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Are We There Yet?

Achieving your newly envisioned business model won’t be a linear journey. Factors dictate different travel routes, say change experts, and using a creative mind-set to guide and motivate people will help you find your way.

By Karla Hignite

*Where to? That question sounds simple enough. Yet, providing the GPS coordinates or identifying a local landmark doesn't dictate how you must reach your final destination. Nor does it account for obstacles or delays you may face along the way. So it is with change. While the first hurdle may be naming the outcome you wish to achieve, arguably the much harder work of getting there remains. How do you truly engage employees and improve productivity? Attract new students and retain them? Or reenvision your institution's mission and values in the context of dwindling resources, shifting societal expectations, and growing compliance requirements?

In fall 2011, with generous support from the Lumina Foundation, NACUBO conducted a series of workshops to engage senior leaders in exploring how to initiate change at the campus level and industrywide. The conversations offered an opportunity for more than 100 presidents, chief business officers, chief academic officers, and other campus leaders to examine health care as an industry-change model for higher education, drawing parallels between the two sectors with regard to common external pressures and cultural characteristics.

An executive summary and the full monograph detailing those deliberations (“Finding the Right Prescription for Higher Education's Ills: Can Health Care Provide Answers?”) is available.

In addition to dissecting the lessons higher education might adapt from change efforts launched within the health-care sector, the workshops allowed participants to delve into pressing operational and academic challenges. To facilitate these conversations, change experts and authors Chip and Dan Heath and Yoram “Jerry” Wind outlined models for breaking big change into doable pieces. What follows are highlights of the models discussed during the workshops along with feedback from several participants about how they have implemented some of these concepts back on campus. (For a more in-depth description of the models and their application to specific institution initiatives, see the full monograph mentioned earlier.)

Change Model 1: Appeal to Planners and Doers

In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Crown Business, 2010), Chip and Dan Heath offer a formula for providing direction and motivation and doing what you can to shape the environment in favor of the change you seek. To illustrate their change model, the Heath brothers employ an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). Haidt tells the story of a Rider (rational, planner side) who sits atop an Elephant (emotional, doer side). While the Rider may think he is in charge—after all, he has the reins and presumably can choose where to go—if there is a conflict, the Elephant has a 6-ton weight advantage over the Rider.

As the Heaths suggest, change happens when we manage to align these two sides of our brains. To do so, leaders must not only provide direction to the Rider, but also motivate the Elephant. A third step: Leaders must do all they can to shape a pathway by creating an environment conducive to change. What follows is a brief overview of the three-step change model the Heaths shared with workshop participants.

1. Direct the Rider. Propose a destination that provides clear guidance and includes details about how to circumvent any obstacles. What looks like resistance to change is often cluelessness, so give people a sense of what change looks like.

  • Script the critical moves. Identify a series of logical steps, but don't try to direct every move. Look for the high-bang-for-the-buck moves.
  • Find the bright spots. At the beginning of a change initiative, it's easy to obsess about what must be fixed. Instead, scan the environment to learn about what is working and seek to do more of that.

2. Motivate the Elephant. No change journey will go anywhere or will last very long without the energy and passion of the Elephant.

  • Find the feeling. Many organizations might understand conceptually that their long-term survival is in danger, but that knowledge alone may not inspire dramatic action, because people also understand that painful changes may be required to deal with that reality. While panic and fear are powerful feelings, they don't have to be the motivating factors you seek to tap. Hope, passion, and creativity are equally effective for encouraging change.
  • Shrink the change. Most people are more easily motivated if they see quick results. Break the change into a series of manageable steps to ease what may seem daunting when looking at the big picture.
  • Grow your people. Remind others of what they've already conquered so they can sense the momentum.

3. Shape the path. For change to take hold, it must seem within reach. If a clear pathway does not exist, leaders must cultivate a culture conducive to change.

