Two challenges for data governance in higher education

I recently listened in on an online meeting on data governance with about 140 others at universities all over North America. Two guest speakers presented two very different stories of the evolution of data governance at their institutions. It does seem there are multiple possible approaches.

I took away a couple of related insights about challenges unique to higher ed. Credit for these insights go to the presenters, San Cannon of the University of Rochester and Beth Prince-Bradbury of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Any unsupported elaborations or misinterpretations are my own.

One: The value proposition for data governance is not obvious.

Two: Cultural change is one of the biggest challenges.

Most experts in data governance are talking about the private sector. But higher education is not like the private sector. We are not profit-based. For us it’s not about ROI. We are mission-driven, and this makes it harder to define the value proposition.

Higher ed is also not a command-and-control world. Support from the top is not enough to overcome passive resistance. A Chief Data Officer who reports to the provost isn’t necessarily invested with a lot of power; he or she still faces the same cultural and change issues working with departments who consider institutional data “theirs.”

Challenges, yes – but these can be translated into useful guidance.

First, we must clearly define the value proposition of data governance in terms of driving the institution’s mission and strategic direction. Then we need to socialize that value as part of a robust change management effort.

One of the presenters noted that data governance is about policy but it’s not about enforcement. The model gains its authority and legitimacy not from presidential or provostial decree, but from the willing participation of people and departments across the university. Maybe the best model stresses leadership from the middle of the organization rather than the top. I don’t know.

What I do know is that a shared understanding of institutional mission and direction, desirable in itself, would smooth the way for effective data governance.

The dysfunction behind “being at the table”

People fight to be at the table – any table where they think decisions are being made. Having fifteen people in the room is usually a bad idea, but cutting people out causes distress.

If we feel the need to keep an ear to the ground all the time, it’s a sign we don’t know what the strategy is. The fight to be present is a dysfunctional defensive posture. We aren’t there to contribute; we are just advance scouts, eyes and ears alert for new ideas and projects that will make fresh demands.

For all of us to arrive at the same destination, we need only to agree on the time and the place, and go our own ways with maps in hand. We do not need to travel in packs.

Where good instincts come from

Trust your gut, some say. Don’t overthink it. But good judgment doesn’t emerge from nowhere, as if innate. If it did, at least a few large organizations would be led by exceptional children. That never happens. Judgment evolves from encountering complex situations, over and over, allowing the mind to grasp what varies and what does not from situation to situation. In a word: experience.

Experience alone isn’t enough. Some people never learn. Judgment grows out of reflecting on situations you’ve faced. What you learn from experience, you can apply to future situations in a way that feels natural and unforced, so that it feels like you’re going with your gut. Absent reflection, the benefit of experience is lost.

Experience plus reflection may still not be enough. If you’re like me, reflection can decay into rumination, which is a continuous loop of (usually negative) thinking that lacks an escape into either acceptance or a clear next action. The stuff sleepless nights are made on. When your brain starts looping, you can interrupt it by writing your reflections down.

Writing externalizes that part of the mind. Holding a thought at a distance gives you a view on it – clarifies it, makes suggestions about what to do about it, or maybe makes it disappear altogether. It’s helpful to talk to someone else about your experience, but still: follow that with capturing it in writing.

The logical next step – reading what you’ve written – may not even be necessary. The act of writing seems to change the way we process experience, allowing us to better internalize what we’ve mined from it.

They say failure is a great teacher. Yes – of course we want to pick ourselves up and profit from failure. But what about learning from success, or mixed results, or relatively minor day-to-day stuff? Failure tends to be charged with emotion, which intensifies memories associated with it, so in a way we learn from failure naturally, while lower-voltage daily experience fades quickly. Experience, including failure, is a great teacher, but we have to show up to class with a pencil.

Some people may be gifted with great gut instincts. The rest of us have experience, refined through reflection, crystallized by capture.

Innovation rewrites the rules for collaboration across teams

An ongoing upheaval in the way people give and engage requires us to find innovative approaches. The question is, who should do the innovating? Operations is better known for policies, process, and compliance than creativity and smashing things, while other teams have great ideas but err when making decisions related to technology.

