In How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, Eds., 2000, ) the authors compared and contrasted four different types of learning environments: learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered. In the areas of student administrative services at higher education institutions, generally, the methods and means by which policies are developed, implemented and practiced determine the kind of environment in which students live and learn outside of the classroom. These environments, as viewed by the students, are considered to be either student-centered or institution-centered. Language in most higher education institutions’ literature tends to reflect a mission or philosophy that is student-centered when it comes to the overall college experience. Yet more often than not, the student’s experience does not match with the published statements or literature. Often, administrative processes reflect an institution-centered environment. They are complex and cumbersome, requiring the students to attend to the needs of the institution rather than the institution attending to the needs of her students. (Narrative case C-1 illustrates this model.) The quality of service is measured in how well procedures have been followed rather than how well the student’s needs have been met.

For many administrative functions, the processes are intertwined and involve several distinct university offices and/or functional areas. Each function or service requires information input from numerous parties from throughout the institution. In addition, the result of one service transaction often becomes new information that is needed to complete other service transactions in other corners of the organization. What appears on the surface to be a student service that is provided by one functional area can and does have rippling effects on many areas throughout the institution. And yet, at least at this institution, we have historically operated as if these services are distinctly contained within an established office, perched on a static organizational chart.

Cynthia Wheatley (2000), a consultant with Campus Pipeline, cites the impetus for changes in the way service is delivered to our students comes form what Joseph Pine and James Gilmore would describe in The Experience Economy (1999) as a "critical shift from a service economy, which is transactional, to an experience economy, which is relational." Universities are seeing the need to change their views regarding the way services are delivered. Each contact with a student is an experience which engages university staff and the student in the development of a relationship that can have transforming and long lasting effect on all parties involved. Students today also come to the university immersed in a culture strongly influenced by shared information, readily available on the Internet. They have experienced service that is defined by quality, accuracy, immediacy and responsiveness in other areas of life. So they bring such expectations and apply them to the institutions at which they have chosen to spend four or more years of their lives.

Student-Centered "Culture": Moving from an affirmation statement to an operationalized reality

In 19XX, Pepperdine University adopted its official affirmation statement which serves as the guiding post for its philosophy in academia, student life and other facets of university operations. Central to this statement is the commitment to the students. In part, the affirmations state that "the student, as a person of infinite dignity, is the heart of the educational enterprise... that the quality of student life is a valid concern of the university." Throughout its history, Pepperdine has taken various steps to make congruent its actions with its explicitly stated affirmations. These efforts have been undertaken by various departments at various times, including the building of a centralized adminstrative center in 1987, to house all the disparate administrative offices under one roof, tinkering with various operational processes within administrative offices, and a lackluster re-engineering efforts to streamline student services delivery in the early 1990's. In the late 1990's, it was recognized and clearly stated by the senior adminstrative team that significant changes to the delivery of student services must be made in a strategic manner with the full support of top level administrators, thorough understanding and buy-in by mid-level managers, and a strong willingness to redesign business processes and carry them out by the frontline staff.

To effect changes, it is necessary to enage in actions that would constructively move us toward the reality of a student-centered organization, expressed in concrete operationalized processes. Effecting business process changes involved the directors and managers of the student adminstrative functional offices and areas committing themselves to a constructivistic process of practice development. Linda Lambert in The Constructivist Leader (2002) gives language to the process of knowledge-base building among this community of practice at Pepperdine called The Student Services Council. The activities described below are framed in Lambert's language to more effectively showcase the effectiveness of a collaborative community effecting change through constructivistic techniques.

Evoking potential in a trusting environment: The members of the Student Services Council were asked to share stories and experiences regarding their encounters with students prior to the introduction of the integrated service delivery model. In this process, members share their frustrations with the limitations they see placed on them and their staff by the accountability-based policies and practices.

