One of the results of the first cycle of action research was a determination that the method of integrated delivery of student services needs to be "distributed" throughout the campus. The recent completion of our new Center for Communication and Business(CCB) has effectively moved two of our largest academic divisions from the main campus, where administrative offices are currently located, to an area far removed from such centrality. Approximately 50% of the student body are pursuing degree programs or majors housed in these two academic divisions. The distance from the new center to the central administration building has made it more cumbersome for these students to gain access to face-to-face contact with administrative personnel. The office managers of these two divisions approached me to discuss possibilities for enhanced student services being provided on-site, at the new CCB. This was a perfect opportunity for me to develop a mentoring/training cycle for these two key personnel who will play critical roles in distributing the integrated delivery of student services to a significant number of students who are located away from central campus.

Once the interest had been expressed by the office managers, I met with them and proposed a process in which they and I would engage in a mentoring process in which we would learn from each other how we all can better serve our students. I suggested to them that a critical component to this mentoring process is for me to find effective means to better empower them with access to more complete information, appropriate training to use that information, as well as the necessary means to better serve their students in a more integrated fashion.

I began the mentoring process by asking them to share with me their current knowledge of student services, what they are currently doing for the students, as well as where their limitations lie (in knowledge, access to information, as well as permissional issues related to their position in the organizational structure). I also asked them to come up with a list of items that they would like to be able to which they would need access, procedures which they would like to be able to perform, and connections they needed to have in order to effectively servet the students. In other words, I asked them what they thought they needed to have or be able to do in order to be able to provide complete and integrated services to the Communication and Business students.

In addition to working directly with the office managers, I also met with the division chairs to whom these office managers directly report. I shared with the division chairs my interest in the development of these key staff members so that they can better serve the students. It was critical for me to get permission from these administrators since their buy-in is necessary for 1) the office managers to be engaged in the actual training process involving adminstrative matters that are currently outside of their job descriptions and 2) the administrative support and enhanced "authority" that these office managers will need in order to carry out the tasks involved in serving the students.

I also contacted the Registrar, the Office of Student Accounts, the Office of Financial Assistance, and the Office of Academic Advising to request permission for specific access to the information housed in the main Student Information System, but only viewable and accessible by the specific home offices. Although the directors of these home offices had given conceptual approval for this process during the last cycle's actions, it was important for me to engage them in the permission acquiring process, with specific requests and reasons for the requests. I did not take their conceptual approval as blanket approval to allow these office managers to have full access to the home office's student information.

Once I cleared what I thought was all of the permissional hurdles, I contacted the systems administrator and requested that the informational access templates for these two office managers be adjusted to include the new access requirements. During this process, I discovered that I had missed one key individual in the permissional and informational gathering process. This key administrator was the coordinator for all of the academic divisional office managers. This was a critical omission on my part. I contacted this administrator immediately by phone and apologized for the oversight and assured her that it was completely unintentional. I discussed with her the details and the intentions of this mentoring process. My efforts were well-received and permission was granted.

Shortly after all the permissions and access had been granted, one of the office managers was offered a position with another university. It was an offer that the office manager could not refuse. Although we were far along in this process, he had to reluctantly withdraw from the process. I shared with him my joy for this new chapter in his life and assured him that the preparation that he helped to achieve in this process will serve us well in the days ahead. I contacted the chair of his division and offered my assistance in the training of the new office manager when that person comes on board, using the new access to information that we have gained during the preparation phase to more comprehensively train the new person.

I then scheduled meetings of the remaining office manager with personnel from the Registrar's Office, the Office of Student Accounts, and from Student Adminstrative Services to be trained on procedures and information new to the office manager. I also engaged in the training process alongside the office manager. This proved to be an invaluable experience as I gained a new appreciation for the amazing amount of knowledge which resides in the mind of this critical staff person.

After two weeks of training, the office manager and I met and determined that the training provided a sufficient comfort level for her to begin to provide more integrated service to the students. The focus of the service provided to students at the CCB will be on academic advising, registration, student records, and general student finance matters. We decided that in August, we will consider adding "peripheral" services to be performed in the division office. Some of the peripheral services include, but not limited to, ID card replacement, the selling of movie and theme parks' discounted passes, student goverment association activities information and tickets, etc...