  • Rally the herd. Create conditions for a particular behavior to spread. Let people spend more time among others who support change, to allow a herd mentality to grow and to gain steam.
  • Build habits. Change is easier when the desired action becomes automatic. When trying to build a new practice or process, consider making it voluntary. You can also piggyback new behaviors on established ones to increase the likelihood that the new ones will stick.
  • Tweak the environment. Sometimes an obstacle may be blocking the path and keeping well-intentioned people from tackling change. Even a small tweak to the environment can make desired behavior easier and undesirable behavior more difficult.

According to the Heaths, something for leaders to consider as they formulate a plan using these techniques is whether or not their challenge is a direction issue (people don't know what is expected) or a motivation issue (there is too much junk in the way). This will help leaders identify which techniques may work best. Bear in mind that you don't always have to change people to change their behavior. Tweaking the environment often solves a motivation problem. Finally, being a leader doesn't mean you have to come up with all the great ideas. What you need to do is determine what is possible. Find the bright spots and set up circumstances for success that you can tweak, scale, and repeat.

Retention Bright Spots

For Barrett Bell, vice president for enrollment management at Rockford College, Rockford, Illinois, one particularly helpful insight he gleaned from the Switch principles was the benefit of finding and showcasing your bright spots. For the past two years, Rockford College has seen annual enrollment increases of about 7 percent. Yet, retention remains a key challenge for the college, which continues to post lower retention rates than those of its peer institutions, notes Bell.

At about the same time that Bell attended the workshop in fall 2011, he received results of two retention studies the college had conducted. One was a review of Rockford's peer institutions to explore their best practices. The second study assessed the prior four years of freshman cohorts at Rockford to identify characteristics of the students the college retained versus those it did not retain. Bell is currently meeting with each academic department to share the data.

“As I talk with department leaders with better-than-average retention, we are trying to identify what they are doing that could be leading to their higher rates of retention success—the bright spots,” explains Bell. Similarly, as he meets with department leaders with lower retention rates, he is able to share the approaches their colleagues are taking that might work for them.

“We're also assessing retention within our athletics programs, since student athletes in certain sports have a higher rate of retention and graduation than athletes in other sports,” notes Bell. While Bell and others are still working through the study data and haven't yet formulated final conclusions, a few findings have risen to the surface.

“Part of good retention in student athletic programs appears to be good recruitment—that is, a focus on getting the right students for the institution and for the sport,” notes Bell. A high level of interaction with other student athletes and with coaches is another success attribute, with student assessment surveys indicating that coaches who have a personal interest in students' success beyond the playing field are a key factor in student decisions to remain at the institution, says Bell.

Tying Emotion to Transaction

Where the Switch model hit home for Clair Knapp was its premise regarding the power of an emotional connection for getting individuals to accept or engage in change. Knapp, vice president and chief financial officer for Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana, launched a payment collection initiative well over a year ago, in an attempt to reduce the number of delinquent student accounts following the start of each semester. While the college has made steady progress on this front in recent years, part of the problem rests with incomplete paperwork that would allow bills to be processed—a relatively easy fix, notes Knapp. “We've sent e-mails and made phone calls to try to reach these students, but particularly for our commuter population, faculty represent a direct line of contact for getting out important messages,” explains Knapp.

So, he and his staff asked faculty to distribute letters directly to these students requesting that they visit the business office. “We had assumed that asking faculty to hand-deliver the letters would be a more subtle approach than asking professors to read a roster of names in class,” says Knapp. Yet, when he pitched the idea, nearly 30 percent of faculty indicated that they were either uncomfortable or didn't see it as part of their responsibilities to assist with bill collection, notes Knapp.

“One realization I had after attending the NACUBO workshop is that we had probably approached this too quickly and made an assumption about how faculty would view our request. And, we failed to appeal to the emotional aspect of what uncollected payments in student accounts mean to the institution from an operational perspective, and thus, from a programmatic standpoint,” notes Knapp. “We hadn't provided enough background information about the importance of what we were asking them to do.”