Inquiring into practice thereby reconstructing old assumptions: As a group, we ask each other why we do the things we do. Why do we require our students to engage in a series of repetitive steps to complete a simple adminstrative task? Shared conversations allowed us to openly verbalize the assumptions we make about each other's operations and requirements, that policies are often created to make sure each area stays within its operational boundaries, that each office has the need to be the recipient of primary information provided by the students to avoid any "interpretation of data" that might be involved in the passing on of information from one office to another.

Focus on the construction of meaning: Once the assumptions are shared, the Student Services Council begins the activity of constructing its own meaning on what is "official" and "primary" information, what we can expect from one another, how our processes are intertwined and connected. This is a critical element in the effecting of changes. It is important that we share the same meaning for what is critical versus what is preferrable. The meaning for each must be clearly understood and shared by the group.

Frame actions that embody new behaviors and purposeful intentions: Our purpose is to simplify student business transactions and make them yield effective information needed to trigger all the necessary functions that should be carried out to complete the respective transactions. Therefore, a list of student adminstrative transactions is compiled through the shared knowledge of the council members. Together, we design the workflow process for each transaction which would take place once the "trigger" is put into motion by the encounter of a staff person with a student. These workflow processes embody new behaviors based on redefined assumptions and shared understanding of the various functional areas. They are also based on an expectation of trust and shared accountability across the functional areas. The purposeful intentions are to make real the student-centeredness of our process. When we used to find ourselves saying to a student, "I would like to, but I can't," we now ask ourselves, "Why can't we? What hinders us from doing what we know is right for the student and what is needed to take care of what she needs at that moment?" We now have a shared framework from which we can develop new practices that engender a sense of community based on relationship building rather than mere transaction completing.

Empowering people to create change

Pepperdine has long enjoyed a strong reputation of personalized educational experience involving real and meaningful relationships among students and faculty. However, such experience on the academic side is incongruent with the bureaucratic and often impersonal maze that is found on the adminstrative side. The traditional "silo" set-up of adminstrative offices, coupled with an outdated information system, which supports and perpetuates such disparateness and restrictive access to information, have required the students to be engaged in a complex web of activities to conduct any business with the university.

The silo nature of administrative offices also fosters a culture in which staff members are specially trained to only work on limited components of any process, with little if any understanding of how their components fit in the larger process as a whole. When these staff members cannot answer a question, they refer the questioner to another department, most of the time even being unsure themselves of whether or not the referral is to the correct place. (Narrative case C-2 illustrates the adverse consequences of disconnected service delivery.)

A student-centered institution places strong value on the effectiveness of its people's ability to meet the students' needs and the point of contact. Such effectiveness can only be achieved through the sharing of information among adminstrative areas that would pertain to each and every student. Kristine Dillon (2002), the dean of Academic Service and Student Affairs at Tufts University, states, "With the priority for sharing information comes a value for each and every contact that institutional representatives have with a student. Under such an operating value system, professionals from one area think beyond their own functional areas of expertise about the ways other parts of their university may be affecting a student's experience... The staff use their contacts with students to maximize the probability that each student will fully experience the developmental and educational opportunities available at the institution."

Identify the knowers in our institution and empower them to act: Every institutuion has them. They are the people who just seems to know how to get things done. Their experience and extensive network of colleagues provide a wealth of knowledge and ability to problem solve. These knowers' day-to-day tasks generally fall in the category of "other duties as assigned" in their formal job descriptions. At the undergraduate college of Pepperdine University, some of these knowers are the office managers of the academic divisions. They are competent in their jobs and are continually 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 their respective academic divisions. 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. However, their official job titles and formal job descriptions, as situated in the organizational hierarchy, precludes them from effectively providing service to our students. To fully leverage their skills set and knowledge, it is necessary to reconstruct our understanding of who student service professionals are and to formally invite them into the community of practice of student services professional. In so doing, these knowers are expected to be engaged in the process of shared problem-solving, better understanding of how the "system" works, and to share their knowledge with other professionals with the intentional purpose of better serving our students. They are empowered through the authentic act of contributing to the knowledge base, through the receiving of access to design and implement changes that will make even more meaningful the work of serving and building relationships with the students, the faculty, and the administration.