The desire of the office managers to be able to more effectively serve their students coupled with my desire to be able to deliver more effective and integrated services to students throughout the campus made for a healthy and natural engagement in the mentoring relationship. There was no "convincing" necessary on my part nor on the part of the office managers. The time that I had expected to spend on the convincing and justification phase was spent instead on my learning more deeply from these critical staff members. Their experience, both depth and breadth, was indeed significant. I spent much of the first month listening to their stories. There was an obvious pride and ownership expressed by these two people. They listened and affirmed my desires to effectively reform the way we serve our students and what it takes to deliver those services. In the midst of this exchange, there was a sense of fear, and that fear was expressed within our first meeting by one of them. "What if our chairs do not support what we want to do? What if they continue to see us as mere secretaries who should provide support for the office functions rather than serving the students?" I listened to their concerns and share in those concerns. I asked them what we can do to alleviate those concerns? Indeed, we must address the concerns that the chairs have, but before we get to that point, I needed to get a better understanding of what about the process in which we were engaging that would cause the office managers to believe that the chairs might be objecting to.

Continued dialogue revealed that the office managers were concerned about the perception that if they were able to provide more complete service to the students, it would mean more time would be required for such provisions. The more time they dedicated to the students, the less time they would have to attend to the administrative needs of the chairs, the faculty, and the running of the office. Perception, whether correct or not, was a substitute for reality. It was critical that we worked on ways to shape the perception to as closely match reality as possible. I asked the office managers to express in their own words how they envision their jobs being affected or changed by being able to "do more" for the students. Does it mean more work for them? Their reaction to this question was affirming to me! So much of their current processes in which they engage require manual interventions by other offices and personnel. They spend much of their day following-up on issues and matters that if they had the access and authority to complete at the first step, they would be freed up to tend to other tasks. What they wanted was to minimize mulitple layers of manual interventions in student service processes. When a student stands before them needing to be served, they want to meet the need as completely as possible by the time the student walks away. Each time a student has to return is another series of steps that the office manager must perform. Meeting the student's needs in one visit would be much more effective, and indeed much more efficient as well. They expressed the desire to seek for ways to provide service more effectively in more efficient manners. So that became our challenge and our goal.

Once we were able to articulate our challenge, I felt much more comfortable and confident approaching the chairmen of the divisions for their permission to engage the office managers in this change process. The office managers were on target with regards to the concerns that would be expressed by these administrators. Our grappling with these objections had prepared me to address them. I shared with them what the office managers wanted to do and assured them that none of us wanted to diminish the office managers' contribution to their work, to the support of the faculty nor to the administrative functions of the divisional offices. I also assured them that they would be involved in the discussion and progress of this mentoring process. We were seeking their permission to get started, but we would not take it as a permissory blanket, allowing us to do whatever we saw fit. I expressed to them our desire to involve them as much as they would want to be involved.

The longevity of their experience with these office managers as well as the extended working and personal relationships I had with these managers had provided for a strong foundation of trust that made these conversations honest and open. It was also helpful for me to present my efforts as a part of an action research process, that I was in search of possible answers, and that I was willing to accept disaffirmations to my hypothesis that students can be better served in an integrated manner by personnel distributed throughout campus. Indeed, I was in a process to attempt to reform the way we deliver services to our students. But it was a process rooted in the principles of action research, allowing for new and yet to be determined actions and reactions. As academicians, these administrators appreciated the value of learning. They both gave their blessings and asked to be kept apprised of our progress and findings.