Dysfunction occurs when one team has its foot on the gas and the other has its foot on the brake. Two adverse results seem likely: 1) Ops gets its way, and slows down good ideas or kills them completely, or 2) Ops doesn’t get its way, and projects plow ahead without regard for process, compliance, or risk.

Either way, innovation fails in the long run.

In the past I’ve been attracted to the notion of a “skunk works” team, separate and liberated from all the rules and cautious incremental improvement that hinders innovation. Small, disruptive teams have done wonders for some corporations; Lockheed coined the term skunk works and achieved success with it back when the company was an aircraft manufacturer.

In more recent times, however, corporations have found skunk works teams produce great, one-time ideas but not continuous, company-wide innovation and execution. These days, when everything is being disrupted, organizations need to execute on the core basics and keep inventing new products and approaches.

I’m not sure it’s true that innovation must be defined as entrepreneurial disruption smashing an Industrial-Age mindset concerned with efficiency, standardization, and process. This might be true of whole industries or monster-sized corporations forced to reinvent themselves. It’s a bad way to think of the work of our relatively small Advancement teams.

We can align our mindsets better than that. Would it not be ideal if the two forces were integrated and part of the way the organization runs? The answer for Advancement might be to adopt new rules for collaboration across teams.

For investments in engagement technologies, for example, would it make sense to form a small team made of equal parts marketing, engagement, and operations and give it ownership of that ecosystem? Given a clear mandate to execute on Advancement’s well-defined strategy, such a team could enjoy the creative autonomy of a skunk works to innovate over the long term.

The part of digital engagement Zuckerberg doesn’t own

Are you using social media for engaging with alumni and friends? Sorry, no. It’s using you.

Funny thing. I’ve noticed Twitter withholds notifications about people’s likes and comments on my tweets. It seems I get a batch of them only every few days. Social media platforms have been doing this lately. Some say it’s to deepen our addiction, others say it’s for the mental health of users.

Either way, it’s damned annoying, and inconvenient for engaging professionally in real time with people in my field.

It’s a reminder that social media is the largest experiment on human subjects in the history of the planet, controlled by corporations recognizing few ethical obligations to users and with zero transparency. Your university is just another way to connect users in order to increase engagement with the platform itself.

Avoid social? Hardly. That’s where our constituents live. These platforms put powerful tools at our disposal.

I’m skeptical, though, that social is a trove of engagement data. Operations should not try to build a lot of infrastructure around social platforms we don’t control. I’m also skeptical that broadcasting finely crafted messages alone will lead to engagement. Engagement is a conversation.

That’s what’s most important, isn’t it? Conversation is the piece that Jack and Zuck don’t own. A digital strategy should be readily transferable from Facebook to Instagram to TikTok to IRL. Rather than invest in a platform we don’t own we should invest in the relationships that we do.

9 questions about university strategic direction and your next campaign

1. How long ago did your institution last develop a new strategic direction or strategic plan? Less than seven years ago?

2. Is it likely to radically change? Or does it just need to evolve?

3. Will the priorities of your next comprehensive campaign be determined by the institution’s strategic planning process?

4. If yes, what would it take to explicitly reframe the purpose of strategic planning as setting priorities for the next campaign?

5. How would that stated motivation shape the planning process?

6. Can we ask, “What investments are required in the next seven years to realize our strategy and fulfill our mission?” Can we ask, “What partnerships with stakeholders can we pursue so together we can do the things we want to do for students, in the community, for society?”

7. Might the entire institution “own” the campaign as a result, not just Advancement?

8. Might engaging external stakeholders in strategic planning be elevated in importance?

9. How do you feel about Advancement helping to guide the strategic planning process and not only participating?

If your university’s current strategic document includes some variant of “raise more money” as a goal, then consider whether that is really a goal, or a means to realizing goals.

