Building Your Organization Capacity for Success: Getting Past the Growing Pains


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Dr. Linda Baer researches the dynamics of institutional change. She and her fellow researcher Dr. Don Norris tell us that, “Optimizing student success should be Institutional Priority #1. Effective change management should be deployed to execute this strategy and build the organizational capacity required for its success.”

Optimizing Student Success Work

The statement ‘effective change management should be deployed to execute this strategy’ sounds like simple decree, but anyone who works in higher education knows that change does not come easy to the academy! It’s one thing to say you’re in a learning community, it’s another thing altogether to follow such statements with action. When we named our company Civitas Learning in 2011, it was because we fundamentally wanted to form a community committed to ongoing and continuous learning that improves student outcomes across all segments of higher education. Our commitment to help students learn well and finish strong forms the cornerstone of our mission to see one million more students a year graduate or complete a college degree or certification.

For colleges optimizing for student success, forming a true learning community means thinking critically about institutional needs, examining those needs, taking action around those needs, and learning throughout the process in the pursuit of their institutional mission.

But in order to be a learning community, we need to best understand what it means to learn. Over my years of schooling, I have taken education courses covering the works of writers such as Parker Palmer and Paulo Freire, causing me to reflect on education and knowledge; both fascinating and worthy of study. Recently, however, I have spent energy reflecting on institutional learning. Most specifically, I am animated by the notion of learning itself and am curious about what it takes to really pursue learning as an organization like a college or university.

Turning the DIAL

In our work with our partners, we leverage a mnemonic device that also forms our conceptual framework for advancing student success; we call it the DIAL framework: Data – Insight – Action – Learning. The DIAL process is iterative, and begins with data that inform insights, that lead to actions, that inform learning; the learning is the source of ‘new data’ that inform a new set of insights, actions, and learning, etc. Our Co-Founder Dr. Mark Milliron calls this “turning the DIAL on student success.” He’s written more on the DIAL framework here.

The Civitas Learning Student Insights Engine (SIE) provides the base layer or foundation upon which the data function of the DIAL begins. Our application Illume® provides the visualization of those Data to inform the student level Insight and Action portions of the DIAL, while our Inspire® apps facilitate Action and capture outreach data for analysis by the SIE. If, as Baer and Norris assert, “optimizing student success should be Institutional Priority #1” where are we learning?

Certainly Illume users stand to gain new insights as data are created from outreach campaigns and student success initiatives, but how are institutions and decision-makers leveraging their own learning through this whole process?

Moving Past the Growing Pains

In 458 BCE, the ancient Greek philosopher Aeschylus wrote The Agamemnon of Aeschylus in which he utilized the phrase πάθει μάθος – (pathei-mathos) – translated “learning, or wisdom arises from suffering.” Aeschylus posited that true learning occurred following suffering or adversity.

In our work with our partners, we too have discovered that learning can follow some difficulty. When colleges and universities make optimizing student success their first priority, and implement change management to focus on the priority, there is much to learn; and naturally, there are challenges along the way!

What we have found, time and time again, is that those who press into the challenges come out learning the most, and gaining the most. Change is not an easy thing! But hard work has its rewards.

The journey of optimizing institutions of higher education for student success brings various kinds of challenges, not the least of which is institutional history and momentum. Keeping the institutional mission as the directional compass guiding the pathway for student success initiatives remains the best way to keep on the path and push past the challenges. Our partners and I talk about how successful student success initiatives at their institution should press them toward their mission. Your student success initiatives should resonate with who you are as a campus community. Fulfilling your institutional mission is not about a destination, but about the journey.

Whenever challenges lay before us, our natural inclination is to do what we know, respond the way in which we are comfortable. Institutional change requires new action that may sometimes seem, at first, uncomfortable.

But with our institutional mission as our guide, we can press into and through the challenges before us because the outcome for students is worthy of the challenge. The learning outcome for the institution is equally worthwhile as it continues to refine and optimize the organization and its ‘actors’ (faculty, and staff who support students) to continue turning the DIAL on student success. Carry on sojourners!

Dr. Eric McIntosh

Eric McIntosh is the research director for Civitas Learning. With a professional background in student affairs, he has worked for institutions of varying types and sizes understanding the intersection of students’ academic journeys and lives. An active researcher, Eric’s research interests include access issues in higher education, spirituality in higher education, transfer student integration, student thriving, and student success. Since 2007, Eric has been involved in research on student thriving; a research initiative of the Doctoral Programs in Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University.

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