The Future of IR

Bob Daly is Assistant Vice Chancellor Emeritus, University of California-Riverside

Bob Daly.jpgeAIR: “In The Future of IR” panel presentation at CAIR 2015, you suggest that the future of IR hinges on specializing in decision support. How is that different than what IR Professionals already do?

I've seen too many IR offices that operate like a reporting agency and focus IR analysis only on what has happened in the past. Decisions, however, are made about the future – specifically, about the expected outcomes of future events. Decision-makers do want background information and analysis because that helps them understand the issue at hand, as well as minimize the risks and costs of a decision. However, decision-makers also want help in predicting possible ramifications of decisions they might make. For the future of IR, professionals should become active in helping to minimize the risks of a decision by providing insightful analysis about possible outcomes.

eAIR: Don’t IR offices already provide support that reduces risks associated with decisions?

Yes, partially. Decision support is at the core of IR, but we are not going far enough. I've been following the progress of AIR’s just-released “Improving and Transforming Institutional Research in Postsecondary Education,” and I was struck by the statement that the project aimed to “help IR evolve to the next level of practice.” Why is it necessary for IR to evolve? The core reason is that too much time is spent producing information and analysis about the past, such as fact books, assessment studies, and retention and graduation rate reports. These are valuable to many campus constituents and can provide useful context, but they are not sufficient for decision-makers who want analysis that reduces the risks and costs associated with a decision. For example, if your campus is considering spending several million dollars on a student success program, your provost will no doubt want analysis about the likelihood of the program’s success. IR should actively take on the role of analyzing the range of future outcomes, such as the prospect of increased student success and the resources needed to achieve it. This type of information about future outcomes is what is required to adequately face the challenges of decision-making in higher education.

eAIR: How is it possible for IR professionals to participate in campus decision-making as you describe?

We specialize in data. We are really good at data analysis, but if we want to see our analysis being used and decisions being “data-driven,” then we must do the analysis that not only provides historical context, but also helps decision-makers evaluate risk. We can do that by providing our decision-makers with possible outcomes from a decision. For example, I use Consumer Reports’ car-buying advice when purchasing a new car. I am most interested in their estimate of a car’s future reliability and repair costs. By providing me with the expected future repair cost of operating my new car, I am able to make an informed decision. IR professionals need to proactively provide their provost or vice president with insightful “bullet points” relevant to a proposed expanded student financial aid program. They can use IR’s unique campus perspective and analytical skills to include data and “talking points” that show not only a historical summary of the current program, but also provide a campus-wide perspective of the possible benefits and costs of an expanded program. This approach provides campus leaders with a broad perspective and multiple points of view that are essential to decision-making. Decision-makers will come to expect, depend on, and appreciate this level of strategic analysis.

eAIR: Can you briefly explain why the six stages of growth are so important to the advancement of IR?

While many professions have a clear delineation about the skills and responsibilities for promotions and career advancement, IR does not. In a college or university, there are positions such as faculty members, accounting professionals, and auditing staff. All have well-defined career paths. IR needs a similar career path that is clearly understood by senior campus officials and human resources.

The “Six Stages of Growth for the IR Professional” provides a framework for developing a career path for IR. I believe the six stages could contribute to AIR’s “Improving and Transforming IR” project by using the details of each stage to define and refine skills needed, delineate responsibilities of IR professionals, and express the value of IR to campus decision-makers. The “Statement of Aspirational Practices” calls for human resources to “identify data literacy skills required of employees who produce and/or use data or information.” Using the list of skills associated with each stage in the six stages would be a good place for HR offices to start.

The framework in the six stages also encourages IR professionals to think of themselves as participants in planning for the future of their campus. That is why I use the term "visionary" to label the sixth stage. Campus leaders have many day-to-day roles, but the one characteristic they all share is being a visionary. IR professionals also need to be visionary, and by doing so will become more engaged with other campus leaders and, more importantly, campus planning and decision-making.

eAIR: Can you provide an example of what it means to be a visionary?

Visionary ideas help achieve goals. These goals can be for an IR office, college, or university and are often developed by thinking differently or “outside the box.” For example, UC Riverside has the goal of increasing its four-year student graduation rates. As a member of the UCR committee that was charged to make recommendations and develop plans for this initiative, I offered three different ideas: 1) focus recruiting at the high schools whose matriculating students have the highest graduation rates at UCR, 2) offer a financial incentive to students who are on track to graduate in four years, and 3) use technology to create a student-focused, four-year study plan. I strongly advocated for the last idea, and discovered that the College of Engineering had already created and deployed technology that allowed its students to create optimal four-year plans to graduation. Called the A+ Student Success System, it was built under the direction of the Associate Dean of Engineering, who joined me in successfully advocating for its implementation campus-wide. It’s too early to tell the effect on Engineering’s four-year graduation rates resulting from A+, but engineering students are taking charge of, and being more responsible for, their own progress toward a four-year degree. By thinking a little differently, I presented and advocated for strategies that are helping UCR achieve one of its goals. 

eAIR: How has your membership in AIR impacted your ability to spread the word about the importance of focusing on the future of IR?

My first AIR Forum was in 1976 in Los Angeles, and it was the first time I was able to talk to IR professionals from other states and countries. That was also when I first started to learn about IR and its importance to a college. Since then, I have used the Forum to discuss the future of IR with my colleagues. I have especially enjoyed attending sessions that present information about the role of IR and what its role should be. This has helped me understand what IR is and what it could be, and to spread the word about the importance of IR.  

eAIR: As a CAIR Board member, what are some of the ways you feel you have shaped the future of CAIR and IR in general?

I’ve been involved with CAIR since 1975. When I was elected its president in 1987, one of my goals was to expand the breadth of the topics at the CAIR conference. I wanted to see more papers and presentations about the impact of the IR office, the importance of resource management analysis, the standardization of data elements, IR’s role in public relations, and the unique role IR plays in helping to manage and plan at a campus.

The most important aspect of the CAIR conferences, however, is the interaction with my colleagues. One of these interactions led to a very important outcome: I met Anne Machung (UC Berkeley) at a CAIR conference, and was telling her about my work to develop a “Standardized Survey Response” that could be used to send campus data to college guides and rating magazines. I discovered that Anne was doing the same work. We combined our efforts, and after a few years, our collaboration eventually developed into the Common Data Set. That initial meeting led to a very important outcome for the IR profession.

As a CAIR Board member, I do what I can to make each conference better and to attract even more attendees. My favorite activity at each IR conference remains renewing friendships with my colleagues and meeting new IR professionals. Through my efforts to help improve each CAIR conference, I hope I am helping new IR professionals succeed, as they are the future of IR.



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Total Comments: 1
Mike posted on 3/17/2016 1:29 PM
Thank you for this excellent article and your work on the Six Stages of Growth for the IR Professional. I attended your CARE Presentation (which if I remember correctly won Best Presentation) and having only been in IR for a year found it very helpful for planning my career path!