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.