The Key to Advancement in IR: Technical or Communication Skills?

Ask eAIR covers topics about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. This month’s question is answered by Robert Daly, Assistant Vice Chancellor (Retired), Strategic Academic Research and Analysis at the University of California, Riverside. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Robert Daly presented a session entitled Six Stages of Growth for the IR Professional at the 2013 California Association for Institutional Research (CAIR) Conference and the 2014 AIR Forum. His work was celebrated as the 2013 CAIR Best Presentation.

Dear Bob: In your recent conference presentation, Six Stages of Growth for the IR Professional, you stated that an institutional researcher should continually develop his or her technical and communication skills. Which of these is more important for career development and advancement?  

DalyAskeAIR.jpgBoth are important, but the degree of importance varies at each stage of your career advancement. Each of the six stages--data reporter, analyst, evaluator, authority, advisor, and visionary--has different requirements in terms of technical and communication skills. An IR starting position, a “data reporter,” requires a different combination of skills than a person who is at the advisor stage. The data reporter may be a very talented SPSS programmer but is not (yet) good at supervision. Conversely, a director might no longer be that great SPSS programmer but could still write a program in a pinch. That director is now very skilled in supervision and managing an office. The primary role of these two IR professionals is different, but success for each requires being exceptionally good at using the skill set for the current role.

However, in my presentation, I emphasized that communication skills are the key to success for all IR professionals at every stage of an IR career. A different type or style of communication is needed at each stage. For example, an analyst has to effectively communicate and review analyses' goals by communicating with the IR office director. This tends to be a one-on-one exchange where the analyst asks for clarification, support, and encouragement. The intent is often to solve technical issues or help establish a project’s direction. This internal office communication is important to the success of the analyst and the director as it develops teamwork and improves the understanding of the goals of the analysis. The result is better performance and greater productivity for all in the office.

The advisor or visionary, often an IR office director, has to be concerned not only about effective communication within the office, but also with communication with individuals outside of the IR office. That external communication could be interacting with faculty members, deans, and directors in other offices. The purpose of these interactions is often to reach an agreement or finalize a plan for a new program. The director can also occasionally be asked to make a presentation to governing bodies or external audiences. This external communication requires a style of communication that is similar to that of provosts and campus presidents. The result of this external communication is to present a vision about the college and institutional research resulting in an improved reputation for the IR office.

Developing excellent communication skills is essential for IR career advancement. Some people are naturally good communicators; others become better through lots of practice. One approach that I used was making presentations at AIR and CAIR. In a presentation, you are trying to communicate an idea or a finding to a group of people. The process is no different than making a presentation about your work to your boss or the college’s senior officers. It takes practice, but clear and concise communication with senior officers and decision-makers, along with a broadening vision of your evolving role in campus decision-making, is the key to a successful career in IR.

Do you have advice for readers interested in advancing in IR? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. 




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Total Comments: 6
Meg posted on 11/13/2014 3:31 PM
I agree with Bob completely. However, I think he may be overlooking those of us at institutions were we are having to serve as the data reporter, analyst, evaluator, authority, advisor, and visionary for our IR offices because we are offices of one professional.
Bob posted on 11/13/2014 3:55 PM
During the past two years at UCR, my office had two people. There was just a newly-hired programmer and me. Thus, I took on all six roles. While a two-person office has more professionals than a one-person office, IR professionals in one-person offices, as you state, need to serve in all six roles.
Pat posted on 11/13/2014 4:01 PM
Bob, great suggestions and presentation. After reading your post here I found you presentation online and downloaded it. It is fantastic and so relevant! Thank you! As an IR professional with 3-4 years of experience in the field, it is good to know what I am on the right track. Excellent advice! I would agree with you that the blend of interpersonal and communication skills, along with the technical knowledge, etc. is extremely important in our field. With those tools in the toolbox and a strong leadership approach, someone in IR is equipped to make a huge impact to those institutions they serve. Thanks again.
David posted on 11/14/2014 10:38 AM
Having been in IR for over a decade, and having gone through all of these stages at a large institution, I agree with Bob's answer here as well. Gaps in technical skill can be overcome by a clear and honest communicator (in other words, you must confess what you do not yet know or can not yet do.) Gaps in communications skills can not be overcome by any level of technical expertise.

I am sad to admit that, as I progress through the latter stages he describes, I am getting rusty on the basics. Bob's comments make me a little less ashamed of my latest struggles to repeat studies I designed myself years ago in SAS. But only a little.
Felice posted on 11/14/2014 10:51 AM
I agree with Bob's comments regarding effective communication - as a former IR Director, in a one-person office, I think the IR professional needs to see him or herself first as a change agent and visionary, and second as a technical expert - you cannot lead or envision change unless you can communicate with diverse groups of people and 'clients' - the single hardest transition to make is the one from a technical expert to a director-as-leader and communicator but it is essential - great commentary on this important role!
Ishuan posted on 11/14/2014 2:09 PM
Bob provides an useful "insider's" perspective. From my perspective (faculty, coordinator, chair of assessment committees) as a recipient of IR's reports, it seems to me that IR professionals are judged mostly by his or her understanding of technical skills involved in analyzing data. Maybe for promotion purposes they are not that crucial?