How does any support organization move from having questionable value to one whose value and contribution is unquestioned? The simple answer is that it’s not easy. It takes focus and considerable effort. And, perhaps, a catalyst.
This is the story of such an organization, the story of OAR. It’s about Penn State University’s Outreach Analytics and Reporting team’s transition from questionable value to unquestioned value.
It had become apparent in early 2011 that a centralized team that combined institutional data, evaluation services, and online program knowledge was needed at Penn State Outreach. This lead to the formation in August 2011 of the team known today as Outreach Analytics and Reporting (OAR), an informal institutional research team to provide expertise in data reporting, surveys, and data warehousing to better support tactical and strategic decisions within Penn State Outreach.
This team was formed by combining two separate units and establishing a co-leadership management structure. Once the honeymoon period was over, cracks in both work and team management became quite apparent. Two directors resulted in two voices, leading to conflict and poor work quality. In addition to two directors, the two second-level managers did not have full authority over their respective team members, begging the question: just who makes decisions?
The team produced good work, however it was overshadowed by mistakes and poor quality being delivered to customers. The ensuing negative feedback and questionable value of the team’s output resulted in members leaving the team and those remaining no longer engaged in their work and/or looking for other positions.
In 2013, leadership decided to split the new unit into two areas, thus ending the ineffective co-leadership model. One director was assigned to the reporting and evaluation team which retained the name “OAR,” the other to the data warehouse team, which was moved into PSU’s IT organization.
While seen as a move in the right direction, the deep-rooted issues around leadership, staffing, perceived low value and quality, and work performance persisted within what was now called the OAR team.
With only five staff members and one having gone on a six-month maternity leave, the brunt of work fell upon two senior team members. With a constant stream and relentless pace of work, taking time off was simply out of the question.
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Coinciding with this restructuring, the executive over the OAR team, Jeff Smith, decided to bring in an outside process consultant to help provide insights, direction, and support to the OAR management and team members.
When this Propoint Solutions consultant, Ken Wendle, first arrived on site, the OAR team had grown to six members. Since some positive progress was perceived as having been made, the OAR director, Janet Dillon, was not convinced that an outside consultant was necessary. She didn’t view her OAR team as being able to utilize the ITIL process framework, stated as Ken’s field of expertise.
The general consensus within OAR was, “We’re smart people. Why do we need an outsider to tell us what to do?” Despite their underlying issues, the team was unified and defensive. However, because Jeff was growing more frustrated by the almost daily complaints he was receiving, he directed that Janet and the OAR team work with Ken to address the ongoing issues, despite their resistance.
During initial meetings, Ken explained that his purpose for being brought in was for them to realize their full value potential, achieving the OAR purpose to “deliver expertise in reporting, surveys, analytics and knowledge to support tactical and strategic decisions within the Outreach pillar of Penn State.”
This became the team’s vision, one the team was prepared to rally behind, even though they were not currently aligned to it.
Ken’s first assignment was for the team to compile a detailed listing of what constituted a “good day” and a “bad day” at work. The OAR team had no problem completing this assignment, as it was evident what made up a good day versus a bad day. Even though the bad day list had many items on it, there were almost as many good day items identified.
The primary takeaway from this exercise was the identification of symptoms and a goal of increasing the team’s value, developing plans to increase the likelihood of good days and eliminating bad days.
Janet and Ken both knew that the team had to successfully execute, which required identifying game changers—goals that would make the biggest difference in their success.
Working with management and team members, Ken introduced the guidance contained within the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, with the purpose of identifying two of what is described as “Wildly Important Goals” (WIGs), which were defined as:
- Quickly define, document, and adopt a repeatable process to manage customer requests, incorporating a means to prioritize service offerings to ensure that both current and future resources are effectively and efficiently brought fully to bear which result in the greatest positive customer value.
- Quickly identify and initiate an appropriate staffing plan to address the staffing shortage because it was adversely impacting morale and performance of the team and would continue to do so in the future.
To achieve the first WIG, around process and priority, the team was forced to address the need to better structure their work and to prioritize both their customers and what was being delivered to them, neither an easy nor comfortable assignment.
The team had been frantically trying to do everything they had been doing when they were fully staffed, so a first-in-first-out mindset had developed. They had never objectively quantified which deliverables were MOST important to their customers, nor had they ever objectively addressed the question of WHICH customers were most important to them and the University.
They had never objectively quantified which deliverables were most important to their customers.
The team leveraged the simple, proven concept of: Impact + Urgency = Priority.
Impact was defined as the level of management requesting the deliverable, recognizing that the higher the management, the more University resources were involved.
