Pivoting to hope

Tigers living in the Bronx Zoo have been found to have COVID-19. I read that news on my phone late at night and asked myself, “Wait, you mean cats can get this?”

Is it helpful that, minutes before going to bed, my last thought of the day is that our neighbours’ roaming cats could be spreading the virus from house to house?

No, it’s not helpful.

The news has a seductive quality. Keeping up on developments feels necessary, even responsible, but the tiger story convinced me that it’s corrosive as well. From now on, I will tune in to the public health updates and do my best to tune out the rest.

Or at least tune in to the positive. The curve is flattening, even descending, in some countries and regions. This is not reason to become lax, but is evidence that this crisis won’t last.

It may be time to start talking about that with our teams. To this point, I’ve been stressing that we are in this for the long haul, because I wanted people to act quickly to make their home workstations comfortable and safe, and not to hoard (and, potentially, lose) their vacation days.

Some of us have family members who are in danger. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s genuine anxiety. For the rest of us, it’s time to devote some mindshare to the post-COVID future. When I get a chance to do so, it’s a welcome relief.

So implement your new CRM, plan for your next campaign, pursue professional development for you and your team, talk with donors about their dreams, work on strategy – and push on.

Since this thing began, we have been absorbing the idea that the way ahead is uncertain. Well, everything has always been uncertain, hasn’t it? What is certain is that this will end. How we think and behave now will decide whether we arrive on the other side exhausted and depleted, or invigorated and ready.

When the novelty of work-from-home wears off

Our sector is undergoing a massive work-from-home experiment. The experiment is universal, but for our sector the change is especially dramatic. Whenever some of us get a chance to think (between one videoconference and the next), our minds turn to what this might mean for the future of the office.

No question, work-from-home is technically possible. A few weeks in, it is clear that cloud-based software and videoconferencing are passing the test. If there’s a drawback with remote work, it isn’t the tools.

However: consider what the current experiment means for its human subjects.

Everyone has moved offsite in a matter of days. People are now socially isolated, without normal supports. They may be forced to be productive in limited space shared with children, parents, roommates, and spouses who may also be working from home. Distance is impeding asking questions, sharing information, and getting to know others. On top of that there’s worry about an unrelenting crisis with personal, local, and global effects, with no end in sight.

If this work-from-home experiment were a real experiment, it would be ruled unethical.

The pandemic will subside, and with it, the need to isolate and the general anxiety that wakes us at 3 a.m. (However, if people weren’t already somewhat anxious before the crisis, they weren’t paying attention.)

Other effects remain to be discovered.

Remote work might be normal in the private sector, but I question whether it translates perfectly to mission-driven organizations. A mission-driven organization requires inspirational leadership and engagement around shared purpose, not just hitting numerical targets. To say that the higher education and non-profit sectors need to get with the times and embrace private-sector models of work would be classic bizplaining.

We should also recognize that the likelihood of having adequate home-office space breaks along the line of income and reporting level. Implemented poorly, across-the-board work-from-home would impose disproportionate costs on lower-income workers. Implemented fairly, work-from-home might be costly for organizations.

Certainly, the best thing for our students would be to be back in classrooms and labs. The common campus experience levels the field somewhat for students from different economic backgrounds. More fundamentally, a university without physical proximity is not really a university. An experience based on engagement with the world balanced with an encounter with the self does not translate to digital. I am not convinced this is opening a new era for learning.

It may, however, be a new era for administrative offices. I’m intrigued about the possibilities of more flexible work arrangements that benefit people and organizations. Employees skip the commute while organizations free up some space – it sounds win-win.

We may be still be blind to the downsides, though. Let’s get through this first, and take careful notes.

Advancement birds of a feather must flock together

Cardinals are frequent visitors to my neighbourhood. Male cardinals are bright red, but I know them mainly by their distinctive calls. They are hard to spot because they stay so high up in the trees.

That may be changing. A few days ago, I was in the middle of an email when a cardinal landed right outside my window, less than two feet from the ground. As human activity on my street has lessened, birds are coming down to ground level more often.

