Dear Mike: I am working as a faculty member and part-time IR practitioner at a small, private liberal arts college. Our board of directors has determined that we need an actual IR department and I am tasked with developing it. Do you have some advice or guidance on how best to proceed with this initiative?
Not many get the opportunity to develop an IR office, so my first piece of advice would be to fully embrace the uniqueness of the task ahead! Allow me to share my experiences establishing the IR office at my own small, private liberal arts college, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC). If your institution is anything like mine, the office will be small (one or two people), budgets might be tight, and basic data needs and best practice operations might have been neglected due to not having a dedicated centralized and consistent keeper of institutional data. I quickly discovered that figuring out the status of what data is provided and how the data is managed largely dictated the direction of IR at SMWC.
To that end, I suggest starting with a high-level data audit. Basically, you need to ask yourself and others involved with the data: how reliable is the data, how easy is it to get the data, and how is the data reported and analyzed? Is it already easy to give a basic demographic breakdown of enrollment and report to IPEDS? Do you have a set series of reports you provide each term that anticipates common questions, such enrollment by major and historic retention and graduation rates? You could also consider doing a more in-depth data inventory of your institution and map out what specific reports and duties are currently done, their frequency, and what area is responsible. There is a huge difference between “we are struggling to provide basic descriptive data as an institution” (where SMWC was when I started), and “we are ready to explore dynamic dashboards” as a starting point for the IR office.
Taking the time to gather a realistic picture of data and reporting at your institution will accomplish several things that will help you develop your IR office. First, this will help set expectations for what the IR office can accomplish in the early stages. Second, this will help develop job descriptions and improve searches. You want to make sure that potential new hires will be a good fit by having a skillset that will best accomplish institutional needs, and that potential new hires understand what type of tasks lay ahead. Third, a high-level data audit can help your institution prioritize data needs by having a solid understanding of data strengths and weaknesses. This will give further direction to you IR office. Finally, your data assessment, especially a detailed data inventory, will allow you to more clearly see what tasks could be better accomplished by moving to IR, and what tasks are better left to the current departments. For example, at my institution, reporting on financial aid was something that took, and still takes, some training and coordination between IR and financial aid departments.
The next high-level task to consider is deciding where IR will fit into the organizational structure of your institution. Again, keeping the data audit in mind, you need to think about what area would best serve the success of your developing IR office. For example, if your data audit illustrated that there are issues with data management, making basic reporting difficult, consider placing IR under an area that has the most direct role with IT and data management to establish data accuracy and ease of access. On the other hand, if your institution has a good handle on data management but is struggling to meet reporting demands, consider placing IR under an area that has the best handle on what data needs are not being addressed.
The final, perhaps seemingly small piece of advice that I’ve found extremely beneficial in the development of IR at SMWC, and likely any other smaller institution, is the importance of communication and contact. Figuring conference funds in the IR budget can be valuable because it will put your newly developed IR office in touch with professionals undertaking similar tasks and provide valuable contacts in the field for future questions. Additionally, make sure your IR office takes the time to communicate and make contact with other people at your institution. Face-to-face meetings and campus-wide emails that share data updates helped significantly with creating a better data culture at SMWC. This is not easy and takes time, but eventually IR will see an increase in emails that say, “I’m pretty sure I know this, but want to go to my meeting with data to back it up.” Best of luck!
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