By Kevin Taylor
This is something I have been pondering since I accepted a position at Temple University. As a student, I was never really attuned to Boise State University’s administration. It was always there in the background, helped me register for classes a few times, but for the most part they were the invisible hand behind my academic experience. After being the member of the administration at a nationally ranked university, I can see the wizardry conducted behind the curtain. What I see are a large number of very talented and hardworking people trying adapting to an ever-changing and evolving landscape. There are many struggles facing higher education; increased tuition costs, a dire tax situation, and student loan mechanisms that are commonly seen as broken and misaligned. There are some problems the university can’t fix, but there are other challenges that it can.
One of the biggest areas of improvement I can see is process design. Universities are notoriously siloed, and oftentimes what occurs on a functional team doesn’t always align with the goal of a cross functional process. Identifying critical processes around fundraising, admissions, financial aid, housing, and scheduling could help find much-needed efficiencies. The ability to reliably conduct university operations in a manner consistent with Lean, Six Sigma, and TQM best practices could yield tremendous gains and reduced costs for universities with savings that could be used to help expand services, create jobs, and invest in university talent.
When processes and procedures change and evolve, there needs to be documentation. “Why do we need to document stuff?” you might hear stakeholders ask, secretly terrified that a loss of transparency in their work may result a loss of control or employment. What I find so funny about this is that it’s typically very difficult to get released from a university. There are ways that this happens, but even poor performance is not usually enough to get you dismissed. However, there is turn over, promotions, and the lucky ones get to retire to a tropical island to enjoy tasty drinks with little umbrellas. This means that all the knowledge they have about their processes, procedures, and where “the bodies are buried” leaves with them, and others must reinvent the wheel. Instilling a culture of knowledge management, providing tools and the training to use them (e.g., in-house wikis, Microsoft OneNote, etc.) and re-enforcing this culture through including knowledge management in job descriptions is critical.
Process Design and Knowledge Management are business disciplines that require a high degree of leadership to help cut across the silos, agendas, and administrative fiefdoms common higher education. According to Wikipedia, Sayre’s Law states, “In any dispute[,] the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Wallace Stanley Sayre, former political science professor of Columbia University, also added that, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.” Now, while not all university leaders fall prey to this trap, there are some that do. Personality politics, personal agendas, and other sources of organizational toxicity notwithstanding, there are some truly brilliant leaders in academia that would benefit from leadership development in the form of meeting facilitation skills, project management (in all its various forms), employee engagement, and so on. Without the basic self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and organizational best practices needed to support the first two opportunities, it’s just going to be business as usual.
How Can Instructional & Performance Technologists Help?
The value we can add as Instructional & Performance Technologists is threefold. First, we can help leaders identify opportunities for organizational performance improvement by conducting the qualitative research needed to identify issues at the ground level. We are good at talking, listening, and putting together the puzzle pieces to help identify the current state and help leaders articulate a clear future state. Second, we have the ability to help articulate the Knowledge Management strategy and professional development plans needed by the organization. With Knowledge Management (including the more grass-roots variety), there needs to be a formal training program to support new talent. Finally, we are in a position to build the leadership development programs needed to support these first two components. Pulling these three components together, higher education has the opportunity to excel at what they have done since time immemorial, work to make the world a better place to work, live, and play.
Kevin is a Training and Performance Improvement professional in the Philadelphia area. He can be reached on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/kct1981.