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Systems and Services Optimization Audit (for non-members)

Friday, February 13, 2015 6:55 PM | Sean Williams

The survey has been completed as of Friday 21 February, the final version is below.  Thanks everyone who helped and thanks for all the supportive comments!  NIA members, feel free to continue adding comments under Members/Forums/Big Ideas.  The survey is over but we'll keep working on the issues, and we need to know what you think.

This self-audit is being run by Jeff Buchanan, EDT member and Director of Finance at NOLS. The goal is to gather creative responses on a wide variety of topics which could lead to very big changes in the structure of NOLS. The survey is so detailed that reading the responses of all employees would be a huge task, so NOLS branches and Headquarters were divided into "Working Groups", in which the leader of each Working Group would collect input and decide exactly how the survey was to be filled out.

Originally, faculty were not to be included in this survey, because there are so many of us and it seemed difficult to coordinate the input of over 800 people. The NIA Board, noting that faculty are a large and important "Working Group" at NOLS, offered to fill out the survey on behalf of faculty, doing our best to come up with answers that are likely to be supported my most instructors. With this goal in mind, I'm posting our provisional responses here, in a forum in which NIA members can post responses and ideas. After a week (next Friday, February 20), I'll go through all the responses and adjust our answers as necessary.

We are aware that it is very hard to accurately represent 800+ people on very specific questions, but we believe the NIA is more able to fill this role than any other part of NOLS. Please be patient and forgive us if our answers are different from what you would have liked, and realize that the workload of collecting this level of detail from all instructors would be very high, so this is the best we can do.

The more people read and respond, the more our answers will be taken seriously. Please just post something simple like "YES!" if you mostly support our responses. I will give Jeff the total number of people who posted, and the higher it is, the more convincing our representation will be.

Also feel free to email me (sean_williams@nols.edu) if you don't want to post publicly, or if you are not an NIA member.

Please keep in mind that this represents an attempt to gather opinions that are widely but not unanimously shared.  It is not a formal NIA position, nor the public announcement of any individual's opinions.  

Systems and Services Optimization Audit
NIA  Survey - Final Version

1) Provide two specific examples of how our organizational structure creates frustration for your work group.

Faculty feel a lack of consistent, long-term mentorship with one or a few individuals. CLs and Program Supervisors vary too much course-to-course to provide long-term mentoring, while the staffing office is more continuous over time, but not individually connected, having so many people to keep track of. Faculty report needing mentorship both on how to be a better instructor in the field, and on how to navigate NOLS as an organization, and on how to build a career.

The staffing system creates frustration for faculty due to confusion about how to get enough work, widespread underemployment, and lack of clarity about a path to a sustainable career. Many instructors, especially in North America, feel a negative power dynamic with the staffing office in particular, as they are seen as the gatekeepers to contracts. The expectation to stay flexible and accept late contracts as a means to advancing one’s career is frustrating and makes it more difficult to maintain other work outside of NOLS.  Faculty from outside North America feel less frustration with staffing, and more with the perceived Lander-centrism of the NOLS system.

2) Which three workgroups do you wish had more to help meet your needs?

Branch staff could meet faculty needs better if they enjoyed better retention, more consistent work, and higher compensation. This could be expected to improve the quality of branch operations and thus support faculty members' work. The same is true for program supervisors.

Staffing might be able to meet more of the mentorship needs discussed above if they had more resources, but would also be limited by a lack of in-depth personal connection with most instructors.

3) What function would you remove from your workgroup that might be better managed elsewhere? Why should this function be changed?

Travel arrangements to get to NOLS branches, and the difficulty in receiving reimbursements after finishing work. Faculty note that most other organizations, and the non-field part of NOLS, that require long-distance travel for work make travel arrangements for employees and pay fully for them. In addition to making travel plans, faculty spend a lot of time and energy tracking down late or too-small travel reimbursements and negotiating with staffing or NOLS Pro over the reimbursement amount.

4) Currently NOLS is divided into 5 areas: Admission and Marketing, Alumni and Development, Finance and IS, Operations, and Faculty and Studies. If you were to restructure NOLS under just 4 areas what would they be? Under 7 areas?

