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  • 08.04.22

IR Professionals as Change Agents

  • by Carolyn A. Wiley, Carolyn A. Wiley, Associate Vice President of Academic Instruction and Institutional Effectiveness, Northwest Mississippi Community College

When I began working in the field of institutional research (IR) in 2010, my daily tasks consisted of completing some externally mandated reports and a few ad hoc internal requests. Today, there are daily data requests, the creation of dynamic dashboards for multiple key performance indicators, reviews of various assessment measures, strategic planning, and more externally mandated reports. In the past 12 years, I have transitioned from a completer of reports to a data analyst. This transition occurring in IR offices across the country has moved us out from behind our computers and spreadsheets and given us a seat at the table as change agents for our institutions.

The purpose of the information we gather is for administrators to make informed decisions. According to one report by Achieving the Dream, an organizational culture that supports data-based decision-making is key to making the changes needed to improve student success. Creating data-supported change is a process of moving from problem identification through data analysis to problem-solving through the implementation of new practices. However, it is up to us to help bridge the gap between gathering data and using data so that change can occur.

Access the Data

The process of creating data-supported change begins with the IR professional's access to data. IR agents need easy access to the college's data with few obstacles. This process requires the unfettered ability to access and analyze all necessary data and the authority and resources needed to present that data to the appropriate institutional personnel. Direct access to the data allows analysts to explore the data more freely. However, having this direct access does require some level of programming or coding skills to use the data that is pulled from the information system. Thankfully, new technologies on the market can compensate for not having those skill sets.

Our ability to access the data necessary to answer questions will look different as each institution has its own way of governing its data. However, institutions should have a data governance structure that includes IR professionals. We should become a trusted guide for using data in offices across the organization. With the technological advances that allow every department to generate and gather their own data, IR offices must move out of the era in which they are the sole silo of data at the institution.

Where the IR office sits in the institution's organizational structure will influence its ability to access data and what data the IR professionals can access. Suppose the IR office reports to the Chief Academic Officer, as it does at my college, for example. In that case, it should not be surprising that the data accessed will primarily concern the academic function of the college. Thus, to ensure that the IR professionals can access and address all issues of concern to the institution, it is essential that the head of the IR department is as few organizational steps from the president as possible.

Another question is whether the IR office has access to the raw data from the information systems or only to summarized reports. Often, the ability to access the raw data will allow IR professionals to determine the data's accuracy and cleanse the data as necessary before the data analysis begins. If the analysts do not have access to raw data, they will need to review how data are cleansed and combined before being summarized.

Lastly, having access to the correct data is vital for illuminating aspects of the institution. Ideally, when questions arise that I need to research, the data needed to answer the question will already be in the available information systems. Thus, the data structure in the information system must include ways to input and track required data elements. Therefore, the information technology and IR professionals have to work together to ensure that the necessary data fields exist and train employees on how to enter data into the information system to be accessed later.

Provide the Data

Once we collect and analyze the data, we must provide that data to the appropriate stakeholders at our institution. In providing that data, we need to be prepared to teach everyone at our institutions how to be a data consumer. That means we need to be an educator of our peers. Professional development sessions on data definitions, dynamic dashboards, and data interpretation are essential to all stakeholders at your institution. Proper analysis of data leads to identifying opportunities for improvement, which are opportunities for change on the part of the institution.

However, recognizing the opportunities for improvement is not enough to initiate change. The data need to create buy-in with the audience into the issue that the data highlight. The data need to be actionable. We cannot act on historical data, for example. The data need to involve leading indicators that stakeholders can create plans to impact. It is also crucial for the stakeholders to believe that improving that data point is possible. We will not invest time and resources toward an impossible goal.

Support the Change

A change only results when a stakeholder at the institution acts based upon the provided data. If no one sees a need for change based on the data or is willing to implement the change, a change will not occur. However, it is not enough for someone to determine that a change is needed. They must see the change through to completion, which requires persistence. Other competing issues and lack of time or resources can interfere with the ability to persist in seeing the change through to completion. 

The ability to make changes also requires the authority to make the change. The most institutionally transformative changes occur if the president or a vice president is the person who oversees the change through to completion. Changes within a department are successful when led by the head of the department.

In addition to a person with authority to implement the change, our institution must have the resources necessary to make the change. Change always costs something in terms of time and resources. Thus, when deciding what change is to be made, institutions should ask if they can pay the cost required. When calculating that cost, do not neglect the human capital required to implement and scale that change. Does your institution have enough people to ensure that the change is successful?

Ultimately, IR professionals do not decide what change will occur, nor are we the ones who implement the change. However, IR professionals lead the process from problem identification to decision. The hand-off of the problem from the IR professional to someone who will determine what change is needed and then see that change through is the key to creating data-supported change. As in any relay race, a failure to hand off the baton will result in a failure to implement change. Change comes about when someone with the necessary authority at the institution takes the baton and runs with it, taking ownership of the decision to implement changes that will hopefully lead to the improvements the data indicated were necessary.

Replicate the Success

Lastly, encourage colleagues to share their success in data contributing to organizational change. Success is infectious. When groups see other groups experience positive changes from using data to identify areas for improvement, they will want to follow their lead. However, while more groups seeking to use data is a positive change, it will increase the burden on the IR office for providing data and training on the analysis and use of that data. Therefore, institutions must ensure that the IR office is appropriately staffed as the requests for data increase. IR offices need to be large enough to support the institution's data analysis and training needs.

IR professionals are no longer completers of reports but are partners in the change process. Consequently, we need access to accurate and appropriate data to answer questions. All stakeholders need to learn to be consumers of data, with IR leading the way in training and support. Finally, executives need to take ownership of the change they want to see at their institutions and ensure that they have the resources and persistence necessary to implement the change before taking action. Successful implementation will create an environment that generates additional success. Ultimately, if we all work together to use data to create meaningful change, our students will be the ones who win.


Achieving the Dream. (2012). Building institutional capacity for data-informed decision making. In Cutting Edge Series: No. 3. Retrieved from http://achievingthedream.org/sites/default/files/resources/ATD_CuttingEdge_No3.pdf

Knight, W. E. (2010). In their own words: Effectiveness in institutional research. Association for Institutional Research, 115, 1-18.

Knight, W. E., Moore, M. E., & Coperthwaite, C. A. (1999). Knowledge, skills, and effectiveness in institutional research. New Directions for Institutional Research, 104, 31.

Swing, R. L., & Ross, L. E. (2016). Statement of aspirational practice for institutional research. Association for Institutional Research, Tallahassee, Florida. Retrieved from http://www.airweb.org/aspirationalstatement

Wiley, C. A. (2020). Institutional research agents' perceptions of how data contribute to organizational change (Order No. 28622323). Available from Publicly Available Content Database. (2532146408). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/institutional-research-agents-perceptions-how/docview/2532146408/se-2

Carolyn A. WileyCarolyn A. Wiley, holds a Doctorate in Professional Studies with an emphasis in Higher Education from Delta State University and a Masters in Mathematics from the University of Southern Mississippi as well as having completed advanced graduate work in statistics and mathematics education at The University of Mississippi and the University of Memphis. In her role as Associate Vice President of Academic Instruction and Institutional Effectiveness at Northwest Mississippi Community College, she oversees the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness. She is one of the co-authors of Beginning Statistics, published by Hawkes publishing, currently in its 3rd edition. She is an avid knitter and loves time at home with her husband and family.


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