Transitioning to a new advising structure at Northern Arizona University

How Northern Arizona turned several systems into one cohesive management platform to improve its advising offerings

Transforming advising in support of student success with purpose, commitment, and technology that can support better sharing of data across multiple units has been the focus of Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) work in the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grant program through EDUCAUSE, with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NAU has approached the work in phases with a very deliberate student-centered approach and most notably has focused on enabling advisors to be successful in the new roles they are being asked to play.

On any campus, efforts to improve student success bring about significant change, purposefully touching many if not most departments of an institution. This process of change forces long-established processes to be changed, new communication across departmental boundaries to happen more transparently, and radically increased amounts of data to be shared, understood, and taken into account in order to guide and support students completing their degrees.

Ambitious goals for student success and retention are nothing new at NAU. A decade ago, a first-year advising center served a subset of students. But there were many other advisors throughout the campus working within the disparate schools and academic units. They recognized the value of working together informally and had a working group—and no formal system that would have enabled a consistent student experience.

As is most often the case at four-year institutions, students who had declared a major were transferred to advisors or the faculty of their major department, and those advisors had no defined relationship to the advising center, a student’s former advisor, or one another. In considering how to improve its retention rates, NAU brought in a retention consultant, who led them to recognize the advantages of a more formal structure for advising. An essential underpinning for this organizational change was a formal structure that would ensure uniform adoption of some of the new technologies being introduced at the institution. Thus, ensuring that the technologies and tools were adopted by all advising units, not only those who were eager to participate.

Northern Arizona made the decision to leverage the funds from a student success grant to bring in a new enterprise-wide platform to replace the various independent student information systems including academic advising notes, student affairs records, faculty alerts, and a curriculum planner. They implemented a customer relations management (CRM) software to host all of this information in a single system with the capacity to inform staff and faculty and empower them to coordinate advising interactions with students.

Beginning in early 2016, a nine-month period of developing and testing a new CRM platform marked the first step in the transition from many disparate systems into a single new platform. Recruiting, admissions, advising, mentoring, financial aid, and other student service offices all needed to be incorporated, their requirements considered, and their users trained. By the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, academic advisors began taking their notes in Salesforce, the new CRM, while advising notes taken in the legacy system were imported to maintain continuity of the record.

In the course of the two academic years since that time, the platform has been enhanced according to user feedback. Examples of enhancements include bulk notes, document upload, Microsoft Outlook integration, and a student success dashboard that includes a student’s persistence score. Simultaneously, leaders and staff in the advising office have worked toward shared expectations regarding terminology, opening and closing of “cases,” response time, and appropriate referrals. They have implemented protocols to electronically route student issues to appropriate personnel, relieving the student of the obligation to trek to multiple offices across campus.

This integration of, and transition to, the new system provided a catalyst for the organizational change that it had been selected to enable. As they learned to work with the new product and envisioned how it might improve their service to students, advisors and other student service personnel became more conscious of their interdependence and began to recognize the ways in which having a common frame of reference and source of data could empower them and undergird their effectiveness as a team.

Of course there was some expected resistance to doing work in new and more standardized ways. As with all centralization efforts for the greater good, some of those affected felt that they lost something in what used to be a more controlled environment. In particular, academic units worried that having their advisors reporting within a centralized advising office would mean that they lost authority over them and that this loss might diminish the unique student experience they had built. The way in which positions were deployed was affected. Academic advisors who had been expected to undertake non-advising work were deployed to advise 100% of the time. Academic units had to find places to shift that work. In those cases, the advising team and the academic units worked collaboratively on solutions that took time, but resulted in an advising team that was entirely dedicated to advising work.

It has been almost two years since NAU began to transform its advising in two ways: through a new CRM platform and an empowered central advising unit. Today, advisors have much more substantial information, processes have been standardized, and the organizational structure has been redefined. What’s next? Terri Hayes, NAU’s executive director of university advising, sees today’s challenge as one of refinement: “We must continue to form a functional, large-scale organization that realizes the potential of a centralized advising organization—setting people up to be successful in their mission of helping our institution achieve its success goals. How can we direct all student energy toward learning and simplify the student experience in every way we can?” The goals of advising at NAU, and of the systems that support it, include incorporating the larger picture of the student experience into the function of advising. The institution has made a commitment to change fundamentally the ways advisors work, and empower them to make significant differences for the students.

So what do advisors need to succeed? How does the leadership of the institution support this transformation? Technology and tools by themselves will not do the trick. Changing processes and giving advisors new directives is a start, but true success entails some commitment to supporting and developing a new skill set for advisors. In December 2017, all advisors at NAU came together for the first time as a unified advising team. The two-day event, serving 110 full-time staff, focused on growth mind-set, serving under-represented student groups and collaborations among advisors and university partners. At the event, the institution collected advisors’ feedback and input about their practices and their needs. Advisors created a word cloud that spoke to the skills they have found that they need to succeed in their work with students. They celebrated their accomplishments in using the capabilities of their CRM, SalesForce, to manage cases; improving university-wide processes that impact students; and committing themselves to a continuous professional development process. They learned and grew as a community. While transforming the advising function, NAU is simultaneously focusing on educating individuals who work with student success across the campus, whether senior leadership, faculty, or staff, to understand and support the advising reform. It takes a multi-pronged approach, one that ties multiple efforts together and builds true urgency for student success.

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