Released October 2020
Institutional research (IR) and institutional effectiveness (IE) units are integral components of colleges’ and universities’ infrastructures, in part because of the wide array of duties and functions they encompass and the skills, abilities, and contexts IR and IE professionals bring to bear.
The ties that bind the varied and extensive work of IR and IE are the production, use, and communication of data and information to stakeholders. Yet due to the global pandemic, the tried and true sources of data for decision making are not necessarily helpful or reliable. As such, the quest for more and different information feels urgent, requiring IR and IE units to expand their approaches.
“These types of situations challenge one's ability for adaptation and flexibility.”
Sudden change and its impact on the way we go about business often give rise to new opportunities. In an AIR survey that explored the experiences of IR and IE leaders and managers during the first few months of the pandemic, respondents reported that they were presented with several such opportunities. This work included leadership roles in institution-wide task forces, service as data experts on planning committees, provision of data and information in support of pandemic-related changes and plans, and the formalization of previously informal or ad hoc processes. These changes allowed some leaders to offer new opportunities and additional responsibilities to their staff members.
“Too much uncertainty [is the greatest challenge]. It is hard to plan well when you are asked to plan for every possible scenario.”
“It is much harder to know the mental/physical state of staff when you don't see them as frequently. It's easy to make everything seem fine for an hour-long meeting.”
When asked about successful strategies for leading their units during the pandemic, survey respondents reported that communication was key. Regular meetings, clearly defined expectations, and frequent information sharing allowed IR and IE teams to fulfill their roles while working remotely and navigating their institutions’ needs in light of COVID-19 (88% of respondents worked primarily from home). In fact, 95% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they could support communication among their staffs (see table below),
|Managing and Leading the IR/IE Unit - Considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic:||Disagree||Neutral||Agree|
I can support communication among my staff.
I can effectively manage staff work.
I can support communication between my staff and stakeholders.
I can prioritize staff work.
I can effectively communicate with my staff.
I can rally my staff around common goals.
I can overcome challenges facing my staff.
I can motivate my staff.
I can secure IR/IE unit resources.
Note: Disagree is a combination of strongly and moderately disagree; agree is a combination of strongly and moderately agree.
“Managing with grace and flexibility [has worked well]. Everyone is affected by the pandemic.”
Although communication was a critical asset, it simultaneously posed a significant challenge in recent months. Despite regular, formal communication, a lot was lost without opportunities for informal “water cooler” conversations among staff and others across the institution. This led to survey respondents’ feelings of isolation, diminished synergy, decreased motivation, and increased risk of silos. These challenges were exacerbated for one-person offices and offices for which IR and IE leaders are not included in senior-level institutional meetings. Lack of access to necessary resources, data, software, and equipment also hampered the work of some IR and IE units. Only 62% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they could secure IR and IE unit resources (see table).
“I feel that our office is only called in when they (committee, task force, VP, etc.) realize they need data, instead of being invited to be part of the whole process. This is not new but feels more pronounced since we are all isolated.”
COVID-19 has highlighted existing challenges. Doing more with less is one such continual challenge, (15% of respondents reported furloughs in their units, and 7% expected furloughs), and increased strain results in the added responsibility to manage both “emergency” work and regular work, leading to concerns about staff members’ well-being. The ongoing uncertainty underlying COVID-19 was also difficult for staff personally and professionally.
In Their Words
Survey respondents share what they would like to learn more about regarding leading and managing during this pandemic. Do you have ideas or examples to share? Join one or more of the myriad discussions on AIR Hub.
- “Identifying the type of data support I can provide to decision makers that will be useful.”
- “How to effectively communicate the necessity of data collection, review and reports to the benefit of the institution in such a time as this pandemic.”
- “How to ensure that the rest of the university community remembers that we can be helpful."
- “How to help our college leadership think and act more proactively.”
- “How to maintain long term strategic goals while also responding to the urgent demands associated with the pandemic.”
- “How to use data to best support the institution in times like this...it's sticking around longer than most people realize.”
- “Ways that others have been able to reassure superiors that the work is being done and a rush to return to 'on campus' isn't as necessary for our office as it might be for an office that deals more directly with students.”
- “Dealing with issues that are more of the emotional/societal type. I have a strong team but I'm seeing some of them wear down a bit due to social isolation and the stress of not knowing what will come next.”
- “How to support staff who have work/life balance issues, especially when they have children at home, no additional childcare help, and/or home schooling on top of that.”
- “How to get an office full of introverts to talk about whether they have any concerns/challenges. I always ask and leave time for answers, but it's hard to even articulate what the challenges are sometimes.”
- “I would like to learn how to open better communication channels with my staff so that they would feel free to express their concerns and confusions and would be better empowered to take ownership of their projects.”
Unit Structure and Positioning
- “Have any other offices used the opportunity to reframe their office functions, rename, or reorganize?”
- “How IR leaders can 'make the pitch' for having their team be a valued resource in institutional planning and responses. Our leadership still does not seem to see us as more than just retrieving IPEDS data or putting together daily pulse reports on enrollment, admissions, etc. How can we keep team morale up when we see our potential but feel unused?”
- “More on how this might be impacting the IR's future work environment. Will collaboration with other schools increase, does drive IR into more of a teaching/education role with more formalized workshops/training for its institution (e.g., video's), enhancing empowerment of stakeholders, wondering if COVID-19 is 'pushing' IR towards quicker change?”
- “What other technology or strategies being used to help lead teams at a distance?”
- “Keeping connections.”
- “What's working at other institutions.”
- “Leadership skill building.”
Survey details: AIR sought to explore the experience of leading and managing IR and IE during COVID-19. In July 2020, a survey was administered to 200 individuals; 77 people responded (39%).