Upon returning from the workshop, Knapp decided to be more diligent about communicating his intent, and this did seem to move some previously resistant faculty to be open to taking part in the letter distribution following the start of the spring 2012 semester, says Knapp. “We will try again this coming fall semester, though our ultimate goal is to work toward a process where this issue of delinquent payments due to incomplete paperwork essentially goes away.”

To that end, his office has implemented a step to gather input from students about the process itself. Knapp has likewise informed faculty that some of the letters provided for their distribution are in fact to thank students and to solicit their feedback for providing better service. “No matter how practical the change, there is still need for and room for appealing to the emotional aspect among those whom you are trying to involve,” says Knapp.

Organize Others to Write the Script

Lori Sundberg, president of Carl Sandburg College, Galesburg, Illinois, appreciated the practical approaches for initiating change embodied in the Switch framework. “Two concepts that especially resonated with me were the need to find your bright spots and the need to shrink the change—to break initiatives into smaller pieces that everyone can grasp.”

For change to take hold, it must seem within reach. If a clear pathway does not exist, leaders must cultivate a culture conducive to change.

Prior to the workshop, Sundberg had been contemplating how to organize three teams on campus, each geared toward improving a specific area related to the college's customer service and communication. “While all three of these teams are oriented toward improving specific processes, I believe that if we can achieve our goals, we will look fundamentally different as an institution in terms of how we are meeting student needs,” says Sundberg. She characterizes the three teams as follows:

  • First-impressions team. How are students treated on the phone, or welcomed to campus? Whether it's during the initial inquiry stage, visiting campus on a tour, or walking into a classroom, what can staff do to make a good first impression on each student?
  • Data team. How should the college capture and use student information? What specific data should be evaluated on the front end to ensure the accuracy of reports to outside agencies, and what is used internally to make decisions? For instance, when new students register, they may indicate they are in the nursing program when in fact they are not. When the accuracy of this information isn't verified, the college might end up with an inflated number that skews actual completion rates for that discipline.
  • Directory team. As with most institution directories, Sundburg's has been organized by last name. But what if you don't know the last name of the person the student needs to see? Any way that staff can enhance communication and understanding across the institution will ultimately improve service to students and help get them where they need to go.

Each team is now up and running with a charge to develop recommendations and report back to Sundberg. “After attending the workshop, I had greater clarity about the need to approach these as bottom-up, cross-functional, and cross-departmental teams,” explains Sundberg. “In many instances, those on the front lines of student service know what needs to happen. They know the critical moves we need to make, but they simply haven't been able to effect change where they are because they haven't been asked to provide solutions.”

Change Model 2: Adjust Your View

In The Power of Impossible Thinking: Transform the Business of Your Life and the Life of Your Business (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), Yoram “Jerry” Wind suggests that the biggest obstacle to change is trying to operate within a new context by applying the same assumptions and approaches used in the past. Continuously challenging and adapting our established mental models is a must, argues Wind.

What tactics can leaders use to challenge their mental models and institutional assumptions?

During workshop discussions, Wind suggested that higher education leaders don't lack new ideas, but they tend to extend those ideas along traditional assumptions. For instance, is the typical approach—teaching students in a face-to-face physical classroom over the course of a semester—really the best way for students to learn? All traditional assumptions about teaching and learning should be challenged, argues Wind, recommending that faculty and administrators must be willing to experiment with a range of new approaches. Understanding current mental models and articulating their value will help leaders identify what aspects are worth retaining even as they seek to change those models to fit a new cultural context or economic environment.

What tactics can leaders use to challenge their mental models and institutional assumptions? Here are some of the tools Wind offered workshop participants.

