanding and using the results of the survey.
A summary of the research on engagement was shared with the faculty advisory group
and key stakeholders, followed by a series of discussions focused on how engagement is
experienced by faculty and staff in their departments and colleges. Survey items were designed
to reflect the common themes and language from these discussions. Items for faculty were
finalized only after the faculty members in this group agreed that they described engagement, or
drivers of engagement, in terms that would make sense to faculty and were deemed important to
faculty success.
The result of the survey development process was a 33-item employee engagement
survey, which was administered to all faculty and staff across the University system in October
of 2013 and again in October of 2014. The survey was designed to measure engagement, the
extent to which the work environment supports productivity and effectiveness, and a number of
factors that can affect engagement. The constructs and definitions are listed in Table 1.
Table 1. Constructs measured by the University employee engagement survey
Construct Measured
Commitment, motivation, and pride for the work and the
Effectiveness of the work
Conditions that allow for individuals to be effective in their jobs
and remove barriers to productivity
Engagement drivers
Connection to unit strategy and goals
Support and encouragement for high-quality teaching,
research, and service
Open communications and trust in leaders
Support for individual professional and career development
Recognition and respect for individuals and their
Autonomy and encouragement for innovation
Clear performance expectations and regular feedback
Cooperation and sharing of ideas within and across
Skills, information and resources needed to do the job well
Equitable workload and support for improving work
A pivotal component in translating survey data into meaningful action is the degree to
which survey content and results are contextualized by the organization. This is deceptively
difficult to accomplish, but lack of context may be behind the common failure of surveys to lead
to meaningful action. In designing the survey itself, emphasis was placed on gathering input
from faculty, staff, and leaders so survey items could be tailored to reflect the context within
which faculty and staff operate. The increased response rates for the engagement surveys
compared to the previous job satisfaction surveys suggest this was at least somewhat effective.
As this initiative enters its second year, context is also playing a critical role in determining the
likelihood of action. For example, two colleges saw big declines in engagement among their
associate faculty. The deans of both colleges were able to see these results with the context of
recent changes in expectations and the external funding environment for associate faculty. The
survey data pointed to a need for more coaching and mentoring, skill building, and goal
alignment for their associates.
Survey Reports
In the first year of the new employee engagement survey, participation rose from an
average of 39% on five previous annual job satisfaction surveys to 57%. In the second year,
participation rose again to 64%. Although the response rate alone does not necessarily mean
much, the large increase in participation does suggest that our approach was effective in
engaging faculty and staff in the survey process itself.
The 2013 and 2014 surveys showed high levels of engagement for faculty and staff, as
measured by commitment and dedication, pride in working for the University, and willingness to
exert discretionary effort. Looking at the drivers of engagement, there were strong scores for
individual empowerment and respect. Faculty reported good development opportunities as well
as interesting and challenging work. Staff reported improvements in training, support for
innovation, recognition, and respect. However, faculty and staff also reported frustration related
to inefficient work processes, unequal distribution of workload, as well as challenges to
collaboration and inter-disciplinary scholarship. There were also increased concerns about
department-level goals and strategies and how individual faculty and staff can align their efforts
with these goals and strategies. In sum, engagement levels were high for faculty and staff, with
some engagement drivers rated quite high and others rated much lower.
Much of the expected value of the employee engagement survey was in providing
relevant and useful information to departments and colleges. To support local communication
and action, survey reports were created and distributed to department and college leaders along
with the expectation that these reports be discussed with faculty and staff and that a small
number of focus areas be selected for an action plan. Because of the size, complexity, and
decentralized nature of the University, it proved very challenging to ensure that leaders at all
levels received their reports and understood how the reports were intended to be used. In year 1,
the primary strategy was for engagement consultants to meet with the leadership teams of the
approximately 40 colleges, campuses, and administrative units at the University. During these
meetings, a brief summary of engagement research was presented along with a description of
how the University survey was developed. Then, the unit-level results were shared and
discussed, followed by a conversation about next steps for sharing the results with faculty and
staff and identifying areas for local action.
