Order Up! Everything I Learned About Institutional Research Came from Working in Restaurants
The few of us in this world who have endeavored to hone our skills and talents in the field of institutional research (IR) do so with the thought that ours is a truly unique profession. I mean, if one thinks about it, there is nothing quite like an IR office anywhere outside of higher education.
This little fact of uniqueness places us in a rather exclusive club of number-crunchers and report-writers. Or does it?
One night while going to dinner, I reflected on the many hours I spent as a bus boy, dishwasher, and cook at a handful of restaurants around my Alabama hometown when I was much younger. As the waitress brought my dinner, I recollected the many tasks I had to do during the course of a shift at one of my employer’s eateries. I was soon struck by the similarities between my current job in IR and working in a restaurant. Below are just some of my observations:
- People are impatient. They want their order quickly. It never seems to concern them that the kitchen is full of orders from people who came earlier. In general, people are an impatient lot, and as time moves forward, people get older, and our society becomes more automated, impatience will grow. The IR office is no different. How many times are we asked for a bunch of data by “yesterday?” How many times are we confronted by a grant writer who pushes us against impossible deadlines? In a restaurant, the customer’s anxiety and abruptness is usually tempered when the meal comes. In the IR office, the finished report with all of the data is what will subdue. In both cases, they usually leave happy and satiated…until the next time they need something.
- Everything has its place. I remember when I was first learning how to cook in a restaurant. One of my teachers was affectionately called “Mamma Rose.” This older, southern lady could cook anything. However, one quickly learned to never mess with Mamma’s kitchen. She had everything in its place. In IR, we work with data. Lots of data. If data fields are missing, re-named, appended, or placed in another dataset, our work comes to a screeching halt. When data dictionaries are not updated, it is the same thing as setting things around the kitchen in a random manner. Maybe every good IR office needs a Mamma Rose.
- Listen when taking an order. While working in restaurants, it is important to listen to the customer. It is not enough to prepare a burger and fries. How should the burger be cooked? What should go on the burger? Not everyone likes onions, so don’t assume they do. Ask questions and understand specifically what the customer wants. It is no different in IR. Many times people come to us with requests for data or reports. We should listen to what they want and ask questions if not sure. Not everyone likes pivot tables; so, don’t assume they do.
- There are many different ways to cook an egg. In the kitchen, eggs are versatile. You can fry, poach, scramble, or boil them. You can have the yoke molten (runny for you non-cooks), hard, or have no yoke at all. Within IR, data can be reported in different formats. One can create charts, graphs, or pivot tables. The data may also lend themselves to a short report or a longer research paper. Before working with data, it is a good idea to envision what the final product will look like and whether the customer will be happy with the end result. After all, while many like their eggs fried, some don’t like runny centers.
- Hot food should always be served hot and cold food should always be served cold. The best way to make a customer unhappy at a restaurant is to serve luke-warm coffee, cold potatoes, or a cold salad on a hot plate. It is important to know what food you are preparing and to serve it at its proper temperature. In the IR office, data usually comes in two types: live data and census or frozen data. Live data should never be used for formal reporting and census data is not needed for daily reports. Heaven forbid you should mix the two into one report.
- People will always question their bill. I don’t care what type of restaurant you work in, there will always be someone who is sure the bill is incorrect. While sometimes the fault is with the restaurant, more often than not the misinterpretation of the bill falls with the customer. Within the IR office, our customer usually questions the accuracy of the data in a report. Oftentimes enrollments never seem to be as high as the customer believes they should be. At other times, the reviewer may not understand specific data definitions and may assume that all classified freshmen are in the first-time full-time cohort. Still, other times a customer just can’t seem to understand that a six-year graduation rate cannot be physically computed on data that is not yet six years old. We should remain calm, listen to the complaint, and present the facts in a clear and non-demeaning manner. If the mistake falls on the IR office, just fix the problem and apologize without giving excuses.
As I finished my dinner and swallowed my last drops of coffee, I realized that so much I learned about working in an IR office came surprisingly from working in restaurants. There are other examples such as comparing the artfully crafted soup to the equally crafted report. How about the idea that too much spice can ruin a good dish like too many facts can ruin a good report? Moreover, lest I forget, IR’s version of the Health Department are the many accrediting associations we deal with.
Back at the restaurant, I collected my bill, put some money on the table, and started to walk toward the cashier. I turned around and looked at the money I left for my waitress. I wonder why nobody tips IR folks?
Andrew L. Luna, Ph.D is Executive Director of Decision Support and Institutional Research at Austin Peay State University.