Urgency was defined as WHEN the deliverable was required. Deadlines, often defined by the University’s calendar, came solidly into play. The interplay of these two elements resulted in a clear prioritization scheme:
By defining priority, the team felt that a tremendous weight had been lifted in that they no longer had to do everything for everybody all the time. They now clearly knew where they needed to focus resources and attention to ensure their efforts resulted in a quality, valuable output.
To be best utilized, this priority scheme was incorporated into a defined, repeatable process. Effectively managing and fulfilling customer requests for reports or information was central to OAR’s success. Work began around documentation of a request management process. Ken asked the right questions and formalized criteria was discussed and documented around, for example, who creates request tickets, who assigns request tickets, and how request reviews are handled. This resulted in a formal, well-documented process that the OAR team could now consistently follow and rely upon.
To address the second WIG, OAR focused on hiring three additional team members. It was critical to not just hire staff, but to hire the RIGHT staff members with the right skill sets and, most importantly, the right mindset and customer-focused attitude. An onboarding process was also defined, documented, and utilized to bring new staff members up to speed quicker, including training on the new request management process.
Identification of and focus on Wildly Important Goals has proven to have both significant and lasting impact on the team. Having achieved the initial WIGs, the team set out to identify two WIGs for the following year. With Ken’s guidance, the team settled upon the two most important goals for the following year:
- Incorporating automated dashboards
- Establishing actionable predictive analytics
These two goals were deemed necessary to propel the team forward and provide maximum value to customers. It also provided the team with confidence that they were focusing on what most increased the team’s value.
Team member, Cory Kite, now responsible for the business process management within the team, was asked by Janet to become the primary contact between Ken and the OAR team. Cory helped ensure Ken’s pre-arrival “homework” was performed and organized meeting agendas, both vital to the transformation. This allowed the team to focus on specific items and the value was understood as outcomes and results were becoming tangible.
Jeff Smith confirmed that OAR’s efforts were indeed paying off as customer complaints had tapered off dramatically and customer feedback was now becoming positive as customers began to see OAR as a vital resource and no longer of questionable value.
Ken’s role had been a catalyst to help the team identify and align to their vision. He also helped determine where they could leverage their efforts with tools, clear process, best practice as well as support from management, customers, and other teams and helped identify and point out their unique and valuable contribution. Identifying and focusing on WIGs allowed the team to effectively execute.
OAR began to ask, “Can we continue to do this as a team without Ken’s continued guidance?”
Seeing the substantial progress and having established significant momentum, Ken approached Janet about his transitioning off the engagement. Janet agreed that her team had developed to a point where they were ready to move forward on their own.
Looking back at the transformation of the OAR team, there were numerous opportunities to revert back to the old way of operating. The work with Ken provided OAR with the foundation of common understanding and knowledge to build upon.
The OAR team has done just that, expanding in both size and value to Penn State University.
The structure and composition of the team has changed since that initial transformation. Excellent hiring practices has helped OAR grow to a strong, diverse team of 12 employees and a graduate assistant, which covers the wide range of essential areas of knowledge for a modern, world-class analytics and reporting team.
OAR takes pride that staff members have advanced to take on new roles within the team or have been selected for advancement within the University.
Janet Dillon’s retirement in 2017 provided an opportunity to see how the team would function without the person who had led the transition. Because strong leadership within the team had also emerged, both the new director and associate director were promoted from within the team, as well as a new role of a data analytics manager.
The foundation remains strong as OAR continues to succeed and thrive. OAR staff are now regularly invited to participate in and/or lead major initiatives throughout the University and within Outreach. OAR achieving such a positive reputation speaks volumes as to success of the OAR team transformation.
OAR’s value to Penn State University remains unquestioned.
Cory Kite is an Associate Director of an Analytics and Reporting team at Penn State University’s World Campus, Penn State's online campus. Cory leads a team of developers and analysts who design and implement interactive dashboards and small applications. Cory was also an international road warrior for five years implementing and supporting regulatory asset management software. Working with companies of various sizes has given him the unique perspective of core company processes, what works well and maybe not so well. Cory holds a BS in Information Sciences and Technology from Penn State University. Connect with Cory on
Ken Wendle, instructor, consultant, speaker, and author of the upcoming book, The V*A*L*U*E Formula™, is known for his pragmatic and insightful advice. He is a past member of the HDI Strategic Advisory Board and current member of the Service Management World Advisory Board. Ken is recognized for his pivotal role in creating awareness, adoption, and global expansion of ITIL and ITSM best practices. His entertaining presentations have been enjoyed nationally and internationally. Ken has the unique distinction of having received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement award from two respected industry associations: the itSMF USA Lifetime Achievement Award (2007) as well as the HDI Ron Muns Lifetime Achievement Award (2016). Follow him on Twitter @kenwendle, and connect with him on LinkedIn.