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Change the Perception, Change the Culture

In order to drive change at a higher ed institution, which is often slow to do so, leaders need to frame initiatives around the question: “what’s in it for me?” while highlighting qualities like ease of adoption and accessibility. 

It started with Peter Lencioni’s book The Advantage. Every summer the Analytics & Institutional Reporting (AIR) department at Lone Star College reads a book on leadership, and in 2017, his book was selected. One of the ground rules of the department’s book club is an agreement to implement good ideas it comes across into teaching, not just talk about them. Thus began what AIR refers to as its One Big Thing, a combination of deliberate planning and audacious goal-setting wherein everyone understands the objective and what role they play in achieving it. AIR has had two iterations of the One Big Thing over the past five years, and both not only produced wildly successful outcomes but they also helped navigate the sticky, difficult challenges associated with personal and cultural change. The group spearheading these changes believe leaders at every level within an organization can use this same approach to radically and swiftly move their team from where they are now to where they need to be. 

Strategic planning

What resonated most was Lencioni’s observation that healthy organizations deliberately answer the question, what is most important, right now? The idea is straightforward, and it has a sense of urgency. We were certainly at a crucial juncture at the time and rallying around what was most important right then, which helped mobilize us. The department changed leadership in 2014 to address gaps in service and support and immediately started developing reports in Oracle’s Business Intelligence toolset. Customer use of the reports was slow to catch on, but when it did, our team realized licensing costs killed any chances of widespread adoption. After evaluating our options, we selected Microsoft’s Business Analytics solution, Power BI, along with components of the Business Intelligence platform (Reporting Services (SSRS) and Analysis Services (SSAS)) and began rebuilding the reports in the new environment. Then, we hit a wall. 

Despite receiving a handful of useful operational reports, customers weren’t using them, and no amount of marketing or communications made a difference. That’s when the group convened our first One Big Thing strategy session. The conversation opened with a specific (and brutal) acknowledgement that we needed to act—and act fast—to address the perception we weren’t contributing to the college’s mission. Everyone understood the urgency. After two days of more crucial conversations and planning, the group’s answer to Lencioni’s question was to Drive User Adoption of their reports. 

There are a few key components of the One Big Thing–Drive User Adoption plan. First, the plan was deliberate and thoughtful but audacious. Second, it focused on speed and quick results. And last, it required each team member to buy in and accept responsibility for their role. The objective was audacious because changing people’s behavior isn’t just hard—it’s impossible without a “what’s in it for me?” hook. This realization wasn’t just about customers. Department members had to overcome their own fears and challenges as well. The plan called for a number of operational changes and new services, all of which had to be developed and delivered on top of daily work. “But we don’t have the time!” was quickly dismissed in favor of: “We don’t have a choice, so make time.” The sense of urgency and singular focus drove the timeline. 

Some objectives like redesigning the customer request form, were completed quickly while others, like creating an in-house professional development program, took time. In its final form, the plan had dozens of short- and longer-term deliverables on an 18-month timeline. Although not all team members agreed with the direction taken, they trusted the process and their co-workers enough to put aside their personal misgivings and do their part. 

There were initial concerns with unlocking the data due to FERPA laws and how clients would use the data to create several versions of the truth due to their lack of understanding of methodology. But as we worked to put security measures in place to protect student-specific data and developed training sessions to educate our clients on how to use it in the most meaningful way, concerns faded. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions we ever made as a department and really took us to another level in terms of the service and support we provided to our clients and the college. Since heading up our training services and seeing the impact it had on our clients and their use of data to make informed decisions, it’s a vital part of what we do and a major key to our success.

Changing behavior

For years, institutional reporting staff served as fierce guardians of institutional data, ensuring accuracy and control over access. But the rise of Big Data, a proliferation of user-friendly analytical tools, and a need for better, faster decision-making challenged this approach. Leaders today not only want (demand) access to data, they also expect higher-level analysis including predictive models from IR departments. 

This is currently causing major cultural shifts in higher education institutions. How do IR leaders help their staff change not only their mindsets but also their skills? For some, they can’t. People who cannot or will not change move on. But for those who successfully make the transition, it’s career-changing, literally. Once we understood the power of on-demand reporting, the institutional reporting analysts worked to create reports with broad usability and appeal, helping their clients understand how and why to use them instead of requesting static ad hoc reports. On-demand reporting did not diminish the status of the IR analyst as data expert or truth-keeper but instead added a new dimension of collaboration between analyst and stakeholder wherein confidence in the data is high and institutional reporting can start thinking more outside the box and providing more refined insights, fundamentally changing the analysts’ role and, ultimately, their careers.

Deciding to change your mindset is one thing; trying to change the behavior of others is another entirely. One major Drive User Adoption initiative was customer training–something the department had resisted for years. For some, they didn’t feel it was part of their role and felt it would take too much time. For others, they didn’t like the idea of democratizing the data. After all, if customers had access to the data and could create their own reports, why would they need an IR department? 

This last concern surfaced quickly once the training program launched. AIR offered its first Introduction to PowerBI workshop on September 21st, 2018 to 15 participants. Within one month, the department had trained 57 people, and demand for a follow-up session grew. A second workshop, Intermediate PowerBI, was offered to take participants through the report development process using predefined data sets with the goal of expanding report development. Democratization achieved! Since training launched, almost 900 employees have taken the intro and/or intermediate workshops, and usage increased 210%. The training was so successful because it answered “what’s in it for me.” AIR approached the people side of change thoughtfully with a tacit acknowledgement that their customers were smart, willing to learn but intimidated by data, analysis and the fear of being wrong. The training program explicitly addressed their concerns by showing them how easy it was to use the tools and encouraging exploration. The PBI portal housing all of the reports is called “discovery” for this very reason. Participants were taught that data were a starting, not an ending, point and it was okay to talk through insights and observations rather than finding the “right answer.” Now, it’s easy to drag and drop things into the report, and it builds quickly. The time saved allows us to think about what we want to create next. 

Has the AIR department been replaced by leaders developing their own reports? Certainly not, just the opposite. Getting data into the hands of customers and training some to do their own reporting freed IR staff from their more mundane tasks and allowed them to do higher-level analysis and research studies; it also changed their reputation. Today AIR is widely regarded as a high-performing department. 

This shift in culture and direction for AIR was in part possible because Lone Star College has a culture of improvement, professional development and risk-taking. Not only does this provide the opportunity for this type of leadership work but it also provides the infrastructure and support needed to roll out new training programs. The support of upper administration for the process was greatly appreciated.  

Pivoting to serve in a remote data culture

2020 proved to be a challenging year. As employees began working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the self-service model of Power BI reporting became more important than ever. AIR moved training sessions to a live Webex format with several recorded Power BI exercises available on demand. Moving into 2021, AIR’s vision is to continue supporting their customers through a robust training program and seeking out opportunities to partner with them to expand the data culture at Lone Star College. 

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