With permission from their direct supervisors, the office managers allowed themselves to more fully engage in the mentoring process. We together developed a preliminary items that they would like to have access to as well as service functions that they would need to be empowered to perform. The list included:

  • Access to the OnCourse program to input course substitutions and permissions granted by faculty advisors that would shape and alter a student's course of study within their chosen majors.
  • Access to the student information system (SIS) to adjust majors, minors and concentrations. This would allow the office managers to provide "what-if" scenarios, using the information built into the university information system, to better advise the students academically. It will also provide live changes and immediate access to new information pertaining to a student's newly declared majors, minors and/or concentrations.
  • Access to student's financial information to help the office managers provide more complete advice and direction to students as they prepare the way for registration.
  • Permission to be a central starting point for college withdrawal procedures. This would allow the students to begin with the office managers as a central point to process their requests for withdrawing from school. With established permission, their communique via email would serve as official university notification to all the home offices, triggering a set of workflow processes that would better effectively serve the student's withdrawal needs.

The reaction from the home offices were overwhelmingly supportive. Since the groundwork had previously been laid in the last cycle, and the home offices' directors and managers had collaborated on the list of integrated services, their support was ready and immediate. The possessiveness of information and processes that had hindered progress toward shared knowledge gave way to a willingness to empower others to more effectively serve the students. Within a matter of days, I was able to secure access to the various SIS screens which contained information and means for the office managers to provide more integrated and comprehensive service as they had requested.

As we prepared for training, my realization that I had forgotten a key player in the permission garnering process stopped me in my tracks. I approached the coordinator of all the office managers and apologized for my omission. In my zeal for the process, I had proceeded directly up the chain of command and neglected a critical "side link" to the chain. Again, the longevity and extensive work and personal experience I shared with this coordinator allowed her to listen to my explanations. She was gracious and forgiving. Her main concern was that the office managers did not feel pressured into something they did not want to do. She was also concerned with the office managers being overburdened by the new tasks and information available to them. I assured her that was not our intent, and recounted my discussions with the office managers and the chairs. I also encouraged her to speak directly to the office managers. I wanted to protect her relationship with these office managers with whom she had always worked closely. I did not want to stand in the way of their relationship. I shared with her how much we valued her input and advice, and that her blessing was critical to our proceeding. She agreed to speak to the office managers. Shortly after her conversation with the office managers, she called me and gave me the permission to proceed.

The leaving of one of the office managers was a setback but not a derailment of the process. Replacing the office manager would be a difficult process indeed. But the remaining office manager was determined to press forward, and I joined her in her determination. The training was informative and productive. The office manager's vast experience with the general process and well as ample knowledge of SIS made the training quite effective. The main hurdles involved getting permission and buy-in. Once those hurdles were overcome, the mechanics of training were minor in comparison. There was a strong level of collegiality involved in the training process. We are well on our way to distributing the integrative delivery of student services!

The training for our staff and the office manager was a productive process. Their knowledge of the student information systems and extensive experience in dealing with students provided a great foundation upon which new knowledge was constructed. The information provided was easily understood by the office manager as well as the staff of student adminstrative services. The willingness of the Registrar's Office to share information as well as the responsibility to make changes to students' academic progress records was encouraging to those being trained. The financial information was well-explained. There was a strong sense of confidence and a readiness to receive and process the new information. The "new" information and the meaning of such information provided for the completion of a better understanding of the whole process. This was a critical step in further breaking down of the silos that are so much apart of the student services arena.

When I engaged these two office managers in this portion of my action research project, I had already build a strong working relastionship with them. One of them I had known and shared a congenial professional relationship for over 10 years; the other I had known since he was a student and now as colleagues. They are two people for whom I have a great deal of respect. They care deeply about the students. They are very competent in their jobs. They are always looking for ways to better serve the students. Their jobs require that they provide a great deal of service to the faculty members and tend to the many administrative details of the academic divisions. But the knowledge and skills that they possess are invaluable to the students. These are people who administratively "run" the division. They know the in's and out's of processes; they know faculty policies and needs, they understand their students better than most others in the institution. They possess a wealth of knowledge! They are, in essence, the one stop for the division.