4 Areas: Combine Admissions and Marketing with Alumni and Development in order to coordinate alumni for word-of-mouth marketing.

7 Areas: Separate Admissions and Marketing, so that Admissions could focus on weeding out students for whom NOLS is not a good fit without the pressure to meet enrollment goals. Separate Faculty and Studies into Faculty and “Curriculum and Research.” 

5) How does NOLS’ current organizational structure limit our ability to respond to opportunities?

Marketing seems to limits the inclusion of faculty in marketing work and in creating new marketing ideas.  Faculty are very enthusiastic about creating regional marketing representatives who are part-time field instructors.  This would reduce the need for long-distance travel from Lander, provide more instructors with a sustainable career, and provide on-the-ground, locally immersed marketing reps with an in-depth knowledge of NOLS courses.

6) Currently the school maintains multiple admissions, staffing, purchasing, operational logistics, marketing, and bookkeeping functions. Pick one or two from this list and describe the benefits and obstacles to consolidation.

Marketing – the benefit of consolidation would be the ability to shift students/clients between catalogue, WMI, and NOLS Pro,  while the obstacle would be creating an even larger, slower, and less nimble department.

7) If you were required to close or remove two departments, operating locations, or positions at NOLS to improve efficiency and/or resource allocation, what would they be and why?

In general there is more questioning of the efficiency, necessity, and cost of Headquarters as a whole than of any operating locations or departments.  Perhaps each department is a little bigger and better-funded than necessary, compared to relatively lean branch operations.

8) What data can’t your work group access that you’d like to access?

Student files/contact info before contracts start

A simplified database of the student information which is needed in the field (medications/allergies/injuries/birthdays/behavioral), without the time-consuming necessity of reading through all student applications. A slightly different form for students to input this information, or more clerical work on admissions’ part, might provide a solution.

9) What new employee training/tasks do you believe should come from a centralized source (e.g. headquarters, an online video?) What standardized trainings should be developed for your work group?

New faculty would benefit from detailed training on the complex NOLS benefits system: travel, retirement, health insurance, international pay systems. Most faculty are not aware, for example, that they will someday be eligible for retirement contributions. More detailed instruction on how Headquarters works and on NOLS’ organizational structure would also help to create a more informed and engaged body of faculty, and would help to send the message that NOLS values new faculty and is eager to include them in the community.  Perhaps a 1-day seminar after each IC, led by a Branch Director or similar-level Lander-based administrator?

10) Identify 2-3 ways the supervisor relationship could be improved around the school.

Long-term mentoring from one consistent source.

A consistent briefer/debriefer, both over time and for single courses.

An increase in quality mentoring to complement recent increases in supervision and expectations and the increasing importance of SPEs. Many faculty report a culture of fear around SPEs and job security, and feel that they can give very little consequential feedback to program departments or staffing, while feedback from program and staffing to faculty has very high consequences in terms of future work. Better mentoring would help to maintain a culture of support, which would help to moderate the emotional impact of increased supervision.

11) What additional support/flexibility does your work group need to respond to enrollment fluctuations?

Faculty need more job security and consistent employment, and need these to be a higher priority in the enrollment/staffing/retention/long-term planning mix.

12) List 5 school-wide processes or procedures that are unproductive or obsolete and should be re-evaluated. Please order these from most to least important.

The IC, hiring, and retention system.  Most IC students do not go on to work more than a few courses, and those who do often struggle for years to get enough work.  It appears to be widely known in the US outdoor industry that NOLS does not offer sustainable careers, and this impression limits quality IC applicants.  Underemployment for both new and senior instructors, as a consistent strategy to respond to unpredictable enrollment, is perhaps not a good strategy to support the NOLS community and maintain the school’s excellence.

The SPE system, which has changed and grown rapidly since its inception, seems to contribute to a culture of fear around the evaluation process.  This is tied to underemployment and the fear of not getting work.  SPEs seem to have an alarmingly inconsistent quality of evaluation and reporting for a permanent performance record that is used to determine future career steps.  Faculty see unexplained variation between courses, between program supervisors, and between evaluations for different faculty, and are not convinced that the quality of real work in the field is accurately reported.

