As I reflected on the reactions that I received and observed during the first cycle action involving the Student Services Council and re-examining my notes from meetings with various functional area directors and staff members from over three years ago, it became more apparent to me that there has been a marked cultural change in the sub-culture of the student services professional. I noted this in my earlier reflection:
I have spent approximately twenty hours conducting interviews with 12 members of the Student Services Council. I decided to interview 5 members who have managerial/directorial or oversight responsibilities in student services and 7 members who are line staff. 6 of these interviewees have been in student services since the early 1990's, and all of them were involved in the re-engineering efforts during that time. All interviewees, managers and line staff, have direct contact with the students. I decided to "formalize" the conversations we were having after the December meeting so that I can better assess the information being shared in a more "controlled" setting. By control, I am more concerned with the consistency of context. I wanted to be able to ask the same questions of all interviewees so that I can properly analyze the data.
My main interest in conducting these interviews is to determine what these council members viewed as the determining factors for the adoption of the integrated model of delivering student services at our institution. I also wanted to have each member speak of his/her "take" on the factors candidly without having their views influenced by other members of the group in a more open and shared setting. I assured each interviewee that this was for the purposes of my action research project only, that it was not coming from an administrative fiat. I also assured them that their responses would be analyzed and presented in a group context, that their anonymity would be protected. Since the membership of the Student Services Council is open to a large body of student services professionals, and the pool of interviewees is a representation of the whole body, the data would come from a good cross-section of the council. Hence, the issue of anonymity can be handled easily. Names and positions will not be published.
My main question was "What do you see as the determining factors in our adoption of the integrated model of delivering student services?" For those who had been present during the early 1990's re-engineering efforts, I also asked them to compare and contrast what happened in the late 1990's through the current time and reflect on the new determining factors that aided in our adoption of the integrated model of student services. Aside from clarifying questions, I allowed the interviewees to speak freely. The responses contained consistent themes that were brought up in our previous informal conversations.
Based on the interviewee's responses, I searched for common themes that were raised by the interviewees. I used these themes as the basis for my data analysis. I categorized the responses based on whether the interviewee is a manager or a line staff, and whether (s)he had been a part of the re-engineering efforts in the early 1990's or not. In addition to finding out what factors our staff believed were important to the adoption of the integrated model of the delivery of student services, I also wanted to know whether their position and experience with the University's previous re-engineering efforts would affect their responses.
Environmental Factors: 92% of the interviewees cited in one form or another that the environment in the late 90's was much more open for change than they had seen in a long time. Some cited that Dr. Davenport's decision to step down as president served as a catalyst for changes to occur. One interviewee said, "The most stable thing that we have had in the past 15 years has been the presidency of the university. It was something that remained unchanged. But when Dr. Davenport expressed his desire for a change, for 'fresh blood and fresh ideas' to occupy that post, he was in a way giving us permission and a model to re-think everything. If our president can change, and if the presidency itself can change, than nothing we do should be immuned from change." Others cited the transition period as well as the transitional mood of the university provided the impetus for change. "Remember when Dr. Benton (our new and current president) brought in William Bridges to engage us in discussions about transitions?" began in interviewee. "He [Bridges] really explained our situation well then. We were basically in what he called the neutral zone, which was filled with what some may have called chaos... Everything was up in the air. I guess some could have really hunkered down and hung on to what they knew and had, and to some extent some of them did. Many people were bracing for changes... and understood that with a new administration there would be changes. With everything not so nailed-down anymore, changes could take place more easily. Bridges told us that in this neutral zone, most often the most creative ideas and innovations would come forth. I think that's what happened... We took advantage of this transtional period to do something that we couldn't do when things were stable and static."
Committed involvement from leadership: 75% of the interviewees noted this as an important factor. It is not insignificant to note that only 58% of the line staff thought that this was an important factor compared to the 80% of the managerial staff. 100% of those who had been here for more than ten years saw this as an important factor, while only 34% of those who had not been here that long attributed importance to this factor. The interviewees who noted that this was an important factor expressed in one form or another that the "call for change" in the late 90's did not come in the form of a suggestion; rather, it came in the form of a fiat. Both the outgoing president as well as the incoming president made it publicly known that they wanted to see the delivery of student services become extensively more integrated. They recognized the grassroots efforts by various departments and managers, but they wanted to see an organized and committed effort to bring about this change. They set aside specific fundings, set up a steering committee which reported directly to both of them and the other senior administrators, empowered the University Management Committee to act quickly on matters pertaining to proposed changes in student services. They also provided necessary funding. And most importantly, they gave not only public philosophical support but hands-on regular involvement.