Or maybe it’s because I’m at home that I notice birds. Maybe I’m just better at noticing, period.

I notice other things. It seems the birds of the Advancement flock are also exploring their changed neighbourhoods. But the experience has not been the same for everyone.

When this crisis hit, frontline staff suddenly found themselves with calendars cleared of travel and events. Never ones to sit on their hands, they turned to tackling neglected to-do lists, or reading the huge volume of quality content on philanthropy and engagement in times of crisis, or becoming thoughtful and far-thinking.

This reflective hiatus for frontline staff will be brief, and in fact it may already be over. Conversations with alumni and donors must resume – different venue, different topics – and priorities for annual appeals are shifting toward direct aid for students in distress.

For support and operations staff, the experience has been quite different.

The rush to get everyone set up for working from home is over. We’ve discovered that the tools and technology were already there, like a safety net, waiting for us to arrive. (Our friends in the private sector could have told us that.) A few venerable business processes have been swept aside, temporarily, to suit the new reality. As a result, the physical move wasn’t as painful as we might have predicted.

What now? Operations staff never had empty calendars. The meeting load has in fact gone up: Leaders and managers are communicating with their teams remotely while the need for collaborative project work goes on. The opportunity for reflection never happened. We are busy just keeping up.

Temporarily, then, half the flock is on the ground exploring new territory, and half is still up in the trees.

The volume of meetings should abate, and a kind of normalcy will return. It will be a different normal, however: Advancement shops are gearing up for engaging with committed supporters during what will be a protracted health and economic crisis. What does a “face-to-face” visit mean now? How do we shift to rich digital experiences in place of events? How do we measure meaningful engagement? What processes need to be retooled, not just temporarily, but for all time?

The descriptive phrase I hear from colleagues is “business as unusual.” In such times our most important task is keeping the flock together.

Careful which rules you bend in the new work-from-home world

Suddenly every office worker in the world is doing their jobs from spare bedrooms and kitchen counters. Universities are having to rework processes on the fly, and some venerable rules are falling away in order for critical business to continue. As your institution figures things out along with the rest of us, the urgency can lead to needed change – but be careful your pruning isn’t sending the wrong signal.

Early to go will be hand-signed approvals for everything from expense claims to purchase requisitions to gift agreements. Universities that have been slow to embrace digital and cloud solutions are having to accept scanned and emailed copies in place of originals. They’d be in a less risky place today had they accepted secure digital electronic signing earlier. Presumably universities will not revert to paper processes when this is over. Probably a good thing.

Pressure to streamline has its downsides, though.

Mass dislocation of workers means a lot of personal and sensitive data will end up stored on personal computers, laptops, and mobile devices. Consumer-grade personal devices have long been present in the business enterprise, leading to heightened risk of data breaches. The work-from-home tsunami has accelerated the risk, as hardware gaps are addressed with even more personal devices.

Now is the time to insist on adherence to policies for protecting personal and confidential information, not cut corners.

Everyone is trying to adapt and do their work. I get it. We moved a staff of 73 with little or no history of remote work (aside from fundraisers) into their homes over the course of three days. Logging into a VPN and a central file store can seem like a nuisance. So much easier to drop the file in C: drive.

But the more data sitting outside your institution’s system of record – whether on people’s hard drives or as email attachments – the greater the chance that a lost device or a successful phish will lead to a data breach. Breaches can have negative consequences for alumni, supporters and others. They also damage the university’s reputation.

A few days ago there was a story in Slate headlined “America Is a Sham.” The subhead asserted, “Policy changes in reaction to the coronavirus reveal how absurd so many of our rules are to begin with.” The fact the US Transportation Security Administration has waived the 3.4-ounce limit for liquids and gels for hand sanitizer only is proof that the rules are arbitrary, nothing but security theatre. (1)

True or not, I don’t know. Either way, you send a signal to users when you let things slide for the sake of convenience. Choose wisely.

Note

  1. America Is a Sham,” Slate.com, 14 March 2020

Business continuity is not business-as-usual. It’s taking care of people.

Many classrooms at universities across North America will be empty come Monday. Staff in advancement shops, though, will report for work, either in person or remotely. Some will wonder, does fundraising and engagement go on through such a crisis? Why are we even here?

