Is “customer” still a bad word in higher education?

In a meeting earlier this week someone referred to our students as “customers,” but then, realizing what had been done, quickly walked the statement back by saying something like, “not that we think of our students as customers.”  That’s been a long-held student/academic affairs mentality — students are not customers.

There are certainly parts of this sentiment that I understand.  The implication is that a student has different responsibilities in the educational experience than a customer would in a commercial experience.  And I believe that to be true.  But, I also believe that too often we lean on the idea that students aren’t customers as a way to comfort ourselves for providing less-than-stellar service.

Sometimes this less-than-stellar service is beyond our control.  We don’t make all the policies, and we don’t control the bureaucracy.  But, dang it, we say we’re here for the students.  So, when it makes sense to pick up a phone and make a call rather than send a student traipsing across campus, we should do that (as one of my colleagues did this afternoon, I’m happy to say).  That’s not hand-holding or coddling, that’s just good service, and our students deserve it.

Recently a person that I respect posted, jokingly, on Facebook the old adage “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”  We know students put things off, and we know they don’t always take action when they should.  But, the very tone of that statement belies our often-stated mantra that we’re here to help students.  Does that mean we shouldn’t discuss consequences and better planning and better decision making?  Of course not.  But, we shouldn’t be afraid of “service” just because we think it is for customers and not for students.

We should be focusing on how to give the best service we can, and we should be learning from those commercial sectors to which we don’t like to be compared.  Whether you like it or not, those are the standards to which we are being held.  The experiences students have with us are contextualized not against other university offices or offices similar to ours on other campuses (which is why benchmarking is such a flawed concept sometimes), but rather against service in all settings.

What are you doing to provide absolutely top-notch service to your students?  I’d love to hear about it.  I’m sure it’s happening!





You’re just not that interesting

Social media is fun.  Social media is free time.  Social media is hanging out.  It’s for friends and for photos.  It’s for games and goofs.  As Jim Tobin said, social media can be a cocktail party.  So, why on earth would a student want to connect to your office there?

The truth is, most of our offices are not that interesting.   We do important work.  We do serious work.  Academics.  Success. Development.   But, we’re unlikely to compete with the latest meme (barring this).  So, when you post to Facebook or Twitter something like “The deadline for [insert academic policy] is coming up on [insert date], don’t miss it,” it’s not that surprising that the response you receive is silence.

I’m not suggesting we can’t be interesting and fun.  We just haven’t chosen to be most of the time.   And in some cases (like housing/residential education offices it seems), students will actively choose to engage with your work on social media regardless.  But, for most of us, it takes work.  And it takes a willingness to be more open and more human, and in the words of my former colleague Demi Brown, “to show a little leg.”

It goes beyond content.  For example, our tendency, it seems, has been to open social media accounts with names that involve our university and department names, rather than our own names and never mention the person behind the keyboard.  Would you rather talk to a big faceless department or a person?  With which are you more likely to feel comfortable and establish a connection?

So, here are 5 tips for being potentially more interesting to your students:

  • Be human.  I hesitate to use the overused — but, authenticity matters.  Talk like a human, not a university bulletin or a classified advertisement.
  • Tell stories.  If you’re trying to convince someone to come to a program, don’t tell them about the program, tell them a story related to it.
  • “Show a little leg.”  As noted previously, it’s okay to relax and have a little fun.  It’s also okay to talk about things not related to your office.  Talk sports.  Talk music.  Talk whatever is fun for you.
  • Be recognizable.  Put your own name and photos on your accounts.  People care more about talking to a person than a department.
  • Talk smaller.  If you’re talking to everyone, you’re probably not talking to anyone.

Bonus tip:  Recognize that you may never be destined for a large following or hundreds of comments and retweets. And that’s okay.  It doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time.  Just make sure you’re measuring the right thing!

This is cross-posted on the fabulous SocialAtEdu blog.

Iterative, evolutionary and revolutionary innovations

In my last post I focused on different types of innovators.  In this post I want to share some thoughts on different types of innovation.  But, I’d like to start with a quick mention of the Wikipedia entry on innovation, which states (with some minor editing):

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.”

All of those things — innovation, invention, improvement — tend to jumble together in my day-to-day conversations and thinking.  For example, I have a hard time saying something is simultaneously the creation of something better, but then also saying it’s not an improvement.  So, for the purpose of this post, I’m really not going to treat them any differently.

