Monthly Archives: July 2013

Living in silos: Blindness, elephants and higher ed customer service.

Few poems or fables seem to describe higher ed dysfunction better than “Blind Men and the Elephant,” best known via John Godfrey Saxe’s 19th-century translation of a story from the Indian subcontinent about intolerance. Yet the tale in which six sightless men encounter different parts of the pachyderm and make assumptions about what it is (a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope) also aptly describes one of the biggest elephants in the room hurting higher ed customer service.

Around the time Saxe was penning poems (and even stopping in Oswego long enough to marvel over the public library being built), educators like Edward Austin Sheldon were looking to fix education via radical methods that fused ideas based in science, experimentation and hands-on learning. In founding the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School in 1861 (the forerunner of SUNY Oswego), Sheldon saw transmitting the best techniques and content as the key to success — training teachers even as they took active roles leading classrooms of young students in the then-booming city of Oswego. The passing of knowledge was active on-the-job work that aimed for a seamless experience. Of course, he didn’t have big admissions, student affairs, alumni relations or other staffs … in part because the first training school class only had nine students, who took their pedagogy lessons in a cloakroom.

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego's Penfield Library Special Collections

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library Special Collections

But the development of specialty roles and the profusion of offices didn’t occur until much later in the 20th century. I’ve mentioned before the remembrances of Oswego legend Jimmy Moreland, who passed away in 1950. Jimmy — and that’s what he asked students to call him even in the more formal time — was a man of many talents for the school:

He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community. … Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

Flash forward 60+ years, and I cringe at the runaround students receive today — passed from one office to another when no one has an answer or because another office needs to approve something that should be common sense. Of course, colleges and their populations are much bigger, regulations more complex, services required and requested more extensive, technology constantly evolving and structures so different than the 1950s or the 1860s.

But if different offices can’t find a way to work together to help students, we’re not doing our jobs. Period. An army of specialists who can do one or two tasks but cannot help a student with the big picture — of college, and of life — does students a disservice. Higher ed is not an assembly line; it should be more like a community barn-raising where everybody does whatever necessary for success. The Admissions Office isn’t the English department which isn’t Career Services … I get that. But when a student has to run several obstacle courses just to register, pay their bill and deal with the hurdles we throw up as organizations — and anyone can only help with one piece of the puzzle — then a bigger army really isn’t better.

Moreover, do employees think of themselves as supplying customer service or just another cog in the machine? This is a management issue and an attitude more than a staffing issue. If a freshman at your college has a bad experience, rest assured hundreds of other colleges would happily take her on as a customer. Portability is an increasingly popular feature of the college experience — especially with educational disruptions where students can learn anytime, anywhere from any institution — so for any college to think they are the entity in the control, as opposed to students controlling their own destinies in increasing ways, is an arrogant and archaic attitude.

Another problem is see is in the array of software “solutions” students have to conquer like levels on a video game. Colleges use an array of “solutions” to create separate communities or systems for potential students, freshmen, registration and academic progress, student organizations, internships, career plans, alumni activities and myriad other pieces. With the number of software programs they’re asked to learn, accounts they’re asked to create and communities they’re impelled to join, it’s like we make them change planes seven times to get from Syracuse to Schenectady. All these “solutions” tackle various specialties and tasks, some better than others, but it’s miles away from even approaching a seamless, customer-friendly system.

The answers don’t need to be rocket science: Cross-training more employees. Collaborating. Communicating. Solutions (true solutions, not software “solutions”) could offer many benefits. If offices get together to create that online community or install that software package that solves problems across many areas, functions and student tasks — instead of everybody running out to buy their own niche “solution” — not only will they save money and increase efficiency, but they can provide a better student experience.

But more than anything, it’s a mindset. An attitude. A willingness to work with others to truly put students first. Jimmy Moreland figured out how to do that more than 60 years ago without consultants, vendor pitches or sophisticated software. What I wrote after reading about his amazing life speaks toward how his positive, people-based attitude transcended the system we’ve set up in the decades since, yet could guide us in our future plans:

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

You wonder indeed how we’ve made something simple as good customer service so complex. We can’t see the elephant in the room unless we think as a team.

