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Managing Siloes: How Non-Traditional Divisions Can Innovate from the Fringes

The EvoLLLution | Managing Siloes: How Non-Traditional Divisions Can Innovate from the Fringes
Historically on the outside looking in, leaders of divisions that serve non-traditional students must find ways to stay innovative despite institutional siloes and ultimately evolve their institutions to become more accessible, flexible and fast-moving.

Non-traditional divisions of colleges and universities across the United States and Canada have a critical role to play in creating access to postsecondary programming to audiences that fall outside the mold of the traditional 18- to 22-year-old residential learner. Innovative, fast-moving and responsive to market shifts, these divisions have the characteristics and DNA required to succeed in uncertain conditions. Today, non-traditional learners vastly outnumber the traditional—a trend expected to continue—and conditions are anything but predictable for institutional leaders. In this interview, Christine Shakespeare reflects on the impact siloes between non-traditional divisions and the main institutional campus can have and shares her thoughts on how these siloes can be minimized or avoided altogether.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do siloes between divisions, units and teams come to be formed and solidified?

Christine Shakespeare (CS): My experience tells me that siloes come to be formed in a variety of ways. But I want to take a step back and tell my story which is that my father, a Venezuelan, ended up a professor and special program administrator of a quasi-remedial program from the 1970s-1990s. Being that I am the daughter of an immigrant, education was considered the most important tool to success. My father was passionate and devoted to providing an opportunity to students who would otherwise not have access to higher education without his program. My premise, continuing the tradition I was inculcated with, is that my primary goal is provide higher education opportunity to those who otherwise would not have access to a higher education.

Even in the 70s, 80s and 90s, many institutions were willing to have a unit created to support marginalized students. However, the units were marginalized themselves, often with little support, little buy-in and eventual neglect because the units did not “fit in” to the institution. Most of us in the business of providing opportunity to marginalized students (who also may be non-traditional/post-traditional/contemporary), continue to operate at the fringe of the institution because higher education institutions believe students and programs should fit into the mainstream organization.

There is disdain for students who see higher education as an opportunity for a job/career. This is my premise when I tell you that that siloes between divisions, units and teams as well as within divisions, units and teams, occur because higher education is about production of knowledge and not about operating efficiently, especially for marginalized populations.

My experience as the marginalized unit devoted to the non-traditional student has been that siloes have come about because:

  1. The entrepreneurial unit that created all its functions for serving unique student audiences always operated under the radar because no one really wanted them at the institution. Therefore, they sit OUTSIDE the siloes that have developed to support traditional students.
  2. The functional units that support the analog and legacy degree programs and credentials exist purely to reproduce the institution’s raison d’etre which is not to serve students but to produce knowledge and churn the students through a degree program. The focus of the faculty and schools and their concomitant units is to reproduce knowledge, not prepare students for jobs/careers or to generate revenue.
  3. The analog, legacy enterprise systems were designed for one type of student and are not nimble enough to enable entrepreneurial units to leverage them as tools to support the non-traditional student.

I note that this is my experience. There are other experiences within an institution that involve siloes but I am not addressing those.

Evo: What impact can these siloes have on the management of an innovative or quickly moving unit?

CS: In order for innovation to occur within an institution with siloes, the innovator must take one of two paths.

The first path is to work within the institution across the siloes. Many of us work across the institution’s siloes and it takes a significant amount of time and energy and can be discouraging because the siloes may feel like walls. And, it continues the marginalization effect not only of the students, but also of the instructors, the staff, and the families of the students and staff. The institution is turning to the innovative/quickly moving unit asking it to generate more revenue and “be innovative” but it does not have the capacity internally nor does it have the ability to work with and across the siloes that support the rest of the institution.

The other path an innovator can take is to create her own “silo” to serve her unique audience(s). Others of us have created our own silo to include all the major functional areas of a larger institution but operated solely for this audience, such as in a school of professional studies, for example. Some of these single-audience siloes of their own can be more nimble for their audience and they limit their interaction with the dominant institution because the dominant institution is not truly able to assist this side-silo.

Evo: How can leaders work across these siloes to bring numerous otherwise disparate individuals together to work towards a common goal?

CS: Leaders do not see these siloes because they work within the institution, often for many years. They do not know the back-end operations. They do not know what it means to be a user (student).

My experience is that generally speaking, leaders want to help the non-traditional unit be successful but they do not know how. They (including board members) have experienced a meaningful education of their own in a dominant institution as “traditional” students both at the undergraduate and at the graduate level. They don’t represent the marginalized student in age, race, ethnicity, immigration status, veteran status, or disability/ability.

Therefore, my experience would suggest that leaders can work across siloes if:

  1. They try to be a student and see what the experience is like (secret shop) and do it themselves—not hire a consultant to tell the story. Try applying to a graduate program! Try applying to an online program! Try to register for a summer course as a visiting student! Try to pay a bill or speak to a professor while working full time! Try to get a contract signed or a marketing initiative launched! Try to get a new idea implemented! Then tell your story as the leader.
  2. They ask the innovators at the institution what their experience and point of view is and empower them to solve the problems across siloes. It may mean rethinking who sits at the table. Taking an honest inventory of the leadership profile will open the eyes of leaders.
  3. They look at what innovative institutions are doing and see those institutions as inspirational, recognizing that their institution could be innovative and should be innovative.
  4. They make it a priority from their bully pulpit to create a vision that everyone at the institution is working towards change to eliminate the siloes or create cross-functional matrices—including within siloes (yes, there are some siloes within siloes)

Evo: From a structural perspective, what do you think it will take to minimize the existence (and impact) of internal soloes over the long term?

CS: Most institutions look similar structurally; it’s in the DNA of higher education. It will take courage and honesty for the top leaders to be willing to ask the hard questions, to find employees who understand that functional siloes are not acceptable anymore.

I know that over the long term these siloes will get in the way of our competitiveness against the new, agile, non-traditional credential providers. Higher education’s dominant role of knowledge production is very important. However, the role of educating the growing marginalized student populations will soon fall into other providers’ hands because higher education institutions assume that students will fit into their way of doing things. That assumption no longer carries weight.

Structurally, to minimize the existence and impact of internal siloes over the long term our institutions must adapt to see the marginalized student as the traditional student and structure accordingly. The marginalized units (often the Continuing and Online Education units) will no longer sit outside the institution working across the siloes but will be leading the way from the inside working out. The age, race, ethnicity, immigration status, veteran status and disability/ability status of the leaders sitting at the leadership table will change dramatically.

For that kind of change to occur, it will take great courage and great leadership.

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