It does go on, and it should go on, even if it’s over the phone or by email. The conversation will be different. Now might not be the time to ask, but it may be the time to connect, to commiserate, to seek advice – to deepen the relationship. Your most committed supporters remain committed, even if financial support is not what’s uppermost in their minds.

(There is so much useful advice out there. I don’t intend to promote one vendor above others, but do check out BWF’s whitepaper: Tips for Remote Relational Fundraising. It has practical and timely advice for every advancement function.)

Fundraisers need supports and tools to do their jobs. Relationships need to be managed. Business continues.

“Business continuity” sounds like a cold and heartless expectation for these days, but really it starts with not only ensuring the team is safe, but ensuring that everyone feels safe. It’s about communicating openly and honestly, and exercising flexibility and understanding in dealing with fear and anxiety.

Priority number one is ensuring the health and safety of your team. Nothing else comes close in importance. Follow the directives of health authorities and the leaders of your institutions. No exceptions.

The rest is up to you. Do it poorly, and all the social distancing and technology for remote work you’ve got will fail to deliver continuity. People need to know their work is important, but they also need to feel secure. And if they don’t feel secure, they should be free to express their fears and be taken seriously.

Your university probably has mental health supports for employees. The most immediate support, however, comes from managers and leaders. Not in terms of providing mental health supports that only a professional should provide, but in understanding and respecting the anxiety of employees (who may be worried for vulnerable family members), communicating honestly about our shared stress, and being flexible with work arrangements when possible.

If a business continuity plan is in place, it’s a given that something significant has happened. Never say it’s “business as usual,” because your people know that it isn’t.

A long view on COVID-19

Josep Pla i Casadevall was a Spanish journalist and author who wrote in the language of his native Catalonia. A while ago, I picked up a translation of his journals from 1918-19, when he was a student in his early 20s. The university he was attending was shut due to the influenza pandemic, so he whiled away his days and nights at home and in the cafés of his home town.

When Pla’s university reopened in early 1919, he returned to Barcelona and reunited with friends and fellow students. He wrote in his journal, “We greet one another with the usual noisy glee but keep our distance, as ever – a distance that seems so small, yet is perhaps quite considerable.” (1)

While I was reading Pla, COVID-19 arrived. Even as I digest our university’s evolving plan for responding to the pandemic, I know that this event will not be anything like the so-called Spanish flu. The current pandemic is serious, but the world has changed. Governments and organizations, including my own university, are taking decisive action to slow it down and prevent disaster. Individuals are making behavioural changes to keep their families and communities safe. Disruptions to routine will be severe, but brief. Millions of lives will be saved.

It is too early to eulogize this virus. But the lesson I’ve already drawn from this event is that humanity is perfectly capable of mobilizing against any threat. Despite abundant evidence, we are not our own worst enemies. We harm the earth, we are xenophobic, we make bad choices at the ballot box – yet we manage to engage in collective action for the greater good.

Remember climate change? That thing we seemed too mired in inaction to deal with? Measures unthinkable in normal times have already come to pass. By choice or force, nations and individuals alike have altered behaviours and made hard decisions.

COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary and will be undone when life returns to normal. What’s more interesting to me is how quickly the status quo can change. How people’s mindsets and behaviours can change. Yes, we are capable of swift, coordinated action, informed by science and motivated by concern for our fellow citizens.

Universities are founded on the idea that human progress is possible. But progress is never inevitable. It requires work. Some of that work takes place in the university. Climate change can be addressed through gentler measures than we are employing against COVID-19, but they must be sustained over many years.

We can do this, if we absorb this lesson of hope in humanity. As I dust off our unit’s business continuity plan, it is this, more than anything else, that tells me why business continuity is important.

Notes

1. “The Gray Notebook,” by Josep Pla, NYRB Classics, New York, 2014, pp. 320-321

Data to dollars: Thoughts on valuing data as an institutional asset

A core principle of data governance is that data, regards of who creates or has custody of it, is an asset of the institution. But what’s an asset? Some ground-breaking work in Canada and Europe might point the way to putting an actual dollar value on our data.