Empowerment of frontline professionals: 92% of the interviewees strongly cited this as an important factor. 100% of the line staff shared their views that this was a critical factor. In fact, as I reviewed my notes, I noticed that 5 out of 7 staff people interviewed brought this factor up first, before discussing any other factors. Indeed, senior administration engaged the frontline professionals to take charge of the change process. They empowered managers to make changes to established university policies, even wiping them out if necessary. As long as we still followed the established governmental regulations, the university policies and practices were all up for discussion. One interviewee stated, "Nothing was nailed down anymore. When we would say 'Well, I don't think we are allowed to do that,' there was always someone coming back with 'Who's not allowing us to do that, the University or the government?' If it were the government, then we needed to clarify the regulation to determine if there is any room for maneuvering. If it were the university, then that point was up for discussion... and for change. The managers and staff felt much more empowered to make changes, as long as we can show that it is indeed effective in moving us toward a more integrated notion of delivering our services to the students.
Change policies so that we can change practices: 84% of the interviewees acknowledged the willingness of senior administration to re-examine policies as important in the change process. Policy by policy in each area was examined and re-examined to determine its purpose. One big policy that was examined and eventually changed was the need for a physical signature from a student's advisor in order for the student to do any schedule changes. "Our policies turned our students into autograph seekers. They needed signatures for everything. People who signed those forms just mindlessly sign them many times. It just became an exercise. Those of us who wanted to help the students couldn't do anything without those signatures. The idea behind the signatures was that it signified that some kind of advising had occurred. But we knew, the students knew, and the advisors knew that most of the time, it was just a formality. But we all played the game, and the students ended up doing all the work. It put the students and us in adversarial relationships." After examining the policy and interviewing students and advisors about the actual practice, it was determined that we needed to change the policy. Advising was still necessary, but confirmation of advising can now be done via the student information system and through email.
Smarter uses of technology: 92% of the interviewees cited technology as playing an important role in allowing the University community to address and embrace critical change issues. Advancements in technology also aided in the adoption of the onestop model. The more extensive use of the web and email enabled a better sharing of information among offices and staff people. Online and phone registration allowed for more independent student transactions, freeing frontline staff to deal with the exceptions rather than the standard transactions. Prior to these technological advancements, students were required to be in contact with staff people for any adminstrative needs. Now, only students who desired human contact comes to see the staff... That factor alone changed the whole dynamic of human interaction. Email, faxes, live system updates also allow for more efficient and effective communication... The network of information went to work the moment the student initiates a transaction. There was no longer a need for the student to actually construct that web through engaging in a complex series of transactions.
Establishment of the Student Services Council: Open and shared communication was extensively discussed by all interviewees. 84% of the interviewees attributed the improvement in cross-functional communication to the establishement of the Student Services Council. "I felt like the mood of our workplace changed when we came together to share information. I can ask questions now for the sake of inquiry and learning without being afraid that other departments think that I am infringing on their job or their territory. There is a real mutual respect among the community members and a better understanding of what each department does. There is also a better understanding of the process as a whole. I know better now how my part fits into the whole picture, and how important it is for others to be able to see what I do and to understand why I do what I do," said one interviewee. The council has indeed been instrumental in allowing people to share openly and to be affirmed in their own expertise. It has lessened the isolation that comes from working in segregated and unconnected fashions. The culture is continually being shifted to a more integrated model while each area continues to fine tune its own processes to better fit in this integration as well as the better sharing of information.
Job Security: This one was a huge issue... During the transitional period, there was great concern by many over whether or not they would still have a job... It is not insignificant to note that although 80% of the managers interviewed cited this as an important issue while only 58% of the line staff interviewed noted it. A comment by one of the interviewees was revealing and is worth noting here: "With all the changes that occurred in the transition, the higher up you were in the organizational chart, the more exposed you were. There were less buffers between you and the changes." This view would appear to be consistent with the data on this factor. For some, this fear caused them to be more actively engaged in the change process, because they felt that's what the senior administration wanted to see happen... It was an honest admission... action out of fear. For some people, the lack of security caused them to be further entrenched... maintain the status quo... stay low... "If they don't see me, then they won't think about getting rid of me," an interviewee admitted having had those thoughts during the transition period. When the process of change began to take shape, and job loss was not anywhere in the picture, more people were willing to be engaged in the process. In the last year, due to more budget cutbacks and another phase of re-organization had taken place, there is a renewed sense of fear... Losses in our endowment investments and other economic factors have necessitated more budget cutbacks. There is new uncertainty, so the willingness to be engaged in even more changes is waning.
Student input: It is not surprising that 92% of the interviewees discussed the importance of student input. After all, they work with students on a daily basis; they hear the complaints and feel the frustrations. Student focus groups, random phone surveys, and student comment sheets (collected at each office front counter) have yielded important information regarding their experience in light of their expectations. Almost all of the interviewees had stories to share about various interactions with students, and shared they did! Much of our interviews ended up being filled with the sharing of stories. During the process of these interviews, I have been reading the book Who Learns What from Cases and How?. This book, coupled with the stories that I have heard in these interviews have inspired me to add a new "branch" to this cycle... I will engage some selected staff members in developing written cases of student interactions and situations that would provide more complete, illustrative and instructive data for my project.
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