  • Reinvent your relationships. Today's higher education environment requires seeing students as partners who can help you identify where you need to go—including how to design, price, produce, market, and distribute your products and services. While leaders tend to view challenges in logical terms, from a consumer (student) perspective, these same issues and concerns are often emotional. To remain relevant, institutions must build an effective platform to engage students in an ongoing manner.
  • Adopt an open innovation mind-set. Although no problem today can easily be solved by a single discipline, most higher education institutions still provide largely siloed education, notes Wind. These silos are reinforced by the way most colleges and universities are organized and how they distribute information. What must change organizationally to tap interdisciplinary perspectives to solve your institution's problems? Learning to apply an open innovation approach to all your key domains and activities will dramatically change your business model.
  • Invite the radicals into your arena. Recognize that there may be those with contrarian ideas who could do the most to help solve your institution's core challenges. In most industries, true innovators come from outside, not from within, notes Wind. In this regard, higher education is extremely susceptible to “insider” mentality, compared to most other industries, in part because institution cultures are deeply ingrained in the way things have been done in the past. Today, the more disruptive innovation and radical thinking we can inject into the decision-making process, the greater the benefit for an organization, argues Wind.
  • Zoom in and out. Make it standard practice to look at each challenge from different vantage points to uncover varying points of the reality and of the related solution that you don't normally see.
  • Rethink benchmarks. The least amount of new information an organization can obtain is by benchmarking itself against its peers, and yet that is what the majority of colleges and universities do, notes Wind. Much more can be learned from institutions, organizations, and industries unlike your own.
  • Experiment or die. According to Wind, adaptive (continuous) experimentation is the one tool every organization leader must adopt to move forward. Trying new things ultimately yields better and more effective decisions, engages more people, and encourages innovation. Adaptive experimentation is required precisely because we live in a world where there is no silver bullet. While leaders can select from among a full range of approaches they wish to employ in their change efforts, this one is nonnegotiable if you want to do change right, explains Wind. In that respect, for every change effort leaders need to identify experiments with which to test their success.

The Ambiguity of Innovation

Northeast Texas Community College in rural Mt. Pleasant is in a rapid growth mode, having grown enrollments by nearly 40 percent during the past three years, according to President Bradley Johnson. Simultaneously, institution leaders have been busy rethinking the college's business model. “This began with the recognition that we need to give up our old assumption that students come to us prepared to do college-level work and that our job is merely to expose them to content,” explains Johnson. “Instead, we are accepting the reality that students come to us unprepared in all kinds of ways, and that our job is to awaken their intellectual curiosity and teach the discipline necessary to be true students.”

Johnson went to the NACUBO workshop with a general outline of the institution's new business model for creating a successful on-campus learning environment. “What I've thought about since was how we need to proceed toward that change, and I have become more committed to a level of ambiguity in our process than what I would have thought wise prior to attending the workshop,” notes Johnson. He points to Wind's warnings about the severe limitations of top-down innovation. “I was struck by his notion of intrinsic motivation-that leaders need to let others figure out how to get a big idea to work.”

While the college is early in its process, several pilot courses this spring are testing a new instructor/coach model for online courses developed this past fall, says Johnson. “Part of what we are hoping to find out through these pilots is how to make this work financially.”

Johnson believes the grassroots innovation he is encouraging is crucial to the change the institution is seeking. “While we have a clear vision for our ultimate outcome, and a strategy for handling funding, exactly how we will go about dramatically improving our learning environment intentionally remains a question mark for now,” notes Johnson. “The role for senior leadership is to help people understand what is happening in the world around them and how it impacts institutional mission. But I must leave the task of teaching and learning to our faculty.  It is the only way this will succeed.”

Radical-Inspired Reinvention

Carol Long, provost and vice president of academic affairs of the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo, has a keen interest in discussions about reinventing the higher education business model. Her institution has lost about 40 percent of its state funding in recent years and came through a $7.2 million budget deficit this past year, forcing the deactivation of three academic programs. “Given that we literally can no longer operate under former business model assumptions, I found Wind's discussion about mental models quite insightful,” notes Long. “I particularly connected with his method of zooming in and out, essentially changing the frames for how we view our challenges up close or at a distance, including his suggestion to pay attention to our inattention—what we aren't even focusing on in the picture.”

