Leveraging Your IR Office as a Change Agent

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to eAIR@airweb.org

This month’s question is answered by Kevork Horissian, Assistant Provost for Institutional Research & Assessment, Bucknell University.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Subscribers are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article.

Dear Kevork, how can my institution leverage our Office of Institutional Research as a change agent?

This is a question that is on the minds of many IR managers. In this article, I have used my experiences at Bucknell University to provide a brief overview of some of the changes we have made. I hope that some of this information may be helpful in moving your institution forward.

  • Generate a shift from providing data to providing actionable information. In the last several years, we continued to make progress toward transforming the identity of our office from providing data to providing actionable information. In addition to providing accurate and timely data, the real value we can bring is to help our faculty and staff colleagues determine what kind of data they need, how to analyze these data to answer specific questions, and, most importantly, how to use this information in their planning. So, in addition to the more traditional functions performed by an IR office, we see our role as assisting and supporting other departments in translating the insights gleaned from the data into decisions and actions, and we believe that this broader role will be at the core of IR in the future.

  • See IR professionals as coaches and educators. Coaching and educating have become important to our daily operations. We currently provide 8-10 professional development opportunities per year for our colleagues who have responsibilities for planning and assessment. In addition, we offer numerous one-on-one consultations that allow us to answer more specific questions and provide assistance tailored to specific departments. Finally, we are actively involved in several committees, we regularly present at various venues on campus, and we keep an active blog and post frequently on the university message boards. So be proactive, be visible, and build relationships with numerous offices, individuals, and committees. Providing various professional development opportunities to both faculty and staff, such as how to create a survey, quantitative vs. qualitative data, and analyzing data, is also crucial.

  • Adopt a student-focused perspective. While the focus on student learning is not new, we increasingly view our work and responsibilities through a student-focused lens. We always start with the student in mind. I believe it is important to ask questions such as, Are students taking full advantage of educational and co-curricular opportunities that our institution puts in place for them? How can we improve campus climate? Are students achieving the educational goals of our institution? And what can we do to help them improve their performance, and to lead them on a path to academic, professional, and personal success? Students are the main part of any university mission, so putting them at the core of our operations gives us something that all offices have in common.

  • Make accountability a path to efficiency and improvement. Emphasis on accountability is another area in which we have tried to take the lead and help the university as a whole become more efficient and more successful in carrying out its mission. Historically, our office would be asked to work on a project or a report, and once we submitted the final document or made the presentation, we never received any feedback. But that has changed. As a part of any information request, have the requesting department outline why the information is needed, who the audience is, and how the information will be used. Also, ask the department that requested the report to provide a brief summary of how the information we provided was put into action. This will assure that the reports won’t just be sitting on someone’s desk, but will be actually used for decision making. This is a relatively new change and we are hoping that it will make all of us more deliberate and strategic.

  • Understand the growing need to prioritize. Given the limited resources we have, staying focused and prioritizing have also become crucial. Bucknell’s strategic plan and educational goals play a significant role in how we prioritize our work. Now when we meet with colleagues to discuss a new project request, the first thing we want to know is how that project is going to support or inform the goals and initiatives of their office, and how those goals and initiatives are related to the broader strategic plan and educational mission of our institution. By keeping the departments focused, you can help them improve their planning process, but also reduce the number of research projects to which the IR office may contribute.

  • Develop interactive data dashboards to empower decision makers. Decision support continues to be the cornerstone of IR. However, we now provide support to a broader range of decision makers across both academic and non-academic divisions of our institution. So, the range and the volume of requests we receive is greater as well. Furthermore, many of the requests go beyond the traditional Fact Book and Common Data sets. One approach we have adopted to help meet this growing demand for decision support is to create interactive data dashboards that our colleagues can use to obtain the data they need in a short span of time and without a need for a tailored report. So far, we have created 12 such dashboards (the last two we will finalize in July), some password protected and some open to the public, that allow different constituents to obtain information quickly and easily, and to focus on developing tactical and strategic steps rather than searching for relevant data. Automate and democratize the data retrieval services as much as you can. In the short run, it may increase your workload, but, in the long run, those tools will reduce the need for ad-hoc reports and allow you to focus on the initiatives outlined above.

No matter what approach you choose and what roles are central to your office, the key to success is to provide services and tools that are valued by your colleagues and beneficial to your institution. You will know that you are making significant progress when department chairs and office directors start inviting you to their meetings, request a training, or when they stop by to tell you how a dashboard saved them days of data analyses and helped them make an important decision.



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