Leveraging the knowledge and skills of knowers to better serve our students: In Brown and Duguid's The Social Life of Information (2000), the authors discuss the importance of differentiating knowledge from information. It would be difficult at best to attempt to document and categorize all of the information known by the knowers of any organization. And even if we were able to do so, there would be some major gaps in the linking of the seemingly disparate pieces of information. It is their knowledge, developed through a combination of authentic 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.

Effective knowledge management reveals institutional barriers embedded in business processes that prevent knowers 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 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!" Empowering knowers require that we afford them the room to make mistakes, to find effective ways to mitigate risks inherent in such affordances, and to trust the knowers more than the process in which they are engaged.

They need to be understood, be successful, and feel valued: "There is a strong correlation between student satisfaction and staff satisfaction," said Jim Black (2002), the provost for enrollment services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "Therefore, to improve student satisfaction, we must improve staff satisfaction. Besides the obvious--more money--staff essentially need three things from their work experience: They need to be understood... They need to be successful... They need to feel valued..."

  • They need to be understood: A critical element of the change process is to allow the staff to share their stories and experiences. Open and honest communication allows for a constructive environment wherein authentic personal experiences are highly valued and come to bear on the development of new practices. The importance of understanding the evolution of current practice as explained through personal expressions of history cannot be underestimated. Before effective change process can be engaged, it is crucial to understand from whence we come.
  • They need to be successful: Success for people who serve students come in the form of being able to meet the students' needs. Traditional models of services only allow staff members, segregated by functions, to only meet a portion of what a student might need. They rarely get to find out "how the story ends." Integrated services allow student service professionals to be engaged in the whole process, to grapple with students over issues, to constructively develop problem-solving strategies with the students and other adminstrative personnel, and even at times to help reshape policies and practices themselves.
  • They need to feel valued: Being engaged in whole processes provide for more opportunities to fully serve students and to see the value for one's work. These knowers become a source of valuable information and knowledge for students, staff and faculty alike. Students are more apt to express their appreciation when their needs have been met without the requisite "runaround." Peer staff members are appreciative of the extra support provided at the front end of student transactions by the generalists which result in more effective and accurate processing at various points of the workflow. Such contributions to the overall effectiveness of the institutional practices are highly valued and appreciation is openly expressed by university personnel from all levels.

It takes a special kind of people: The effective integrated delivery of student services require service deliverers who are willing to...

  • make serving students their work rather than seeing it as an interruption to their work.
  • be constantly dealing with the public.
  • multi-task.
  • build and nurture relationships and knowing how to effectively leverage the connections those relationships provide to best serve the students.
  • look beyond what is allowed and see what is needed.
  • answer not only the questions asked but also the questions that should have been asked.
  • see things from the perspective of those whom they serve while still understanding their fiduciary duties to the institution that empowers them to act.
  • learn, act, observe, reflect, learn, act, observe, reflect, learn...
  • deliver bad news as graciously as they can with good news.
  • seek the big picture with each point of contact.
  • keep the student as the heart of the educational enterprise.
  • sincerly ask the question "What can I do for you?" and earnestly seek ways to tend to the answers given to that question.

Is it effective?

Indeed, that is the most critical question to be answered in our change process. The intention of the integrative services delivery model is to more effectively meet the needs of the students as well as the adminstrative requirements of the University. To determine the effectiveness of this model, we engaged in an evaluation process which involved:

  • Auditing 35 student withdrawal records. This particular process was chosen for the audit because it involves practically every student services functional area at the undergraduate college. The student withdrawal request with the one stop advisor (generalist) triggers a workflow which requires all of the functional areas to be engaged.
  • Auditing 30 student refunds: The refund process is one of the most complex and involved process from the University operations standpoint. This process was chosen also because it does involve multiple functional areas and staff members working together to meet the students' needs in a timely and effective manner.
  • Surveying 150 randomly chosen students to get their feedback regarding their impression of how well they have been served through this process. Ultimately, the goal of student service improvement is to enhance the quality of the student experience. Their response to the survey will be critical in determining whether or not this effort has yielded positive results in the area of student experience enhancement. It will also assist us in determining the congruency of what we determine to be effective and what the students consider to be effective.