Now onto the heart of the actual discussion:  types of innovation.  There really are no set types, per se, and there are a lot of sources that discuss types of innovation (here and here for example).  But, I tend to think of innovations on a spectrum that looks like this:

Incremental innovation involves small adjustments to existing services or approaches, and I feel like this is what we see the most of in higher education.  A few examples:  in the career services field, where I currently work, this would be something like putting QR codes on the table tents at a career fair.  In admissions it might be using a new way to reserve spaces for campus visits.  These types of innovation, although small, still matter a lot.  So, please don’t interpret the spectrum as a substitute for bad-to-good or less-meaningful-to-more-meaningful.  Iterative innovations are vital.   But, on the downside, they typically do not bring about larger changes.  So, in instances where large-scale changes in not only style but substance is needed, you typically won’t get there through iteration.

Evolutionary innovation can seem like a large-scale change.  But, at its heart, the “new thing” is still strongly grounded in the “old thing.”   Again using the career fair example, this would be like hosting a “virtual career fair.”  It’s a new medium and environment, but is basically the same otherwise.  An academic advising office that begins to have digital signage to notify students where they are on the list of those to be seen (like Apple’s Genius Bar) is an evolutionary innovation.  These are a little more dramatic and noticeable than iterative innovations.   Evolutionary innovations have the potential to lead to larger-scale changes.  But, with hindsight, they tend to be an intermediary step along the way to something different.

Revolutionary innovation, as one might deduce, truly involves something different that leaves much of the old behind.   Continuing the career fair thread, whatever replaces fairs entirely (whenever that may occur) will be a revolutionary innovation.   When career services offices stopped doing “placement” and converted to “career education,” it was a revolutionary innovation.   Again, that’s not always to say these have more value, nor am I trying to imply that everyone is in a situation that demands or even needs to consider revolutionary innovation.   But, some of us may be.

Here is where I’d like to involve you in the conversation more purposefully.  How many truly revolutionary innovations can you think of in student affairs?  Some, no doubt, would have occurred around various civil rights movements.  Also, in what areas do you think there is a need for revolutionary innovation?  I’d love your thoughts.

What’s Your Innovation Type?

There has been conversation on the SA Collaborative Blog and in other places about “radical practitioners” and innovation in the student affairs space.  The dialogs have been spirited and thought provoking.  But, I think we’ve missed exploring more deeply at least one piece of the conversation, and that is that there isn’t just one way to be innovative or only one type of innovator.  There are a lot of books and articles that discuss types of innovators.  But, my go-to guide on the subject is Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley at IDEO (in fact, I might be just a little too into the book, because I’ve developed a self-assessment tool around the types he presents!).

In this blog I want to give a quick overview of the ten types and why recognizing that different types exist (even if you don’t agree with this specific list) is an important step in being able to involve others, or maybe involve yourself if you don’t think you’re an innovator, in this conversation.

A quick note that below I’m going to use the word “customer,” knowing that it can be problematic to call students customers.  But, substitute that word for your own preference: student, client, resident, guest, etc. as you see fit.

Kelley splits the ten types into three categories:

1. The Learning Personas
2. The Organizing Personas
3. The Building Personas

There are three types in the Learning Personas category.   The Anthropologist is the keen “eye witness.”  These people innovate by getting a deep understanding of interactions through observation.  The Experimenter is constantly in prototype mode.  These people innovate through “enlightened trial and error.”  The Cross-Pollinator is driven to pull from disconnected sources.  These people innovate by seeing something work in one context and applying it to another.

There are three types in the Organizing Personas category, as well.  The Hurdler is an expert at navigating obstacles.  These people innovate by pushing projects through roadblocks and overcoming bureaucracy.  The Collaborator thrives on bringing people together.  These people innovate by finding synergies and “multidisciplinary solutions.”  The Director also brings people together, but these people innovate by on leading these groups and sparking their talents.

There are four types in the Building Personas category.  The Experience Architect is concerned with creating “deeper” experiences.  These people innovate by looking beyond the basic needs of a customer or functions of a situation to create something special.  The Set Designer focuses on physical environments.  These people innovate through an understanding of how these environments impact behavior and attitude.  The Caregiver is one who provides truly great, personalized service. These people innovate by truly caring about customers and anticipating their needs.  The Storyteller is a developer of compelling narratives.  These people innovate by finding, and helping others find, meaning in the stories embedded in organizational culture and customer experience.

It’s difficult to convey these types in a few short sentences.  But, hopefully this quick overview will help you see that even if you don’t say to yourself, “I am an innovator,” that doesn’t mean you are not contributing to an environment that can be innovative.  Innovation is the application of new ideas and solutions.  But, the source of those can and do come from a variety of perspectives.  So, I encourage you to consider (or reconsider) how you are pushing your office, your field and our profession forward.