Traditional views of office managers have often thwarted their efforts in helping the students. For example, they have been told that they "cannot academically advise students" because they are not "qualified" to do so. Although they know more than most of the sanctioned advisors, they cannot "officially" advise the students. Their access to the student information system is limited, in order to prevent them from stepping outside of their bounds. In our first meeting, I expressed to these two people how much I have come to rely on them. I shared with them how valuable they are to our institution and to the student-centered mission of our institution. I reflected with them my goal to enhance student services through the empowerment of the "knowers" like them, to effectively use the knowledge that they possess to help our students have a better educational experience.

I saw the glimmer in their eyes. To be recognized as a critical player in the institution was very empowering to them. Our first conversation opened flood gates of feelings and emotions of people who have felt under-appreciated and disempowered. There was such a willingness and desire to serve students. The frustrations of being held back by bureaucracy were poured out before me. I listened as they talked, as they shared. They were both very excited at the prospects of being engaged in a process that would involve shared problem-solving, better understanding of how the "system" works, and to share knowledge with one another. I shared with them that I will work with them to determine the most appropriate roles for them to play in the enhancement of student services. We will rely on each other's knowledge and means of access to design and implement changes that will make even more meaningful our work and our relationships with the students, the faculty, and the administration. It is amazing how empowering it is when your experience and knowledge are acknowledged and valued. This is a critical component of this relationship.

As I listened to them, I couldn't help but think about Brown and Duguid's book, The Social Life of Information, in which he talks about knowledge vs. information. It would be very difficult to try and document and categorize all of the information that is in the heads of these two staff members. And even if we were able to do so, there would be some big gaps in the linking of the seemingly disparate pieces of information. It is their knowledge, developed through a combination of almost three decades of experience, which provides the bridges, connections or synapses that bring critical information to life and make them useful in the service of students, staff and faculty. The knowledge indeed does reside in the knower. And we cannot underestimate the power of the knower. If we are to change the environment, we must engage the knowers in the process. They are not pawns to be moved around on the chess board or pieces of a machine that are interchangeable. They are much more complex and have profound impact in the whole than what they appear to be on a flat and sterile organizational chart.

From our conversations I came to a better understanding of some of the institutional barriers embedded in the processes that prevent them from fully utilizing their skills. These barriers are rooted in the traditional silos-model of institutional organization, where each department is responsible for specific tasks, where each worker knows his/her place, where jobs are unrelated and segregated. There is a strong emphasis on personal and departmental accountability. Embedded in this emphasis is a punitive rather than developmental view of assessment. Mistakes are scorned and to be avoided at all cost. So, to minimize mistakes, we "simplify", we categorize, we segregrate so that we can link the mistake to the mistake-maker. And so we are taught to "do our job"... Going beyond the job description would go outside of the established boundaries, within which there are clearly delineated tasks with specifics procedures, to which we can point and blame if there is a problem. We can put the blame on "institutional policies and procedures," rather than accepting responsibility for the choices that we make. One of the office managers expressed it well today when she said, "Sometimes I feel like it is our main job to follow the procedures and maintain policies, even if they don't make sense, even if they are cumbersome and repetitious. We teach our students to be critical thinkers, but when it comes to serving them, we distrust critical thinking because that may make us move outside of the established bounds!" WOW!!! That was an awesome insight!!!

This has been an "upside down" process for our institution. Usually, I would have gone to the dean and chairmen first to get permission. Then the chairs would contact the office managers and TELL them what would happen... By turning the process upside down, and going to the office managers first, I have given them the opportunity to choose to be engaged rather than being told to be engaged. They had taken ownership of this process. That is very critical!!!

RESISTANCE TO CHANGE

The resistance to change is as inveterate to our organization's culture as our commitment to impacting students' lives. The office managers and I spent a significant amount of time discussing the resistance that I have been getting from some administrators over this mentoring project. Our discussions have been open and productive. I sense a real sense of equity among the three of us. The institutional hierarchy does not come into play in our mentoring community. We value each other's input. We listen to one another. We may have differing views, but we are willing to learn... and even to change... as we engage in learning with one another.