Next time: Higher ed getting iTuned, and the role of customer service

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The trouble with personal branding.

In the film “Miracle,” the story of the underdog USA hockey team that struck gold at the 1980 Olympics, there’s a running theme where coach Herb Brooks asks his players their name, their hometown and who they play for. For the latter answer, they say “University of Minnesota,” “Boston University” and so on, to Brooks’ stoic consternation.

After a lackluster performance in an exhibition, Brooks has had enough and has the team skating suicides for hours, to the point where they’re exhausted and heaving. Finally, eventual captain Mike Eruzione yells out his name and where he’s from.

“Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.

“I play for the United States of America!” Eruzione replies.

Brooks has finally heard the answer he wants, and tells his players they can finally call it a night.

Now this scene comes to mind every time I hear a college (mis)use the term “personal branding.”

If you mean “personal branding” as making sure a Google search first finds the good things you’ve done, your LinkedIn profile and positive impressions — instead of just photos of you at a frat party — then I agree. If you mean “personal branding” in terms of finding things you enjoy and can do better than just about anybody, and trying to figure out how to do that for a living, then I applaud.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 9.14.25 AMIf you mean “personal branding” as the equivalent of “make sure everything you do puts your own marketability and brand first,” then you’re doing students a disservice. And in the process, you’re contributing to the customer service shortcomings facing the higher education industry.

The fact of the matter is unless you go straight from college graduate to running your own startup (a very tiny percentage), ultimately you’re servicing someone else’s brand. Whether you’re a pro basketball player, reporter or cashier, putting your own need for branding ahead of your team or employer is not a successful formula. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t infuse personality, but ultimately you’re a part of a bigger brand.

In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life,” Nilofer Merchant perfectly explains that “the brand follows your work,” not vice versa. Any brand is what you do, who you work with to make it happen and what you care about. Creating a “personal brand” is a byproduct — not a determinant — of doing things the right way.

The “personal branding” interpretation is especially a challenge at many institutions where every school, department and office wants to “express themselves” and in turn hire graphic design students they encourage to “express themselves.” They run off and design logos that don’t use the right colors or fonts … or even the name (or right name) of the institution. (And they often are quick to design logos and slow to design useful content.) The main identity of the college is lost in countless subbrands that distract and confuse, diluting and contradicting the idea of working across the institution to better serve students.

Often departments will contact us to say they’ve hired an art student to “redesign their page” (we have a CMS and an aim for a common look and experience across oswego.edu), and ask how they get started. Besides training, we tell them to start with content. An awkward silence tends to follow. Signing up an art student to “make a website pop” without a content strategy is like repainting a restaurant without giving any thought to what’s on the menu. I don’t go to a restaurant because of its design, I go because I want a good meal. (I also feel like the “any art student can build a professional website” is demeaning to the industry. I wouldn’t tell the art department to just hire an English major to teach their courses because he must be good with words. This isn’t a dig against art students but a statement: Web communication is about subject matter and knowing how to tell your story, not merely making pretty pictures.)

If you’re looking for the ultimate example of the personal brand damaging the institutional brand, look no further than Syracuse University’s Twitter account earlier this year. At the end of the final regular season home game, a mysterious tweet under the university account appeared to be coming up with one of the biggest sports scoops of the year:

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 8.15.21 AM

The link was to a blog by a local community college student full of speculation but empty of reliable sourcing. At that and just about every subsequent news conference, Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly and with increasing exasperation denied he planned to retire, and he hasn’t. Why would the SU account — an official and popular representation of the institution — start a rumor so wrong and detrimental? Is it possible that someone trying to make a name for themselves in the business saw this as a great chance to put over their personal brand? Even if it was at the expense of the university trusting them enough to gain this valuable experience?

When I hire student bloggers, vloggers and videographers, I encourage them to show personality and honesty, because our students are our top brand ambassadors. But they ultimately understand this opportunity is also about supporting and enhancing the college brand. I would hope all of our employees at every level are about helping our students more than their own “personal brand” or creating a “personal brand” for a department or office that runs counter to what we’re trying to accomplish across campus. Helping students should be a core part of any college’s brand in the first place.

So ultimately: Who do you play for?

Next time: Blind Men and the Elephant, or how silos destroy customer service

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