(These questions are inspired by the book chapter, “Strategy as the Foundation for Advancement”, by Darrow Zeidenstein, in the 2019 book, “Advancing Higher Education: New Strategies for Fundraising, Philanthropy, and Engagement”, edited by Michael J. Worth and Matthew T. Lambert, published by Rowman & Littlefield. I recommend it.)

Working with academic leaders

Advancement Operations participates in the university mission beyond supporting our development, engagement, and marketing colleagues. We work with others across the university, which sometimes includes academic deans.

Understandably, deans are more likely to spend time with development and engagement leaders than they are to be interested in matters of processing gifts or managing alumni and donor data. Before we seek access or a seat at the table, we need to be clear about what deans ought to care about and why.

Advancement Operations serves academic divisions (in Canada, “faculties”) in direct ways. We manage the records and information of their alumni and donors, generate invitation lists for their events, facilitate the spending of gifts in accordance with donor intent, provide intelligence via reporting and benchmarking – and so on. When academic leaders are unaware of all that Advancement does, the result can be duplication of functions and undesirable behaviours that put the institution at risk.

To my mind, this is not quite enough reason to seek direct and regular access to deans. Clear policy and good working relationships with administrative staff reporting to the dean can go a long way. As well, Advancement colleagues who do meet with deans should be quite capable of conveying the general nature of operational supports that benefit academic units. To help them, I provide a one-page summary of these supports.

A larger concern is the quality of the relationship between Advancement and the academy. We can accomplish more together when there is trust in the professionalism and sophistication of the advancement organization, of which Operations is an integral part. It’s being able to show that decisions are based on evidence, that relationships with alumni and supporters are managed effectively, that donors are connected with relevant opportunities.

Perhaps the Operations story can be delivered directly to new deans and then refreshed once a year. Whichever way we seek to engage with academic leaders, it’s best to keep it relevant to their needs, and especially to the needs of the Advancement relationship.

(Thank you to Kevin Kardasz of University of Ottawa, Chris Armitage of Trent University, and Sarah Clarke of Carleton University for their thoughts.)

What your CRM vendor won’t do for you

Launching a new system is an exciting but daunting prospect. Exciting because the new generation of software can drive frontline performance like never before. Daunting because no amount of prior consulting and investigating can prepare you for what an implementation is really like.

After using Banner Advancement for nearly 20 years, in September we became the first university in Canada to go live with Ellucian’s CRM Advance. I mention this only because I know you’ll ask. A successful implementation depends on you, regardless of the product or the vendor you choose.

Success requires an equal partnership of client and vendor. Being a partner means doing some heavy lifting on your end. Unfortunately, the sales-oriented conversations leading up to signing a contract might not make it clear what that entails. Some things are so far out of a vendor’s scope that they won’t come up for discussion. Other things the vendor will do, but you might be able to do them better.

A few examples:

Business process development and improvement: Newer systems can be configured to support your processes. If you’re migrating from an old system, chances are your existing processes were developed with the limitations of that system in mind. Doing process work prior to kickoff or in parallel with the implementation can help transform the business. A new system may incorporate aspects of best practice, but not necessarily your best practice. We contracted with a consultant to facilitate extensive consultation and process workshops. A lot of work, but worth it.

Change management: A CRM implementation may be the single largest and most disruptive technology project your department will ever take on. It will affect almost everyone. Our frontline staff had minimal exposure to our old system, but are expected to work in CRM every day. If the project team had done its work in the shadows for a year and a half and then sprung a new system on people, the implementation would have been a failure. We recognized we did not have change management expertise in-house, so again we contracted externally. (The same consultant who performed our process facilitation, incidentally, but for you they could be separate.) Again – worth it!

Data cleanup and validation: Data migration from one system to another will go much smoother if integrity issues have been detected and cleaned. A vendor’s migration tool will map data from a field in your old system to the proper field in the new system, a process complicated by integrity issues. If some logic steps are required before loading (say, using rules to decide which constituent type code to apply to a record), your vendor may offer transformation services. These scripts are time-consuming to develop and require debugging after each data pass, which means they’re expensive. The vendor can do a lot for you, if you’ve got budget, but you may choose to transform and load some data elements yourself. In any case, the vendor is not ultimately responsible for the quality of your data — you are.

