Creating an Academic Culture of Collaboration

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Wednesday, October 6, 2021
By Brian Cameron, Teresa Avery, Stacey Dorang Peeler, Michelle Rockower, Michael Waldhier
Photo by iStock/SolStock
To better serve today’s students, schools should foster a “play nice in the sandbox” mentality, where everyone shares ideas and resources across programs.

As business schools continue to expand their offerings, competition and cannibalism among programs have been steadfast topics of conversation. When administrators and faculty fear that one program might take students from another, they can have a laser focus on revenue models and enrollment goals that prohibit academic teams from effectively working together. This can make it difficult for faculty to meet each student’s specific needs or envision their schools as places where all boats rise together.

We wanted to avoid that scenario at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in University Park, which looked much different five years ago than it does today. At that time, the college had five programs spread between resident and online offerings, with our traditional resident MBA program serving as the flagship program. Each offering worked largely independently, with little sharing across programs.

Today, we have eight resident programs, eight online master’s degrees, and 12 online graduate certificates. We now freely share courses, students, and resources across our entire professional graduate portfolio (PGP). To transition to this model, we had no choice but to tear down existing silos and turn our academic world topsy-turvy. We had to fail fast, learn through experimentation, and propel ourselves forward into a more collaborative academic culture.

Adopting a Consultative Advising Model

Once we decided to make so many educational options available, we had to determine how we would help prospective students navigate these options. How would we determine which ones best fit into their personal plans and goals?

Our answer was to develop a consultative student advising model. Within this model, we no longer start our conversations with prospective students by saying, “Let us tell you about our program.” Instead, we say, “Tell us about your career goals, and we’ll help you craft a program to get you there.” To get to this point, however, we have made significant strategic adjustments to how we approach our academic culture:

We take a more holistic view of our programs. Our advising staff must understand the distinctions and nuances of each program. They have been trained to see our offerings as a portfolio of complementary programs, not as a disjointed list of separate options.

We think of students as lifelong learners. We recognize that our students now work in a world where a “one-and-done” degree is insufficient. We not only must serve students’ needs today, but keep them coming back to achieve their academic and professional goals in the future.

We created two new positions—a portfolio architect and a student services manager. We then elevated members of the existing team to fill them. Our portfolio architect, an associate dean, has a broad view of our programs and the authority to encourage, influence, and negotiate interdisciplinary integration and course sharing. This individual is crucial in maintaining a professional graduate portfolio that offers students flexibility and choice.

Our student services manager constantly seeks ways to achieve greater efficiencies and to facilitate collaboration among programs. This individual organizes services and events that touch every program, executes surveys for feedback and improvement, and assists with the development of a student platform for connecting and networking.

We ensure resource sharing across programs. We developed a centrally shared service model across our entire graduate program portfolio, so that we can achieve the cost efficiencies necessary to allow students to pursue many possible educational options.

Addressing Challenges

One key to our success was that our leaders at all levels endorsed this change. Their support created enthusiasm for the PGP and motivated us to work together to provide the best student experience possible.

Even so, we had to overcome obstacles in nearly every aspect of our programs. At the university level, we have faced inflexible budgetary and technological structures that do not always make it easy for different programs to collaborate. At times, this requires us to use time-consuming manual processes. For instance, the university’s tuition assessment system does not track students who cross over between resident and online programs—if a student who is categorized as “resident” enrolls in an online program, it can trigger double billing or other billing errors. We work with our graduate school and registrar on the coding of these students, and we have processes in place that alert us to billing issues that may need to be corrected.

As we hired new people or assigned staff to new roles, we embraced the idea of assuming people wanted to do the right things for the right reasons. Everyone demonstrated perseverance, trust, and a willingness to keep the end goal in mind.

In addition, our physical office space was not initially set up for this kind of operation. We physically moved team members, and even did construction to make more office space. We also take every opportunity to enforce a collaborative approach, such as holding cross-functional team meetings and discussions.

At the staffing level, the university’s human resources staff has not always supported our job development strategy, in part because they didn’t understand what we were doing. To overcome this, we proactively scheduled conversations with key stakeholders to explain our business case for new or changing position requests.

In addition, the collaborative model meant that the reporting lines for staff could be confusing at times, but clear team communication and an explicit organizational chart, which we treat as a living document, assisted us with clarity. With the oversight of our portfolio architect, we were able to add a handful of new roles, acquire qualified staff as needed, and shift staff internally as warranted.

