Chapter 2 – Bridging the Gap : Reporting
Chapter 1 of this blog introduced the concept of ‘The Gap’ as a the difference in skills and training of curriculum staff and managers (normally non-technical by background) and technically trained support staff working in MIS, IT services, e-learning, data analysis and reporting roles. The next few instalments will look in more depth at operational issues in colleges which may be affected by this ‘gap’ and offer practical suggestions to try and overcome these issues. This chapter looks at data analysis and reporting.
There was a time when data was almost a dirty word among staff in colleges. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I recall a distinct ‘them and us’ culture in many colleges which I visited, whereby lecturing staff (amongst whose number I counted myself) and support staff were often at odds. An ex-colleague who shall remain nameless used to delight in reciting his favourite mis-guided quote on the subject to us newer recruits:
‘They’re called support staff because without us lecturers to support them they wouldn’t be needed…’
So much for the two sides trying to see each other’s point of view. It may be true to say that curriculum planning/teaching/lecturing/course delivery can be thought of as the actual production line of any college, the point at which the true end product of the organisation is created – no courses, no students, no college. I’m certain that this fact lies behind attitudes such as those expressed in the quote above. However, it’s clear that such entrenched opinions were based on a flawed belief that teaching staff were able to run a college single-handedly, ignoring fundamental concepts such as accountability, performance review and analysis of outcomes for students.
Which leads us to the subject of the production of reports. Fortunately, attitudes have moved on considerably in the last fifteen years and most staff in colleges now accept that there are aspects of their job which can be enhanced through good use of data. This is particularly true in colleges which are adept at gathering and using data at individual student level, such as prior attainment, initial assessment, support needs and students’ own views and opinions. Presenting such data in the form of group profiles can be an invaluable tool to guide teachers in their curriculum development, lesson planning and delivery. This helps to break down the barriers between teaching staff and support staff involved in the production of data. Many colleges are also becoming highly adept at using student progress and performance data (such as that found in the ProMonitor markbook and other proprietary systems) to help staff track their students and report on their progress more efficiently.
In an increasing number of colleges, the way in which teaching staff and managers view and value the data analysis function is improving considerably.
However, we still need to consider how colleges approach the process of how reports are created, distributed and used – here there is a common problem which I’ve spotted in many colleges over the years, leading to many useful conversations with managers about how the issue might be tackled. The issue is the ‘proliferation of reports’, where a college ends up with scores of reports in circulation where in reality only a fraction of the number are needed. Many of these reports are hence rarely used and they may sit dormant, their original purpose sometimes completely forgotten.
This proliferation happens for two main reasons:
- The absence of a set of protocols or conventions for the naming, version control and strategic use of reports. This leads to lack of clarity over what reports exist, and also often leads to a second problem, namely:
- A very widespread ability for staff to request that reports are produced. As staff in a certain position (e.g. head of department) have common data needs which they express in subtly different ways, this can mean that many versions of effectively the same report are requested and subsequently produced. This can result in many reports which all attempt to do the same thing, where one single report in their place is what is required.
Both of the above points can be explained to some extent by the ‘gap theory’ – the gap between technical staff (e.g. report writers) on the one hand and curriculum staff and managers on the other hand. The latter are ultimately the recipients and users of the data contained in reports and as such it is managers (at many levels) who are the ones requesting the production of reports. However, very few of these staff understand in detail the process by which reports are created and in the absence of a clear strategy, many of them will individually approach their technical colleagues with requests for reports. This is quite understandable but not a desirable situation.
Ideas for Solutions
In order to improve the situation, several practical steps can be taken, some of which are relatively basic, others much more complex and over-arching.
The guiding principle is to reduce the number of reports and the number of people who can request the production of a report. The aim is to have fewer, better reports which are used more often and more effectively. However, this obviously needs to be balanced against the need to fulfil the data requirements of staff on a widespread basis. This issue can be reconciled through the development of a strategy and a practical process for the production of reports. This will normally involve some or all of the following elements:
- Placing a halt on the ability for individual staff to request reports directly from report writers.
- Requests for reports would still be possible, but maybe filtered by a strategic group (see next point), which has the responsibility of identifying and meeting the common data needs of staff at different levels.
- The formation of a strategic group of staff from different backgrounds to manage the strategy for report production. This group could meet periodically to assess the reports which currently exist, the effectiveness of their use and also consider new requests for reports which have been lodged by staff.
- The development of a simple set of guidelines for report development, such as naming conventions, version control and visual consistency. This sounds simple but its importance shouldn’t be under-estimated – having a set of logically named and consistent-looking reports really helps in the management of the process over time.
- Possibly most importantly, reports need to be viewed in their strategic context. Reports are not an end in themselves, they are only as good as the way in which they’re used. The colleges which get the most out of reports have them embedded in a broader, consistent process of quality improvement. This involves not only determining the content of reports but also planning the way in which they are distributed to staff, how the data is expected to be used and also ensuring that staff are responding to what the data is telling them.
The common theme emerging is the crossover between the technical skills required to write reports on the one hand, but the crucial importance of strong and insightful management on the other hand. This brings us once more to the idea of ‘the gap’ and the importance of ensuring that technical staff are embedded into a broader process of curriculum and quality management. It’s only when this happens that their technical skills will be used to the best possible effect to improve outcomes for students and the college overall.