When I began to share some of the resistance that I had experienced, both of the office managers quickly responded with comments that appear "ready-made", comments based on years of experience... rooted in memory. "Yeah, they have a hard time seeing us as much more than secretary," said one. "They want us to do more... just as long as it doesn't mean that it will take away from them." There was cynicism in their voices... I listened as they recounted examples and experiences of feeling belittled, disempowered, misunderstood... Most of these came from as far back as a decade ago. And as they talked, one of them had an epiphany, "You know most of this comes from us feeling like we have to deal with the difficult cases without being given the authority to make any changes or information to really know how to handle the issues." Both of them shared with me instances when new policies were instituted without their knowing, but they were the ones who had to enforce those policies. Indeed, this has been a problem that is very typical of our institution. The staff climate surveys that are conducted every other year always shows that communication is a problem that is viewed by many staff members. The interpretation of that word communication has been problemmatic for those who want to address the issue. Most of the time, it was interpreted as "the people want to know," so the focus of addressing the communication issue was on the transmission of information. What these two astute staff members were talking about here was really the issue of the construction of that information. Managers have been encouraged, cajoled, forced, expected to share information with their staff. Meetings that were reserved for managers only are now opened to the whole staff, so that anyone who wants to know can go to those meetings. But the focus remains on the transmission of information to a passive group of people. What these office managers represent was the need for not just receiving information, but to be engaged in the discussions that lead to the final product of the communicated information. So perhaps the problem was not lack of communication; rather, it was the lack of engagement.

When I verbalized my reflections on these matters, their eyes lit up, and the whole mood of the room changed. "That's it!" exclaimed one of them, "I am not talking about us not knowing about something. I get all the memos... I just would like for someone to just ask us how this would affect us and our ability to do our job... our ability to serve our students and faculty."

"Yes," said the other office manager, "If we are to carry out policies, I would really like to understand the process behind the policies. Students really don't take to me telling them 'That's university policy!' They want to know why. They want to know the reasons behind it. When I haven't been involved in the process, I am inadequate to handle those kinds of issues."

As we discussed the resistance and attempt to come to a better understanding of the objections so that we can more effectively address them, I found us gaining a deeper understanding of our organization and those of us who are members of it. Indeed, with the current climate in which significant changes have been taking place across our organization, situated in an uncertain economic environment, any change would be viewed with suspicion. There has been a history of budget cutbacks with promises that we will do less, followed by fiats to do even more with even less. The resistance from these administrators are to such changes. They are really trying to "protect" staff such as these office managers from becoming the bearers of burdens of doing more with less. The administrators did not come from some innate desire to oppress the staff; rather, it was (a paternalistic as it may be), their desire to keep them from being oppressed. When I was able to address the administrators along this vein, to share with them one of the managers' words, "We are engaged in this to work smarter, to provide better service to our students than what we have been allowed to do until now. We are not taking on any more jobs. We are trying to do the jobs we have better," the chairmen's resistance were lessened and their objections were addressed to their satisfaction. Indeed, in principle, there is support. But they want to make sure that this is not just another attempt to increase work while decreasing budget. It is my job to make sure that I do not violate their trust.

LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE YOU CROSS...

When my boys cross the street in front of our home to go to their friends' home, my words must ring in their ears... "Look both ways before you cross, son!" I would tell them, almost by habit. And so they look, and they listen for cars. Those words had seeped into the recesses of my mind, and served me well during this process. As much as I try to cover all bases, there has always been this nagging feeling inside that perhaps I am missing something. It has made me more observant and more cautious. It has slowed me down somewhat, but such feelings can help me avoid difficulties that can derail the process if I do not take time to canvas the environment while engaged in the process. My oversight of not involving the coordinator of the office managers in this change process was an incredible mistake that had I not addressed immediately would have created some critical hurdles that would have been difficult to overcome down the road. After all, what we do has everything to do with human relations, respect for one another, valuing input and experience. Had I proceeded without acknowledging the coordinator's critical role in the institutional hierarchy and processes, I would have sent an unintended message of a lack of concern and respect for her. It would have been counterproductive to our process and perhaps even further solidify the traditional need for even tighter controls. By acknowledging my oversight as a mistake and addressing it directly, I have learned to be much more mindful of all the players and their roles. I have also reaffirmed to the coordinator her critical contribution to the process and acknowledged her true concerns for the office managers. At the same time, her blessing and permission strengthened the collective resolve of the Student Services Council to this change process.