Another idea that rang true for Long was Wind's assertion that higher education should look outside its normal comparisons. “I have often considered what we might learn from the world of publishing and from libraries—industries for which a changing information landscape carries real implications for remaining relevant,” says Long. She has since suggested to her administrative direct reports that she and they begin thinking more about alternative approaches to benchmarking.

Workshop conversations also sparked an idea for Long related to the institution's newly created Center for Inquiry, Discovery, and Leadership. Leaders are in the process of assembling an advisory board for the center, which seeks to drive innovation through grants to students. Wind's suggestion to bring in some “radical” thinkers from the outside could prove useful for fleshing out the center's structure, says Long.

The center's entrepreneurial focus dovetails with the institution's larger need to adapt some of its current mental models, says Long. “As a state-funded institution, we are relatively new to the world of fundraising, but like many public institutions, we need to rethink our funding structure. With continued pressure to keep tuition down, we recognize the need to become a blended income stream institution—and that requires a different mind-set.”

Customer-Centered Solutions

Like Carol Long, Ithaca College President Thomas Rochon was struck by Wind's suggestion to benchmark outside the box. With 100 buildings spread across its upstate New York campus, the college spends significant resources on facilities maintenance. “Instead of looking only to our higher education peers, what are some other space-intensive industries we can learn from about building efficiencies?” asks Rochon. “What are some other 24/7 residential communities from which we can glean best practices regarding security and round-the-clock service delivery?”

Of greatest value for Rochon were two ideas shared by Wind that are in fact closely aligned, notes Rochon. “First, it pays to ask very basic, even naive, questions about what you are doing, because that is how to challenge what you otherwise take for granted. And second, it helps to cast the net widely for ideas. Recognize that anyone can contribute ideas, so you should not make assumptions about where innovation can come from.”

Make it standard practice to look at each challenge from different vantage points to uncover the related solution that you don't normally see.

Since returning to Ithaca, Rochon has made a point to ask students their opinions about how the college should approach specific efforts, such as how to make the campus more internationally oriented. “Once you get past the suggestions for giving every student an airline ticket for travel, you can unearth some really creative ideas,” says Rochon. The added benefit is that simply asking the question generates enthusiasm, and this underscores another point Wind made, notes Rochon: “The markets you serve are as interested in the conversation as they are in the products you design. Engaging students as customers in a conversation about how they think we should maximize some value in their education ensures they will at least be open to the changes we make.”

Another venue in which Rochon chose to generate discussion with a basic question was at an all-college faculty and staff meeting that the institution holds before the start of each semester. The centerpiece of the interchange focused on emerging online education options. Rochon posed a basic question: How could the college continue its commitment to excellence within a residential context in the midst of an evolving learning environment—an environment where more future students will be able to piece together degrees of their own choosing through a menu of online courses offered by any number of providers?

“This was the opening salvo in an ongoing conversation that should help us all to focus on the fact that even though our applications and enrollment numbers are healthy—and we have a beautiful campus and a strong curriculum—we must figure out how to continue offering quality educational experiences that include blended and online opportunities of much higher quality than before, while also being attentive to cost control and quality learning outcomes,” says Rochon. “How we have done things in the past will no longer be good enough.”

Get Going

In many respects, today's leadership priorities in higher education seem Herculean—from growing competition from for-profits, nondegreed educators, and global institutions; to demands for greater cost control and new service models; to shifts in student demographics and expectations. But, although today's leaders face a confluence of difficult choices in the coming years, they also can discover strategic opportunities to shape their institutions in response to a new generation of training and educational needs.

As both models highlighted in this article suggest, practice is imperative when it comes to change. Initiating change at the micro level can offer lessons for the bigger transformations institutions must also tackle. And whether the challenges are short-term or long-term, everyday or existential, something all higher education leaders understand is that their institutions can ill afford to stand still.

Where to?

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.