So you want to be a higher education consultant...

If I’m counting correctly, last week was the first Monday blog I’ve missed in over a year. I know readers don’t generally care about the reason for a missed post, especially if they like the weekly cadence. But from my perspective, the reason was a good one. I was deeply immersed in a consultation our Institute was doing - last week we delivered the ‘final report.’

3 Hours of sleep in 43 hours makes for a grueling experience!

3 Hours of sleep in 43 hours makes for a grueling experience!

I’d love to spend time telling you about my airline debacle. This was literally my experience: due to sheer incompetence and mismanagement of communication and customer focus, I was awake for 20 hours trying to get from Denver to the east coast. I arrived at my hotel at 5:30am. I got up to have a shower and some breakfast at 8:30am. I delivered the report twice, ate lunch with our contacts, and drove the 90 minutes back to the airport to head home. Due to weather, I was awake for 20 more hours trying to get home, before laying my head down on my own pillow. There is a lot more to that story and I would love to share, but another time. (I’m still waiting on my complaint to be recognized by United - they’ve promised an electronic travel certificate. We’ll see…)

But the travel woes of a consultant aside, I wanted to lift up the covers just a bit regarding education consultation. I have been doing this for more than two decades now, and I am often asked how it works, how to give legitimate help, etc.

I’ll try to include information from the dozens of consultations I have performed over time, but for clarity, consider the types of questions I / we have tried to answer over time:

  • Tier-1, Research institution: Can a school with only disparate, small forays into online learning create a fully online learning initiative, seeing new revenue generation, without the need for an OPM (Online Program Management)?

  • Private “teaching” University: What are the most effective strategies for instructing millennials?

  • Mid sized Bible College: How can our faculty and administrators work together instead of infighting?

  • Large, state University: How do we create a culture of innovation?

  • Three Community Colleges: How do we build an online consortium sharing classes, instructors, and students?

Phase 1

My typical route to assist schools involves at KWYK survey. KWYK stands for “Know What You Know” - meaning, you ask the institution’s players what they think, feel, believe, (etc) about an initiative, the culture, communication, or more. Over ten years I have built out a survey that really gets people to talk. Some questions are vague or ambiguous, prompting a lot of healthy commenting. Some questions are intentionally polarizing, again causing a lot of commenting. Some questions are Pollyanna which go against many academics nature as the “critic” in critical thinking really comes out. The survey is designed to get people talking (writing), and talking they do. Here are a few of my favorite statements from surveys delivered over the years:

  • Online learning is equivalent to educational malpractice

  • If students can’t assert themselves to ask for help and use some critical thinking to find the right department or person to ask, how else can we help them?

  • I’m retiring in 4 months and I don’t care about anything in this survey. (This was written out 43 times in the survey.)

  • I don’t think this survey was intended for me. As a research professor I only teach one class per year so asking me about effective teaching strategies is not something I care about.

  • The submitter who responded to all open-ended questions with a song title - example: Who should be responsible to help students who struggle to find support? Answer: “Everybody Hurts”

In parallel, our institute’s faculty and/or fellows will often perform course audits, student services secret shopping, or some kind of action research around the problem statement or initiative. Here we get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly up close and personal. My colleagues and I have reviewed courses where the professor used solely textbook materials to build it and did not comment a single time in the “discussion” boards. We’ve seen classroom experiences that led students to bare their souls, crying and hugging one another. We’ve seen a lot.

Phase 2

Following Phase 1, we aggregate the data, looking for trends and potential sticking points. This is typically as much a cultural inventory as it is nuts and bolts regarding the potential of a strategy or initiative. But it leads to richer, deeper questions we can then ask during our interviews.

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In our consultation which wrapped up last week, our team performed 52 interviews (on site) in 3 days. For 6-9 hours straight, we met with stakeholders from almost every department on campus, with constituents from every corner of multiple campuses, and we dove deeper surrounding the issues uncovered in phase 1.

It is important to note a major consultation issue that starts to arise here. I’ve blogged many times before about the success of my dad who also happens to be a consultant. He consults with churches around growth, success, etc. I was talking with him last week when he told me of work with a church consortia that saw 400% growth after working with him for only two years. (The guys knows what he’s doing…)

But one big difference with his consults happens between phase 2 and phase 3. The methodologies are similar up to this point, but his results have a lot more potential power. Why? Because while we both uncover flaws, problems, systemic issues, and dysfunction, he goes into every church consultation with a caveat. If he finds that the head pastor or any of the staff are causing the church to have trouble, they agree to resign at the end of the consult. In 35+ years of consulting, he has only asked 3 head pastors to step down, but he has put a few dozen pastors on “notice”, seeing them receive coaching and other help. IICE consulting has no such stipulation. Quite frankly, nobody would ever agree to it. So, even though I have also seen a dozen or so executives who likely should have been held accountable and/or removed from their positions during the consultations I have performed over these many years, there are no “teeth” in the end. It is left to the institution to do whatever they will following a consultation.

