AIR Forum 2014: Recurring IR Needs

As I sat in some of the 2014 AIR Forum sessions I became aware of a number of major themes where the needs of various IR offices are concerned. I thought these recurring concepts pretty interesting and informative, so I thought they would be valuable to share.

  1. Adding value: I heard this plenty. We all seem to sincerely ass value to our organizations. We recognize that resources devoted to our roles could be useful in other places, especially as resources keep getting tighter. However, we also recognize that we play a vital role in the health of our organizations and really want to be able to do even more. This “more” seems to involve research aimed at improving the student experience, or making our organizations more efficient. Unfortunately, it seems that most of us are bogged down with compulsory reporting and ad hoc requests, so going that extra mile always seems to have to wait another day. This is a sentiment with which I can certainly identify.
  2. Networking: In this case, I mean networking in the informational sense not simply “getting to know people’ sense. More than wanting to meet other people doing what we do, we seem to want to know what others in our role are doing. This perhaps speaks to a level of insufficiency of existing professional networks. We don’t have a lack of these, only they seem to be lacking in depth- we don’t seem to have access to their less formal aspects. I see a difference in the types of information shared between professional and personal networks.
  3. Management workload: Another big bunch of us sought advice on how to deal with the workload associated with managing groups of people. Simply put, supervision is work but less tangible than our many other outputs. Added to this, many IR practitioners have little formal training or experience in management and working with data doesn’t confer the types of transferable skills that a supervisor requires. Thankfully, I don’t have this issue. I run a small office and my single full time employee (Daniel Pool) practically supervises himself (I hope he reads this- it is the biggest piece of his total compensation package).
  4. Taming the Ad Hoc Beast: This is another common theme. Handling unplanned data requests and analytical services happens to all of us- it is the nature of our role. However, some organizations seem to generate significantly more of these requests than others and this can really derail planned projects. Many offices employ various techniques to tame this beast.  Am grateful it has not become that large of my issue yet.
  5. Data Coordination: Coordination of data gathering and reporting efforts across the organization is another thing that keeps coming up. As organizations grow, these functions tend to migrate always from IR offices. These might even spontaneously emerge within other units with little awareness from IR. This phenomenon can lead to variances in reporting as well as inefficiencies and duplication of efforts/expenses in data warehousing.
  6. IT/IR interface: The relationship between a university’s IR and IT functions is another recurring theme. Ideally, these should be tightly integrated. In reality, these seem not to be and this arrangement can lead to problems. For instance, IT’s emphasis is in optimizing data structures for storage and long-term retention. IR on the other hand emphasizes ready use of said data. Unfortunately, the best warehousing structures are seldom the best analysis structures. Better coordination between these entities could lead to a reduction in process losses.
  7. IR Building: A number of AIR Forums attendees find themselves building an entirely new IR office. Others find themselves rebuilding a previous IR office after turnover of a key member of the team. I understand that budgetary constraints we face normally prohibit execution of a decent succession plan, but the lack of this process often introduces costs that are less easy to quantify, but no less significant because of it.
  8. Beyond the “No”: Several IR officer find themselves transitioning away from a culture of “no.” Previous IR leaders dealt with the significant pressures related to our operations by simply saying no to everything they could. It certainly is a way to limit workload to only that which can be effectively handled with current resources. Unfortunately, this has the consequence of keeping IR out of important organizational transitions. It also has a way of alienating IR from the audience it is meant to serve. Of course, those making progress in this cultural transition report being overwhelmed by a new flood of ad hoc data and reporting requests from people that normally would not have even bother to ask. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation and not one for which any of us have found an effective answer other than…
  9. Managing up and out: in the face of mounting data and analytics requests, more IR leaders are finding themselves attempting to “manage up and out.” Allowing myself a bit of hyperbole, this is a polite way of saying “do it yourself.” The reality is that as technology improves and organizational members become increasingly sophisticated in interacting with computing, more of the data people need can be accessed without intervention from the IR unit. Most of this effort revolves around user-friendly informational dashboards. I saw an auditorium full of vendors offering various vendors offering powerful and flexible interfaces people can use to retrieve the data they need. These range from the static to the dynamic and from expensive to OMG that’s expensive. Related to this is the issue of encouraging organizational leaders to actually use the systems that are already in place. Quite honestly, it is easy to call someone and ask for a certain report- much easier than learning how to go to an interface and getting the data yourself.

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