The audit of the withdrawal records received strong support from the home offices. The student adminstrative services advisors who performed the audit found the process to be encouraging as they saw the effectiveness of the workflow process which has been put in place. From the records audit, we found that most of the audit items were found to be 100% in compliant with university records policy. The official "trigger" notification e-mail was quite effective in starting the workflow process which allowed each home office staff to own the process and in most cases to simultaneously begin the documentation process as well as take the necessary action to work with the withdrawing student via mail or email to complete the withdrawal process. It was clear from the process review that the workflow channeled information directly to the student with clear instructions on what to do. The student did not have to engage in the complex web of activities involved in the withdrawal process; rather, the process required university personnel to take the first steps in engaging the student in completing the process. At the same time, the home offices remained effective in their ability to timely collect and properly maintain student information needed for University records.

The audit of student refunds reveal to me once again how labor intensive our processes are. Despite the complicated and cumbersome process, the OneStop advisor is able to simplify the process for the students. When the request is originated from the student to the OneStop advisor, it triggers a workflow process that is transparent to the student. The student is no longer required to travel from office to office to acquire information needed for the refund transaction to take place. The staff member utilizes the information available on the adminstrative system along with e-mail and phone communication to facilitate the refunding process. The disparate information databases within our current administrative systems require extensive manual interventions and multiple levels of information searches before a refund can be processed. As I re-calculated the refunds, it took me on average about 15 minutes to complete the process for each refund. A more integrated system with information readily available in one place, on one screen, would have simplified the process and lessen the amount of time needed for such processing. Performing this audit renewed my appreciation for the expertise of the staff members who regularly perform these tasks, who are able to quickly and effectively gather the necessary data to provide the students with complete and accurate information. I came away from this audit impressed with the ease of communication among the various home offices via e-mail and the thoroughness of documentation of communiques. Instead of sending the student back and forth between various home offices to get the needed information for exception processing, the OneStop advisor used the available communication tools and established working relationships to provide effective service to the students. It was heartening to find that within the 30 refunds, the only thing required of the student was the original request. From there, a myriad of communication, calculation, verification and approval process took place without the student's intervention or effort. Indeed, this process, although labor-intensive and at times very cumbersome for the staff members, is effective in meeting the students' needs for accurate and timely refund processing.

Out of 150 surveys that were sent, 68 were returned. The student responses were generally quite positive regarding the effectiveness of the integrated method of student services delivery. 46% of the respondents strongly agreed with the statement that "OneStop has been effective in meeting my administrative needs." An extra 29% agree with the statement, while the remaining 2% mildly agreed. When it comes to the efficiency in meeting their needs, 97% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the process is indeed efficient. 49% of the respondents stated that the OneStop personnel were able to meet all of their needs; 9% said we were able to meet most of their needs; 13% said we were able to meet most of their needs. 3% said that we were only able to meet some of their needs.

83% of the students who completed the survey said that they did not need to make any other adminstrative stops after meeting with the OneStop advisor, which is consistent with the 83% who stated that the staff members were able to meet all or more of their adminstrative needs. 17% of the remaining students were required to make other stops.

One of the students who had stated that the OneStop staff had more than met his need explained it this way: "I went in there to change my major, and your staff explained to me how I could have even more of my requirements met by changing my catalog year. She could have just done what I asked, and I would have been very happy. But she went way above and beyond it. I walked out of there with four more requirements already fulfilled than I thought I had, my address got changed, got money from my student account, and movie tickets for the weekend. I hit the jackpot!!! Thanks so much!"