The use of unpaid internships, and the differences in pay between national Instructor-in-Training programs (the Chile, India, and new US system appear to be very different and unequal).  In general, NOLS should pay anyone who does real work for us, and we need to carefully distinguish between interns and ITs who provide necessary work and those who are strictly benefiting from training, rather than working.

The level of detail in cost-savings, budget scrutiny, and attempts to minimize small expenses – perhaps we spend more money paying administrators to keep track of all this detail than we save by such rigorous accounting.

The Rocky Mountain system of students “grading” instructors as part of the CQS. This seems to be an inappropriate system, especially after students have received their own final grades (this is not done in academia, for example). Faculty are skeptical that “objective” grades are an appropriate or useful form of student-to-instructor feedback, and are concerned that the apparently objective nature of these grades, if they are retained in a database, will lead to inaccurate and over-confident assessments of instructors' performance by program departments or staffing. This is not yet a school-wide system, but many systems start at the Rocky Mountain branch and spread elsewhere, so it seems appropriate to mention it here.  (To read the RM CQS as it appeared in August of 2014, click here.)

13) What three decisions currently held at the EDT level would you recommend be decided at the department or location director level?

Branches should be able to make larger budget decisions without EDT approval, having more detailed knowledge and judgment about their local needs.

The EDT appears to occasionally be involved in more complex non-medical evacuation decisions. Branch Directors should have the skills and confidence to keep these decisions at their level, based on instructors' judgment, good documentation, and first-hand knowledge of the students involved.

Branches should have more discretion over new course types and course mixes. Faculty have the impression that Marketing is often slow to support new ideas in this area.

14) What system or structure is most effective for your work group to share and receive best practices at the school?

Faculty learn the most from our co-instructors in the field. Retaining senior instructors, attracting creative and talented new instructors, maintaining the freedom to run courses creatively and in very different ways, and supporting ongoing education such as seminars and the Faculty Summit all help this system to work.

15) How should we foster innovation at the school?

Use the $600,000 “innovation” budget to give grants for creative ideas in any area, distributed either to individuals or departments (instructors working in marketing might be a good start). More funds for training/IDF would help faculty innovate and advance their skill set outside of NOLS ($600 or $450 does not go far for an expedition or for professional training, and this amount has not increased with inflation).

16) What three technological tools would enhance your department’s performance or efficiency? The student and alumni experience?

E-readers and solar chargers for use in the field, with well-organized contents. In the long-run, the ability to type paperwork might vastly improve quality.

A shared calendar for individual instructors’ scheduling, to be used with staffing and branches (Cotap, Google, etc.). Apparently AFP instructors are trying this on a small scale.

17) What facilities needs do you anticipate for your department or location before 2020?

Consistent budgets for instructor needs at branches, such as housing and reliable internet.

Increasing the possibility of working remotely for jobs now confined to Headquarters. This would offer more career mobility to faculty who cannot or will not move to Lander in order to join the NOLS administration. It also might save on Headquarters costs, as these individuals would work from home.  This should be increasingly possible as web-based systems become more advanced and NOLS departments become more proficient with them.

18) Based upon your responses to this survey, prioritize the first three services and systems optimization issues we should tackle.

Foster greater faculty engagement by employing a half-time senior field instructor to work on the EDT (as salaried faculty).  The role of this individual might be to advise other EDT members on how their decisions affect faculty and the running of field courses, to take part in EDT-wide decisions, and to interface with the Board of Trustees. This would improve the connection of NOLS’s strategic vision and decision-making with reality on field courses and with faculty member’s ideas and feeling of inclusion and value.  Two EDT members working a few, usally non-catalogue, short field courses a year, as we have now, does not meet these goals.

Foster creative admissions work by putting instructors to work part-time with marketing (as salaried faculty). This would meet two goals: improving marketing by using the people who know the most about NOLS courses (faculty), and offering more sustainable careers to faculty.

Restructure the IC/hiring/retention/underemployment/enrollment system in order to provide more sustainable careers for both new and senior faculty.  Send a clear signal that supporting and caring for all of the people who work for NOLS is becoming a long-term goal that is just as important as financial stability, student outcomes, and claiming leadership in the field. 

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