Reporting: CRMs do offer some reporting capabilities, but take a hard look at what you’re getting before leaving your existing reporting tools behind. We opted to rebuild our in-house data mart and reconfigure existing reports to draw from that. It would have taken us much longer to start from scratch with new tools in CRM. Providing frontline staff with reports without having to leave CRM is something to look forward to – just not yet.

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.

Anticipating the full scope for your team will help you set a realistic timeframe and staff complement for the project — and budget appropriately.

Dare to shut down your “always on” culture

While heading to work I see a line of city buses, emptied of passengers, their headsigns glowing “OUT OF SERVICE.” They are leaving downtown to reload in the suburbs.

It reminds me of the need for us, too, to be sometimes emptied and unavailable. We take vacations and the occasional holiday to rest, to renew mentally, to change perspective through distance. We empty out, to return full. We empty out, so we don’t burn out.

Leaders in an organization tend to be reachable all times and everywhere, and a certain ever-presence goes with the territory. But sometimes the behaviour seeps deeper. Middle managers are increasingly an email or text away. Staff responsible for critical systems or processes, too. It becomes expected, part of the culture, for everyone.

It can seem harmless. A staff person can triage her own messages, we presume, and respond only to the true emergencies. Unfortunately, although she may be on the beach, part of her brain is still in the office as she scrolls, thinking office thoughts. Every message strikes a blow against being where she is. Chipping away at future creativity, innovation, fresh thinking. Chipping away at her health.

Allow your team members to set up email rules and auto-responders that tell internal staff that the recipient is on vacation, that their message won’t be read, and that they can resend their query when the recipient returns. (No returning to an overflowing inbox.) If it’s an emergency, provide alternate contacts. (Because if a system or process is truly critical, you’ve planned some redundancy. Right?) And if something absolutely must reach that person, then have it go through a secret back channel such as a Gmail account set up for emergencies, which only one or two people know about.

Down time is important, so plan for it.

Talking about where your university is going

If you have the chance to be involved in conversations about strategic planning for your institution, don’t miss the opportunity. The strategic direction will influence what your department does, not least because the priorities in your next campaign might depend on it. What better way to understand it and live it than to have contributed in some small way?

I recently participated in discussion circles convened by our acting president, a step toward developing the new strategic direction. Participants had a choice of which group to join, and I gravitated toward one table discussing the purpose of the institution and its role in society, and a second table discussing the student experience.

I haven’t been in a classroom or library in many years, I do not interact frequently with students, and I do not regularly grapple with our institution’s purpose. But I discovered I have a lot of questions about universities, and I enjoyed hearing the diverse perspectives of people from across the institution. It was time well-spent away from the desk.

At the first table, a co-participant talked about the difference between educating students for work and education them for “life.” This got me thinking about how well universities foster the development of students’ inner lives.

We no doubt do a great job promoting and enabling conversation and connection – group work and collaborative working spaces abound, as they should. But do students have time and space for study and solitary reflection, for consolidating their learning, for building a self? Is residence a place where a student can study? Is the library still a quiet place for reading and writing?

If recent graduates seem to have high expectations for compensation and rapid career advancement, offering their hard-earned degree as evidence, have universities been complicit in implying that university, although expensive, is an investment that is meant to quickly pay off monetarily? Have we unintentionally contributed to fostering a relationship mainly characterized as transactional? What does that bode for their lives as alumni? Will the societal mission of the institution matter to them? Is the expense of education and its perceived transactional nature detrimental to a sense of play and being adventuresome in learning? Is making mistakes now too expensive? Are the stakes so high that the pressure is contributing to students’ mental health issues?

My point is not that I had awesome questions, but that I was stimulated to have so many questions. You will wonder about different things.

“What is a university for?” and “What do students believe university is for?” might not sound like Advancement questions, but now I think they are.