A key challenge in helping leaders take action based on engagement reports, was
avoiding a focus on the data as evaluative or punitive in nature. When faced with information
seen as evaluative and indicating a gap between goals and performance, people experience
negative affect, which facilitates a focus on systematically analyzing information, scrutinizing
details, and looking for discrepancies (Schwarz and Bless, 1991). However, positive affect,
rather than negative affect, is a precondition for work engagement (Kazen, Kaschel, and Kuhl,
2008). It is positive affect that allows people to think creatively, holistically, and to become
absorbed in work (Frederickson, 2001). In fact, recent evidence suggests that work engagement
may be highest when people move from negative affect to positive affect (Bledow, Schmitt,
Frese, and Kuhnel, 2011). In the first two years of the engagement initiative, there seems to be a
strong tendency among academic leaders to interpret engagement reports as evaluative rather
than developmental. As a result, a key focus of the engagement efforts is helping leaders move
from the initial focus on the evaluative nature of the data, which promotes behaviors that may be
a barrier to engagement, to seeing the potential for connecting engagement data with other
information and considering ways of using it developmentally.
Next Steps and Action Plans [please feel free to revise this heading]
The next steps in the engagement initiative include the identification and implementation
of action steps at the departmental, collegiate, and institutional levels. Due to the decentralized
nature of the University, priorities for action are determined largely at the local level, based on
the specific goals, challenges, and interests of faculty and staff within a given department or
college. Guidance was provided through a recommended process for determining areas of focus
and formulating specific action steps. Finally, the next engagement survey will provide
information about the effectiveness of ongoing action steps.
Overall, the employee engagement initiative is a long-term, multi-year effort aimed at
creating a more regular cycle of feedback and action at all levels of the institution. A number of
specific tools and resources are being provided to support action. First, an engagement leads
program was implemented to bring together representatives from each college and unit. The
purpose of this program is to provide education and training on employee engagement and the
survey process as well as to facilitate discussion and sharing of best practices across colleges and
units. Another tool provided to all faculty and staff is a comprehensive online toolkit, which
includes information about the survey as well as specific tools for gathering more information
about key themes and formulating an action plan to address them. Also, consulting was available
to academic and administrative leaders to assist in interpreting survey data, conducting focus
groups and listening sessions to gather more detailed information, and creating action plans.
In some cases, the engagement survey illuminated the need for leadership assessment and
development. In such cases 360-degree feedback surveys, leadership training programs, and
individual leadership coaching was provided as part of addressing the engagement survey results.
Finally, some institution-wide themes were relevant for groups already addressing broad issues.
In these cases, survey data and consulting support was provided. For example, a campus climate
workgroup was in the process of assessing and enhancing the climate on the Twin Cities campus.
Engagement data proved relevant for this work and was shared to inform climate efforts.
Conclusion and Implications for Research and Practice
Employee engagement has become an important construct for scholars and practitioners
in many fields, including HRD, management, organizational psychology. Given the proposed
benefits of engagement, it is not surprising that organizations are rigorously examining ways in
which to enhance the level of engagement among their employees. Existing research on the
topic, however, tends to focus on business firms, whereas engagement in the context of higher
education has been largely neglected. This study sought to address this gap in the literature and
examined the establishment of a university-wide engagement initiative at one of the largest
public universities in the US.
Findings from this study may benefit engagement researchers and practitioners in a
number of ways. In particular, this study emphasized the important roles of the various key
stakeholders within the institution: the university leadership, deans of the colleges, faculty, and
staff. Our findings suggested that designing and implementing such a large-scale initiative
require support from all of these constituents. In addition, this paper explicated the process of
designing a university-wide engagement survey, in which input from the various key
stakeholders was taken seriously into consideration. Finally, the study elaborated on the
significance of the survey results to all members of the institution and explored future actions to
be taken based on these findings.
Future research could empirically examine the relationships among engagement and
various important factors and outcomes such as institutional culture and collegial relationships,
faculty and staff satisfaction, work-life balance, and organizational commitment, as well as
student academic achievement. In addition, given that engagement may be perceived differently
by different groups of people, future research should investigate the engagement construct at a
more context-specific level – for example, among different departments or colleges, and among
faculty or staff members in different job categories. Finally, the current body of literature would
also benefit from more longitudinal studies or case studies on similar engagement initiatives in
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