After doing the self-assessment that I created with my office, it was enlightening to discuss how we might approach different problems or situations through the different type lenses.  I don’t think that we are all only one type, and I don’t think that was Kelley’s intention.   But, I find it incredibly useful to try to see things with these types’ perspectives.  So, next time you’re in a meeting and find yourself wanting to say “can I play devil’s advocate for a minute.”  Instead say “can I play The Anthropologist for a minute” or “can I play The Set Designer for a minute” and see if you get better results!

Cross-posted on the Student Affairs Collaborative Blog

The easiest professional renewal

This past Friday afternoon, I experienced one of the easiest professional renewals imaginable.   A few months back Jeff Lail and I posited on Twitter that we should get some like-minded folks together this summer.  He and I had a quick G+ hangout and over the course of that 20-minute dialog chose a date and set a loose agenda.  After a bit of nail-biting on promotion and registration volume, we settled into a nice event called the NC EDU Innovation Meetup (see this site).

By the end of the afternoon, I found myself thinking, “why don’t people do things like this more often?”   It was essentially a mix of a meetup, an unconference and an idea generation session.  And it was a lot of fun.  And easy.  And renewing.

Some really interesting ideas were formed — everything from student affairs leaders having a “new professionals advisory board” to creating an online “collaboration generator” to help student affairs offices look for successful cross-departmental collaborations from across the country.  It remains to be seen if anything will come of any of these ideas.  But, that’s beside the point.  Folks left inspired and energized (or so they said on their facebook pages after the fact!).

So, don’t wait around for your annual professional association conference.  Do something like this event or Baylor’s quickSAND event for student activities pros.  Go make something interesting!

What are your underserved touchpoints?

As you think about the service(s) that your office delivers, have you stopped to consider all the possible touchpoints that exist before and after the actual service delivery?   I recently ordered some touchpoint cards with excitement from Simon Clatworthy at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design as part of the AT-ONE project, and although they have not yet arrived, I’m excited to use them in action to think through our services more fully.

What are some touchpoints that we might underserve?   What is the student experience along the entire service chain?   Website, telephone, waiting room, greeting, service delivery, follow up, or anywhere else in the chain?

In my office, we tend to think a lot about our website, our front desk service, and our actual service delivery.  But, I think we are rather weak on the follow up.  Students receive a post-service survey by email.  But, we could certainly do more to follow up on the actual service — checking in with them about their progress, offering additional guidance, and so forth.

I look forward to doing more work on the touchpoints approach to student affairs, using Simon’s cards as a jumping off point.  I’ll post more after they arrive.

We need fewer experts

It would be too strong of a statement to say that expertise kills innovation.  However, experts certainly can.. and do!

High achieving student affairs organizations are efficient, have high quality services and can demonstrate learning outcomes with the best of them.  We can become experts in our fields over time.  But, I am writing today to have you consider the relative importance of naiveté.  A recent post on Innovation Excellence discussed the importance of having a “naive challenger” on your team:

This person will either be completely ignorant about your business or at least be classed as a non-expert. They can ask the really dumb questions, such as “why do customers do that?” and “why do we do it this way?”. The answers to these often basic questions often prove to be revelations. They help you dig beneath the legends and received wisdom that can be insecure foundations for defining innovation.

In my post, I’d simply like to encourage you to seek, find and hold on dearly to your own potential for naiveté.  I recently gained an incredibly bright new colleague here at UNC (props Katherine Nobles), and in some of my conversations with her I’ve realized that she has a freshness of perspective on our office that I’ve already started to lose — and I’ve only been here for 3.5 years.  (And in case Katherine reads this — I’m not suggesting you have no expertise!).

The previously mentioned article notes that a “naive challenger” should possess these traits:

They need the self-confidence to ask stupid questions in front of an influential and strong group. An ability to challenge strongly held points of view goes with the willingness to listen. They should have a natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. Of course they need to be creative, and good lateral thinkers. They should possess the “T-profile”; a breadth of experience in a number of areas coupled with a deep knowledge of a couple.

We should all be active in cultivating these traits in our own daily behaviors.  Our offices, our programs, our services and our impact on students would all be positively influenced if we could all become even 25% more naive.


Inspiration: IKEA Australia catalog pays rent

I stumbled across this IKEA Australia promotion and thought it was brilliant.  The basic idea:  people throw catalogs away.  So, IKEA “pays rent” to people for keeping the catalog in their homes.  They’ve made a nice video explaining the project.  I just really appreciate the clever thinking.

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