Dear Felice: How can I become an ‘information activist’ or ‘storyteller’ in support of my institution’s move to increase data-informed decision making?
I am so glad you are seeing an increase in data-informed decision making on your campus. The purpose of conducting institutional research and sharing results is to inform decision making, guide practice, and leverage institutional planning and strategy. This is where the institutional research office and campus leadership effectively intersect.
The role of the institutional researcher has changed significantly in recent years, shifting from a relatively passive reporter of statistical data to that of change agent, information activist, and even as storyteller. In the early years of the profession, Dressel et al. (1972) stressed that the “institutional researcher’s ultimate success depends less on the research findings than on the promotion of action” (p. 49). This critical role remains the same for today’s institutional research professional. In other words, it is imperative that IR professionals share information in a way that resonates and motivates campus stakeholders to act.
In this article I offer a few strategies that every institutional research office can implement for their own purposes:
Customize the Story
Customize the story behind the results for each campus audience you engage. One way to accomplish this task is to tailor your reports to the specific needs and interests of each group, and ask yourself what they want or need to know? For instance, presenting research results to faculty requires you to focus on the academic and programmatic implications of the data, and how they, as faculty, can use that data to improve teaching, student learning, and the classroom experience. If you are presenting that same data to the Board of Trustees or senior leadership, they will want to focus on the budgetary implications of the findings or how the results will translate into administrative changes in policy or practice. Thus, this same set of data can be framed in different ways for different groups, and presented in such a way that each audience understands how to act on the information relative to their specific interests. If they see themselves in your presentation, it makes it easier for them to envision action.
Acknowledge Your Institutional Culture
An institutional researcher must understand the organizational culture in which he or she operates. This sensitivity to the culture—the deeply held values, beliefs, and assumptions of culture-bearers—is key to how information is perceived and applied to problem-solving and decision-making. Politics, group dynamics, staff and faculty relationships, departmental subcultures, and the history and traditions of an institution create a unique institutional persona. This persona frames the way the organization responds to data about that organization. Framing your data results as a culturally-contextual story might be effectively presented in words and visuals in one culture but would be better framed in statistical tables and bullet-point recommendations in another. A set of data will not be meaningful or relevant if the context is misaligned with the cultural norms and preferences. Pay attention to your institution’s cultural norms and prepare your research reports accordingly.
Use Different Research Methods to Answer the Research Questions
Sometimes the way to capture the attention of campus stakeholders is to change the way data has typically been presented. If the only strategy for sharing student satisfaction or engagement data has been in the form of survey questionnaire scores, perhaps the time has come to combine survey results with depth interview or focus group results? Expanding the research methods to collect campus data has far-reaching benefits; mixing research methods provides different types of data, different perspectives of campus stakeholders, and different ways of framing the same research problem. Stories that compel decision-makers to take action often resonate at a level that goes beyond rational decision-making.
Develop Your Presentation Skills
Finally, and probably most important to the institutional researcher’s success, is the ability to communicate effectively and to tell a compelling story with the data. You may have extensive data to share with campus groups, but this does not mean you should share it all. Learn to be straightforward and concise; less is definitely more. Interpret your data for each audience, and use "hooks" to capture the group’s attention as you begin your presentation. Involve your audience and invite questions; don’t lecture, but create an interactive climate for exchange. Finally, Swing and Ross (2016) noted that today’s institutional researcher no longer just collects, cleans, stores, and organizes data specific to the work of the institution…they must communicate and interpret it to provoke action and change. The power of any story is in the telling and in the results.
Dressel, P. L., & Associates. (1972). Institutional research in the university: A handbook. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Swing, R. L, & Ross, L. E. (2016). A new vision for institutional research, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(2), 6–13.