Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Staff Field Trips

Does your college -- or company -- ever send staff members on field trips to sister institutions?

I’m not referring here to conferences.  I’m referring to targeted trips to a particular site to see how they do something you’d like to do, or would like to do better.

It’s a category of travel that tends to fall between the cracks.  We have statewide meetings of folks who share the same rank, at which they talk about issues of shared concern.  (I meet with the other Massachusetts community college academic vp’s monthly, for example.)  Those meetings serve a useful purpose, but they’re necessarily brief.  And there are various regional and national conferences that draw folks with different roles.  Those serve other purposes, also valuable.  

But many of the issues I see getting in the way happen at a more quotidian level.  They’re the sorts of thing best addressed by one-on-one conversations, or very small group discussions, that can devote several hours to one topic.  How do you handle attendance reporting for part-of-term courses, say, or how to you flag purely online students in Banner?  Issues like these require the sleeves-rolled-up involvement of people who know the gritty details.  They can be a bit dry, but they matter.

Right now, we tend to address issues like those through emails.  But email exchanges tend to stop much too quickly.  They’re fine for coordinating meeting times, but they aren’t great for in-depth problem solving of very specific issues.  

We don’t really recognize staff field trips as professional development tools.  We should; they can work wonders.

Locally, for example, I had a hard time conveying the concept of “self-paced math” until several faculty did a field trip to a sister college -- Middlesex Community College (hi, Phil!) -- that is running its own interpretation of it.  At that point, the concept became concrete, and the local faculty returned with a clearer sense of what the idea implied.  It proved to be the catalyst for a wonderful project that will come to first fruition later this month.

But that’s faculty.  As an industry, we at least have some recognition of the need to send faculty to various places to maintain currency.  But we tend to assume that staff will get by just fine with a combination of email, webinars, and the occasional conference.  I’m not convinced.

The keys to making this idea work, I think, are two:

- Make sure that the folks who go are the ones actually in the trenches.  You need the people who understand the quirky compatibility issue on the fifth screen in.  That’s where so many great concepts come to grief.  Nothing against vice presidents, but frequently, the issue will be solved by the person on the front line.

- We need to understand the symbiotic relationship between implementation and innovation.  In the popular imagination, breakthroughs come first, followed by engagement.  But in fact, much innovation occurs while people are in the midst of engagement.  If engagement is stalled by silly glitches, we’ll never get to the stage of engagement at which innovation thrives.

It’s easy to dismiss implementation as dull, detail-y, or inevitably flawed.  It lacks the glamour of the Big Idea.  But it makes Big Ideas possible.  A little bit of travel money in some unaccustomed corners can save a whole lot of expensive software workarounds.  

[e-mails] aren’t great for in-depth problem solving of very specific issues.

That is because people really don't want to read past the first sentence or three. I learned that with students, but it applies to faculty and admin as well. The busier people are, the less they read of an e-mail. A detailed e-mail might lay out the issues, the agenda for a meeting, but the give and take of a small group is where progress is made.

More than that, something like self-paced (developmental?) math has to be seen in practice to appreciate how it works and what infrastructure is required. (I wonder how different their system is from ours.)

PS - Silly Glitches would be a good name for an intramural team or band consisting of IT professionals or academic policy wonks.
I think you're right about the value of cross-college staff collaboration! Having worked my way up from the bottom of the trenches, I appreciate administrators who understand this kind of thing. However, I think there's one more practical barrier to consider -- sending your staff on a field trip means that they aren't on your own campus, doing whatever job they do. At my college, this has been the overwhelming response whenever staff proposes visiting our peers and rivals. How can we spare our secretary/financial aid advisor/whatever when we have students needing help right here and now? I'd be interested in hearing about any approaches that have helped convince administrators that, yes, the institution will survive for a day without low-level staff.
The snarky voice in my head just popped up with "of course not, if they saw how much better faculty/staff were treated at that other institution, they'd be more likely to leave" But it's been a tough morning, so hopefully I'll be more optimistic about it tomorrow.
We have regional peer groups that meet either monthly or quarterly to address issues within different disciplines. The regular meetings increase cross talk between our facilities and give folks a pool of peers to draw on for ideas. Not everyone can have a blog.... =)
@Uncle Matt - how about if the field trip occurs during a spring break week or some other period when classes are not in session? Staff are still required to work (at least at my school), and there are certainly fewer others around who would be calling on them for critical needs.

From another perspective, if the office can function when Staff Member X takes a vacation or a sick day, then it should also be able to function during a planned short trip that could boost long-term effectiveness.

Just my $0.02
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