Quick story - three consultations ago, our findings were complete and I was preparing to deliver the final report (phase 3). Two days before the presentation I received two calls. The first call was from the Provost at the school. He suspected exactly what we found out. The institution experienced seriously deep silos, saw a number of Vice Presidents who did not communicate with each other, and where student success was concerned, there was no culture of support. Teaching and learning was as antiquated and ineffective as possible, even seeing a number of professors brazenly lower office hours because they wanted more time off. It was a mess.

He called because he knew that much of this dysfunction had occurred on his watch. He never took any action to fix the systemic problems stemming from communication, a lack of cultural awareness, acceptance of ineffective practices, etc. But he was more worried that the report, which would be delivered to the Board and the President, would make all of this obvious. He was literally trying to find a way for the report to be delivered only on paper, knowing that many people would not take the time to read a lengthy document. But as it was the President who commissioned the consultation, that was not in the cards.

The second call was from a Board member. I had never met her before that call, but she was somehow related to the Provost. She proceeded to explain to me for more than an hour how problematic the school’s faculty senate had been, how incompetent many of the staff in multiple departments were, and she pointed to a small lift in persistence as an illustration of the efficacy of the Provost. She also wondered if the report should simply be delivered electronically without need for a presentation.

Again, my consultations have never seen anyone fired. And in that instance, as a person who prides myself on communication acumen, the meeting was quite positive. But beyond that, quite to the contrary, many of my consultations over the years have seen executive teams, Dean level groups, or faculty senate organizations rally together to overcome past dysfunction. Yes, like any good consultation, there is a light shown on some bad practices, negative outlooks, or cultural barriers impeding progress. But those same reports highlight positive things to build on and quick wins that will promote momentum.

Phase 3

So the obvious last step (prior to a decision leading to implementation for which there may be an entirely new consulting effort) is the final report. Another problem can easily rear its head during this step. Again, in more than two decades doing this, it amazes me how often the appropriate people are not seated at the table to hear the report or findings. I often hear, “So and so will read through the results when they get a chance…”, for which I must note that for the dozens (hundreds?) of executives for whom that statement has been given, over the years I have had only 2 phone calls with questions or clarifications. Conversely, when those top executives are there for the final report, it almost always leads to other meetings and conversations, as there are questions.

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But Phase 3 is the “a-ha” moment. It also takes the most work, believe it or not. Here is where the documentation and ensuing presentation needs to include a lot of “nuts and bolts” ideas, concepts, and pragmatic workflows, based on experience and/or the most realistic opportunities for success possible. The best consultations (in my opinion) generate a lot of low-hanging fruit, while also illustrating bigger, meatier topics that will require more time, resources, thought, or more.

Sometimes, this last phase is truly when the project is done, although many times this last phase details a lot more work to come. Sometimes that work allows opportunities to continue working together, sometimes not. But again from our perspective, the best consultations do not create dependence on the consultant - they should be stand alone. Then, if the institution appreciated the engagement, there will be an openness to receiving another proposal. At least that is how we do it at IICE. (Yes, I know some consultants do not employ this method, even calling it stupid. The creation of dependence on the consultant creates the opportunity for on-going revenue. But we see that as an ethical problem, hence this methodology.)

So you want to be a higher education consultant…

I hope this was a little bit eye opening for some of you academics or university staff who have been thinking about putting out the consulting shingle. To be a solid, trusted partner, it takes a lot of work. It also requires some finesse as you maneuver the politics and bureaucracy that is higher ed. The last piece of realistic advice you need to know is that some of the time…perhaps half of the time, your work will result in no meaningful action. This is not just my opinion - read through blogs and other posts by consultants and you will see that a lot of those consultations end in a seeming black hole.

Now this may be reasonably explained as a school did not know what they did not know, but upon X being revealed to them in all of its difficulty and trouble, they decided to go another direction. So that consultation may be highly valuable to the institution. But at the same time, some consulting voices provide clear, tangible, even revenue generating advice that simply is not implemented well. Or, I have also seen some projects which will require a “start-up” style of creation, meaning new hires. What kind of hires? People who know how to create or implement. Yet, after the created “thing” is finished, there is now a need for operational support. But often the hires who created something are not adept at maintaining it. And as institutions struggle mightily to fire and hire well….

The bottom line is that consultations are a tricky, hairy, but important business. As it has been often said, a person is not an expert until they are from at least 50 miles away. Translation? Every institution already has people who know many of its problems, but they will never be listened to. At the same time, there are always gaps or deficiencies in knowledge, especially around new strategies or initiatives. It is far easier for a school to hire an independent consultant rather than attempt to reallocate internal resources into some kind of committee. A consultant will (typically) take less time and probably result in a more comprehensive finding.

But the point is, this is hard work. It is extremely enjoyable work too, if you are of a systems thinking mindset or enjoy the detective nature of this business. But unfortunately it is not as simple as saying, “I’ve worked in Higher Ed my whole life and I know what people should be doing…” That may or may not be true, but the experience throughout the consult will turn that confidence into dread and angst if you don’t go in with your eyes wide open.

Good luck and good learning.