For the first time, Statistics Canada last year tried to estimate the value of the country’s stock of data. The total value of data, databases and software, and data science in Canada is between CAD $157 and $218 billion, the agency estimates. (1)

This is a first stab. Like every national statistical organization in the world, Stats Can is playing catchup with the explosion of digital data capture and processing and its importance to the economy. Data is clearly part of a country’s productive capacity, but it doesn’t show up in national accounting statistics such as gross domestic product (GDP).

The same for universities. Buildings are tangible assets recorded on the balance sheet. Data is intangible and, unfortunately, invisible to generally accepted accounting principles. What if the university were able to value data as a capital asset?

The value of software and analysis is more easily measured than the store of data. Subtract those two from the Stats Canada estimate, and the value of data by itself ranges from $105 to $151 billion for the whole country.

Using share of GDP for our sector, I estimate that publicly-funded institutions such as hospitals and universities might be holding $6.6 to $9.5 billion in data assets, assuming all subsectors have been equally productive. (2)

Drill down farther, and my back-of-envelope calculation finds that Dalhousie University’s data might be valued between $24 and $35 million. (3)

There are too many layers of assumptions to feel confident in the accuracy of that range. (For example, it is unclear whether or where research data is counted in the national statistics.) Better than trying to decompose the national figures, we might try valuing our data using Stats Canada’s methods.

Our university’s data is not for sale, so a direct market value cannot be determined. Stats Canada values data at the cost of producing it, plus an estimated return on capital. Data is produced by people engaged in data-related activities: Working with many years of labour-market surveys, the agency identified roles likely involved in the creation of data (data entry clerks, researchers, analysts and so on), estimated a likely percentage range for the amount of their job spent on data creation, and calculated the cost based on salaries plus associated costs.

Value based on cost of creation sets only the lower bound; as new uses for data are found, its market value could change dramatically. More work remains to be done. But as a starting point it might hold promise for institutions seeking to measure their data as a financial asset.

In the system of national accounts, data may come to form a whole new asset class. For businesses, non-profits and other organizations, adding data investments to financial statements would give it added prominence.

Which brings me back to data governance. The value proposition for data governance at a university is hard to define. Counting data as an asset — literally — might be a step in the right direction.

Notes

  1. Statistics Canada has produced two highly readable papers on this topic: “Measuring investment in data, databases and data science: Conceptual framework,” released 24 June 2019, and “The value of data in Canada: Experimental estimates,” released 10 July 2019.
  2. Economic production in the non-profit sector totalled $169.2 billion in 2017, representing 8.5% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). In recent years, publicly-funded institutions such as hospitals and universities have accounted for about 6.3% of GDP, which leads me to conclude that our subsector might be holding $6.6 to $9.5 billion in data assets.
  3. In 2017, education institutions in Canada accounted for $46.5 billion, or 2.3% of GDP, suggesting total data assets of $2.4 to $3.5 billion. Education institutions in Nova Scotia accounted for $1.4 billion, or 0.07%, of GDP – implying data assets of $74 to $106 million. Taking the size of Dalhousie University relative to all the others in the province, our stock of data could be worth between $24 and $35 million. (Thank you to Juuso Vesanto, BI Analyst with Dalhousie Advancement, for pointing me to an Economist report on this topic which gave me the idea to use share of GDP.)

So your horoscope says you’re an introvert

Have you ever been made to take a personality test as part of a job application? I have. And I learned a lot from it – although not about me.

The test was administered and interpreted by an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology, consulting for the recruiting firm contracted to help fill the position. I was not surprised by my test results – introvert, detail-oriented, compromise-seeking – but I found the professor’s interpretive report a little on the negative side.

I got the job. I was offered the opportunity to meet with the professor. I showed up at his office keen to learn how I might compensate for deficiencies in my psychological makeup that would hold me back as a leader if left unaddressed.

You see, years of exposure to conventional wisdom about personality types had conditioned me to suspect that introverts don’t belong in leadership roles or collaborative work environments. Or maybe they can be admitted as long as they undergo the personality equivalent of conversion therapy.

