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5 Gold Standard Practices of Institutional Research and Effectiveness

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institutional effectiveness

By Earl Sires

In a recent webinar hosted by the Association for Institutional Research of the Upper Midwest (AIRUM), Drew Thiemann, the Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Bellarmine University, discussed 5 Gold Standard Practices of IR. These practices support the framework he followed to turn Bellarmine’s one-person IR department, which focused almost exclusively on ad hoc and compliance, into an Institutional Effectiveness consultancy that implemented a holistic, strategic research agenda to improve information literacy and support high-level decision making across the University.

Apply these five practices to create a strong foundation upon which to build your IR department’s influence and reach on campus. 

1. Develop and Sustain Your Network

To build support for your IR department’s work at the highest levels of your institution, a strong network that can endorse and support the results of your work will be critical.

This starts with asking stakeholders that your department already works with what their research questions are. “Working with people who might not have realized what we could help them achieve (beyond standing up operational reporting) leads to needs analysis so we can try to really sustain what those people want to understand from their data,” says Thiemann. 

The idea behind these conversations is to identify the deeper, underlying research questions that IR can help to support. Each report and deliverable that IR produces should contribute towards addressing these research questions. According to Thiemann, this is a core value that IR offices should strive toward. He stresses, “providing actionable insights is critical to an information literacy approach.”

By expanding the scope of what your IR Department does in collaboration with departments with whom you already work closely, you can build credibility, expand reach by word of mouth, and point to specific examples and use cases to leverage in discussions with departments you’d like to collaborate with in the future.

2. Define Institutional Effectiveness at Your Institution

It may seem like a trivial step, but defining what Institutional Effectiveness means for your department and university will form a foundation for the rest of your activities.

Bellarmine’s IR Department relies on the DIKW pyramid for a visual representation of its role at the University:

DIKW pyramid

The pyramid represents the process of taking bricks of information (raw data) and combining and refining them over time to build the greater, more holistic understanding defined as wisdom. Thiemann described the process as one that requires you to “differentiate between the knowledge that can be accumulated about information, and what it means to bring those various constellations of knowledge into a coherent strategy. That, to me, is the research agenda.”

Finding a core idea or image that communicates your institution’s definition of effectiveness to others can help stakeholders visualize the importance of strategic data in decision support. This is an important step that builds on the first gold standard practice by promoting a common understanding of what Institutional Effectiveness means at your institution.

3. Evangelize Holistic IR that Supports IE

It is incumbent on you to spread the word about the kids of deep research that IR can provide; research that goes far beyond providing quick answers to questions and instead helps to improve operations and methodologies in all areas of the institution.

“You have to ask yourself: why do I do this work? What is important? Are you going to move from the static delivery of information to asking questions that propel the institution to make a difference for the students and the lives of community members?”

This represents a shift in the traditional way of thinking about Institutional Research. It necessitates an intra-department conversation about the true purpose and nature behind the work your department is doing and what goals it seeks to achieve. Set higher-level, aspirational goals, and evangelize the benefits that this more comprehensive and expansive role for IR can bring to the institution.

This step builds on the first two gold standard practices. After you have cultivated a network of data gurus who share a campus-wide definition of Institutional Effectiveness, they can serve as acolytes for data-informed knowledge and wisdom gleaned from the research agenda.

4. Build a Road Map and Gain Consensus

Building from the steps above, you must have a clear goal in mind in order to achieve it. This means creating a mission and vision statement, a charter of what the department intends to achieve, and a series of SMART goals to plan the steps to get there.

Thiemann uses an analogy of “short order cooks” to describe the work his IR department was involved in prior to expanding their role. IR’s workday consisted of compiling and delivering reports on an as-needed, ad hoc basis. While this work served an important function, Thiemann knew that the department had much more to offer.

A road map and a clearly defined role, in combination with the other principles, allowed Bellarmine’s IR department to move beyond the short order work. Defining what your department can and should be rather than what it is now can help you grow that vision into a reality.

Recording and reporting on milestones and demonstrations of early wins (the low-hanging fruit of achievable victories) will demonstrate that IR can achieve what it sets out to do. Build on this momentum and cite these victories as you work to expand IR’s role on your campus.

5. Keep Up With The Policy Landscape

When Thiemann refers to policy, he means the larger initiatives and goals of your university as stewards of a public good. Keeping abreast of policy allows you to find ways that IR can play a role in supporting and furthering those goals.

At times, IR can feel independent from the primary objective of a university, which is education. But Thiemann notes that, ultimately, all members of a university community, IR included, are educators. “Keep your head up and understand why we do this work as educators.” IR professionals may not always have a direct presence in the classroom. However, IR’s work ultimately supports the efforts of instructors and faculty in a wide range of ways. 

Additionally, a true Institutional Effectiveness consultancy like the one Thiemann operates at Bellarmine can help to educate and inform administrators, and find opportunities to enhance that education in non-traditional ways.

For example, Bellarmine makes the intentional policy decision to work with a company that hires resettled refugees for employment in landscaping and janitorial positions on campus. These refugees are brought in to offer their perspectives in conversations about initiatives and strategic planning. Their input is valued by administrators and incorporated into larger institutional effectiveness plans.

Ultimately, it’s important to understand not just what larger policy initiatives your university is pursuing, but why those specific initiatives were selected. Referring back to the DIKW pyramid, this understanding informs how you can make the best use of the accumulated knowledge on your campus. Incorporating viewpoints that might be overlooked help shape knowledge into wisdom that can bolster existing initiatives and spark new ones.

Data Tools for Institutional Effectiveness

It’s important that your team and institution have access to data tools that enable effective collaboration and growth.

Thiemann notes that Rapid Insight’s tools and support was one part of what helped his department achieve their goal of expanding IR’s presence and influence on campus. “It’s a great piece of software for making quick work of analytics. If you’re looking for an analytical platform, I’d certainly recommend Rapid Insight.”

To learn more about how Rapid Insight’s data prep, predictive modeling, and data sharing tools can support your IR Department’s goals, visit our IR Solutions page.

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