The descriptors that the students use to describe OneStop and our staff members were indeed encouraging. They see the staff as funny, friendly, courteous, happy, efficient, knowledgeable, helpful, welcoming, professional, willing to help, and able. They also saw them as stressed, overworked and probably underpaid.

One student commented, "In all my years here, OneStop is one of the best things I have seen. You have made my life so much easier. I tell everybody 'Just go to OneStop' for just about anything. I figure if you can't do it, you'd figure out a way." Another student noted at the bottom of her survey, "My mom saw that I was working on this [survey] and told me that I had to say that Doug was really great! She called after 5pm one day and he already turned off his computer. She said that he actually turned his computer back on and spent another 20 minutes with her on the phone explaining my student account to her. She was amazed! She said thank you!" Such a comment affirms that what we are doing is the right thing.

The overwhelmingly positive responses from the student surveys were indeed affirming to my assumption that the integrated method of delivering student services is effective in meeting the students' administrative needs. The adjectives that the students used in describing the OneStop personnel reflected a "personal feel" regarding what could be impersonal and complicated adminstrative processes. Connections are being made with the student in the "business" transactions of the educational experience. The student is no longer alone in her efforts to meet the adminstrative requirements for being a student at our institution; the University has become actively engaged in the process of information gathering, processing, and distributing. The workflow process has been put in place to serve the students' needs while providing for the University adminstrative needs at the same time.

The traditional model of student services is based on the assumption that administrative information is "deposited" by the student to disparate information banks, who then take such information and make it proprietary unto itself. When the student needs that information, she needs to visit the respective information bank and follow established steps to "borrow" that information. Since each bank is its own separate entity, there are no established channels for the sharing of proprietary information. It is up to the student to take her cache of information from bank to bank, depositing and borrowing from each, independent of the others.

The new paradigm of integrated services redefines the assumption of adminstrative functional offices. Rather than disparate information banks, they become connected accounts within the same bank. Information is deposited once and is used by the student over and over again. This model allows for a controlled but more flexible exchange and flow of information from one account (functional area) to another. The "cache of information" resides within the framework of the information bank and is available to be used by all "bank officers" as well as the depositor (the student).

The students have come to rely on the student services advisor to effectively serve as their information broker. They no longer are required to know all of the steps of the information flow in order to complete an adminstrative task. The focus of the service is meeting the needs of the student rather than the requisite compliance with established policy. Delivering service is not seen as a mere transaction; rather, it is an opportunity to further develop the relationship of the student with the University. Indeed, we are shifting from a transactional model to a relational model (Pine & Gilmore, 1999).



Black, Jim (2002); Creating a Student-Centered Culture; In Burnett, Darlene J. & Oblinger, Diana G. (Eds.), Innovation in Student Services: Planning for Models Blending High-Touch/High Tech (pp. 35-45); Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (Eds.); How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School; Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Reserach Council; Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2000.

Brown, John Seely & Paul Duguid; The Social Life of Information; Boston: Harvard Business School Press; 2000.

Dillon, Kristine E.(2002); Student Services Standards: Valuing Contact; In Burnett, Darlene J. & Oblinger, Diana G. (Eds.), Innovation in Student Services: Planning for Models Blending High-Touch/High Tech (pp. 97-103); Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning.

Lambert, Linda, Deborah Walker, Diane P. Zimmerman, Joanne E. Cooper, Morgan Dale Lambert, Mary E. Gardner, and Margaret Szabo; The Constructivist Leader, 2nd Edition; New York:Teachers College Press, Columbia University; 2002.

Pine, B. Joseph II, and James Gilmore; The Experience Economy; Boston: Harvard Business School Press; 1999.

Wheatley, Cynthia (2002); Delivering the Brand Experience: Keeping the Promise; In Burnett, Darlene J. & Oblinger, Diana G. (Eds.), Innovation in Student Services: Planning for Models Blending High-Touch/High Tech (pp. 15-22); Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning.


Action Research Home Page E-mail Hung V.Le, author