For example, I once attended a team meeting on talent development in which one of the participants presented resource materials that essentially stated that introverts are best suited to working alone doing repetitive tasks. I should have objected but I said nothing.

(Introverts are well represented on my team. I can attest that no one in Advancement works in isolation doing solely repetitive tasks. No one.)

But I have an open mind, and I listened to what the professor had to say. Which wasn’t much. He seemed evasive, and I left with an empty notebook.

A few weeks later, I read a story in the local paper based on an interview with this same associate professor. He had co-authored a study on people who lie during job interviews. He said he had found a link between personality and deceptive interview answers.

Introverts, he found, tend to be less confident, and use deception to cope with the perceived difficulty of the interview, while extroverts tend to be more honest.

“What we found is individuals who are more extroverted, that are more conscientious and are more experienced and have better prepared for an interview (tend to) use more of the honest strategies,” he said. “While those who are more introverted, less conscientious, less prepared, and maybe less experienced, they go in the interview and apparently they tend to be less confident. They perceive the interview to be more difficult for them and then they use the deceptive strategy as a way to kind of cope with the anxiety that can arise because of the situation.”

I have not read the study, and the reporter may have mangled the message; the quote suggests the study included multiple variables. But it made me angry. I’ve kept the newspaper clipping for years, intending to write about it, but my anger has prevented me.

I’m still angry, but I write now because I fear that some hiring managers might actually believe this.

Personality testing has validity, and can be used for self-reflection and for helping diverse personalities work together. But barring people from higher levels of employment based on dubious interpretations of ambiguous data is wrong and harmful.

It is harmful to individuals, to teams, to organizations. We deny opportunities to talented people, or those talented people self-select out of the running. The psychological diversity of our teams that encourages good decision-making is impaired.

Personality is not irrelevant in assessing fitness for a role. But I know many extroverts – either I work with them or love them – and believe me, extroverts (as a group) are no better equipped to handle life and the world and leadership than introverts are. (And in some cases, I see people judged unfairly based on their extroversion — it can cut both ways.)

Personality testing is interesting the same way the starry sky is interesting: full of real and complex phenomenon. But if you’re a hiring manager or a potential job candidate, please don’t be swayed by astrology.

Effective data governance requires a leadership mindset

The path to establishing effective institutional data governance might never be smooth, but some paths are smoother than others.

Success is more likely when people know their prime object is to advance the mission of the institution. Leaders recognize that data governance is the policy framework that establishes that key administrative data, regardless of where it is created or where it resides, is an asset of the institution, to be used to guide strategy and decision-making.

Success is less likely when people are primarily advocates for their area of custodianship or for a set of professional principles. Issues of confidentiality, security, data management, and protection of personal information are important, but do not define the core value proposition of data governance.

Advocates see policy through a lens that takes on the colour of their subject-matter expertise. Leaders appreciate the importance of these considerations, but strive to place those important pieces in proper relation to the value proposition.

The beauty is that advocacy vs. leadership isn’t about rank. You get to choose which role to play, and when. When you advise, you might do best to be an advocate. When you get to frame policy, you need to be a leader.

Data governance requires both mindsets, but ultimately leadership must prevail.

Figure out what you want to do, versus what you want to be

What is a “job”? It seems a very solid thing. Often it isn’t. There’s a job description, some records in the HR database, a payroll arrangement, a title on a business card, a set of performance objectives, a workspace, and a lot of assumptions and expectations spoken and unspoken.

As a container, a job is less like a box with hard sides and more like an elastic bag. It changes. It can shrink in places, stretch in others.

Late last year, President Obama came to town. In his wake, a remark he’d made about advice to young people became widely quoted. He said, “Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.”

This advice translates to the workplace. Ambition expressed as a desired job title or income level is uninspiring and empty. Better to study how your organization’s strategic goals align with what gives you meaning, and think how your role could evolve to serve that alignment.

Your supervisor might not be asking you what you would like to accomplish, what gives you joy, or what purpose you want to pursue via work. But you should certainly ask those questions of yourself.