Mistakes are human! Acknowledging them did not make me less effective. I did not excuse myself from the error of omission; rather, I owned it and allowed for the "offended" the ability to redress my error. In so doing, we both contributed to a healthier process of open and productive dialogue, lessening the power of blame and suspicion. This was a powerful learning experience for me.

IT'S MORE THAN JUST RE-ENGINEERING! IT IS EMPOWERMENT!

My action research project is taking place in the midst of one of the most significant technological changes for our institution since 1987, the Enterprise Resource Planning project, a project which hopes to yield new back-end information systems for our institution. In the middle of this process is the business redesign process, which our consultants have told us would be necessary to more effectively use the systems available to us. I have tended to be from the school of thought that our business practices should drive the software design to enhance the practice. But this process seems to be the other way around, that the systems will drive how we need to do our business. In either case, it is healthy for us to re-examine how we do business from time to time. I thought the office managers as I engage in conversations and meetings where the word "re-engineering" is repeated over and over again.

In Isaacs' book on dialogue, he shared Thomas Davenport's reasons for the failure of many company's reengineering efforts. Davenport, who was one of the founders of the reengineering process, had written that reengineering "didn't start out has a code word for mindless corporate bloodshed. It wasn't supposed to be the last grasp of the Industrial Age Management". But as Isaacs pointed out, at the time of his writing his book, "The CSC Index's "State of Reengineering Report" reported that 73% of the companies that participated in the study said they were reengineering to eliminate jobs, and 67% said that reengineering efforts produced mediocre, marginal or failed results." I wonder if our institution participated in that study back in the 90's! For those who "survived" the reengineering efforts of the 90's, they are much more suspicious of new words coined for change processes. ERP... or Enterprise Resource Planning, for example, is a signal to many that positions will be cut. It's another form of reengineering for the early 21st century. The office manager who has remained in this process was one of those survivors. If not for the extensive experience that we had shared at our institution and the trust built up in our relationship, my efforts to engage her in the development of the distributive version of one stop would be futile with her.

She had expressed concerns over the ERP. And I shared in her concerns. Indeed, the reengineering processes was started as "an ideal solution to a modern business problem: how to link technological and computer-based shifts in the ways people worked with the insights of the Total Quality Movement." (Isaacs, 1999:186). But what we have experienced with previous reengineering efforts has been to use the technology to be much more efficient at being ineffective. When reengineering's goal is to trim staff, the focus of those process reengineering efforts tended to be on efficiency. Because the more efficient you are with the computers, the less human capital you would need. But if your focus is only on efficiency, and attention is not adequately given to the effectiveness of the process, the the change will just allow you to be ineffective at a faster pace.

This is what I must guard against as this office manager and I (and hopefully the replacement of the other office manager who had taken another job) go through this change process and as we shape the way we deliver student services. We must always seek to provide effective service to our students in the most efficient way possible. Empowering people like these office managers means much more than teaching them to do things more quickly. It involves allowing them to use her experience and expertise to shape the processes in ways that best incorporate new technology with processes that make sense to the people for whom the service was intended to serve. It involves being willing to let go of the notion of total efficiency when effectiveness is at stake. Their experience is invaluable in the shaping of this process!

  • Audit 100 student records for completeness and correctness of information
  • Audit same student records to ensure that home offices received information in a timely and efficient manner
  • Review student services transactions that were provided via the integrated model to determine the effectiveness of such services for students
  • Create evaluation critiera for all of the above
  • Continue to develop narrative cases to illustrate need for integrated delivery of student services
  • Survey students to get responses to the one stop concept. May consider focus groups.

Action Research Home Page Next: Cycle 3

Literature Review | Action Research Questions | Project Timeline | Cycle 1 | Cycle 3 | Final Reflections

Appendix
Journal | Brochure | Article for Publication | Presentation to Tulane | References

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