AIR Forum 2014: Some Observations

As this 2014 AIR Forum wraps up, I find I have learned quite a bit more than I expected. Much of that unexpected knowledge comes from the non-technical aspects of institutional research. As it turns out many of the things we deal with have less to do with databases, spreadsheets and graphs and have more to do with people and our role in the broader institutional context. Below I will share (briefly) some of these valuable insights. I share this mostly in the hopes that I will not forget them as I return to the pressure cooker of my normal day. If someone else gains something from this, well- I have always liked frosting.

  1. Large variation in IR office size: For every 1-2 person office represented at AIR Forum, I saw another with 5 or more.  I expected to be alone as a single person IR operation, but this was far from the case.
  2. Large variation in IR practitioner background: Those of us in IR management come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. Many of us are drawn from the ranks for faculty, but a large number also come from other places. I have heard from a meteorologist, and oceanographer, an archeologist, a sociologist, a scholar of medieval history and a former HR director. My own background in I/O psychology suddenly feels less exotic.
  3. Data they need: I have heard several mentions of providing “data they need, not data they asked for.” This is an approach I adopt whenever possible. The rationale behind this sound. Your friendly neighborhood IR practitioner often (at least they better) have a broad understanding of the types of data available to answers critical questions. Additionally, we should have a solid understanding of the various ways numerical information can be used to inform various policy questions. Often this knowledge is borne of training and experiences that other decision-makers simply don’t have. Many of us see it as our role to go beyond the request to assist in making the best possible policy decisions. Of course, this so much easier to accomplish if we are part of the broader conversation before the request. Without this context, we may not have the information necessary to bring our expertise to bear.
  1. Data they need: I have heard several mentions of providing “data they need, not data they asked for.” This is an approach I adopt whenever possible. The rationale behind this sound. Your friendly neighborhood IR practitioner often (at least they better) have a broad understanding of the types of data available to answers critical questions. Additionally, we should have a solid understanding of the various ways numerical information can be used to inform various policy questions. Often this knowledge is borne of training and experiences that other decision-makers simply don’t have. Many of us see it as our role to go beyond the request to assist in making the best possible policy decisions. Of course, this so much easier to accomplish if we are part of the broader conversation before the request. Without this context, we may not have the information necessary to bring our expertise to bear.
  2. Enthusiasm and support for IR is cyclical: Just before, during and right after accreditation deadlines, IR offices find themselves with the funding and staffing they need to handle the crises the university is experiencing at the moment. Unfortunately, as the crisis fades into memory, IR finds itself loosing resources necessary to meet the obligations agreed to during the accreditation process. I suspect this unintentional crisis model of IR resourcing is the single most effective way of creating future crises.
  3. Longitudinal Perspective: IR’s longitudinal view of institutional data is among our major strengths. Other university offices deal with large amounts of data, but they tend to use these transactional- essentially on a term-by-term, or client-by-client basis.
  4. IR and Assessment Relationship: Our offices are not always as closely integrated as they are at USAO. While at our institution these functions are highly interrelated and synergistic, other campuses don’t tie these together nearly as closely. Some even have these offices spread across different operational divisions, so the synergy that is so obvious to me, simply cannot exist. I am not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing. It may be an effective arrangement in their organizational contexts. However, IR as I understand it really needs these offices to exist in close conceptual proximity.
  5. Functional Audit: I had never heard the term “functional audit,” at least applied to IR. It seems to be a process by which IR formalizes and publishes exactly what roles are performed and by whom. It seems like a valuable process and I will move to undertake one. But it will have to wait until after I do all the other things I have to do and at least a few of the things I want to.

 

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