We would not have been able to overhaul our entire academic culture without the right staff in place—and reaching that point wasn’t easy. But one key to our success was that, as we hired new people or assigned staff to new roles, we embraced the idea of always assuming people wanted to do the right things for the right reasons. As we built a more collaborative culture, everyone demonstrated perseverance, trust, and a willingness to keep the end goal in mind.

Enabling Change

In a truly collaborative academic environment, curricular planning cannot occur in silos because any change will have ripple effects on other areas. Managing these effects requires regular communication among the centralized program staff, portfolio architect, and leadership of the master’s and graduate certificate programs.

But communication alone is not enough. To enable our culture to keep shifting, and maintain those shifts, we have adopted other best practices:

We learn from failures. We encourage our staff to openly admit if they were wrong and to be vulnerable enough to learn from each other, and we embrace a culture of continuous improvement. Throughout this process, we have been empowered by leadership to question the status quo and to take risks we had not taken before.

We also have adopted a “work hard, play hard” mentality. We think of it as “playing nice in the sandbox,” in that we are experimenting with new ideas every day and making laughter and camaraderie a regular part of our daily lives. Even better, our current and prospective students can sense this atmosphere and community spirit.

We encourage our staff to openly admit if they were wrong and to be vulnerable enough to learn from each other. We have been empowered by leadership to question the status quo and to take risks we had not taken before.

We make students’ needs our No. 1 priority. If we find the Smeal College cannot serve the needs of prospective students, we will try to help them find more appropriate programs at other colleges within Penn State. We also realize that no one benefits when colleagues or programs hide or simply fail to share best practices. For that reason, we espouse a “grow the pie” mentality, in which we work toward the success of the entire university and use data to show the benefit of this approach. We do not view the success of our programs as a zero-sum game.

We emphasize transparency. Throughout this process, we have included all appropriate parties in every relevant conversation. We continually ask students how we are doing and what we can do better.

We collaborate across the university. We now have partnerships and course- and credential-sharing arrangements with 12 other colleges across four campuses in the Penn State system. These colleges offer our business courses either as part of a degree’s core or as concentrations and electives. Students can add business certificates or possibly second degrees to their current courses of study.

Executing a Successful Cultural Shift

By crafting our strategic vision, fostering an open culture, and hiring a dedicated team, we now are better able to guide prospective students into their ideal programs. To serve students well, we focus on three primary areas:

Transparent communication. We instituted monthly meetings between the portfolio architect and all managing directors, where they work together to solve particularly challenging problems. This same group also attends monthly staff meetings, where they present program successes and key performance indicators (KPIs), so everyone in the department is aware of what we are doing well and where work still needs to be done.

While a reporting hierarchy was still in place, team members worked together to remove artificial bureaucratic barriers that would have prohibited innovation and change. This encouraged open dialogue and cooperation at all levels.

If the Smeal College cannot serve the needs of prospective students, we will try to help them find more appropriate programs at other colleges within Penn State. No one benefits when colleagues or programs fail to share best practices.

Marketing and outreach. All recruiting opportunities and prospective student outreach are shared across programs, and each team collectively sets its recruiting strategy at the beginning of the season. Our recruiting and admissions staff all received a significant amount of training, so that they were knowledgeable on all the available educational options. During our training sessions, we worked to teach each other and encourage everyone to succeed. Now that we have a new chief marketing officer in place at the college, we know there is much more opportunity on the horizon.

An understanding of global impact. All of our program leaders must understand the impact each program has upon the overall college and university. That includes knowing the teaching requirements and financial models behind every program. For example, long-established programs, like the executive MBA and full-time residential MBA, have different expense and profit-sharing models than newer programs like the Online MBA and one-year residential master’s programs. When all team members understand the workings of each program, they can work to maximize global impact across campus, rather than merely local impact within the college.

Building Toward the Future

Our program portfolio still has room to grow and to innovate. We are improving our use of customer relationship management software across all programs to share prospect and student information, and we are refining our dashboards for accurate program KPI measurement. We are also working on shifting how our students identify with the university. Historically, our students have associated with a particular offering, such as the MBA or particular master’s programs. We are slowly working to change that mindset so that all students also identify more broadly as Smeal graduate students.

Many of Penn State’s systems have not traditionally been fluid in facilitating the mixing of online and resident populations. However, we are confident that this will change over time. As we continue to improve the integration between our online and resident programs, we know our efforts to build a more collaborative academic culture will support an important part of Penn State University’s 2025 Strategic Plan: to bring everyone in our academic community together not just as one department or one college, but as one university.

Brian Cameron
Associate Dean, Professional Graduate Programs and Executive Education, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Teresa Avery
Managing Director, Executive MBA Program, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Stacey Dorang Peeler
Managing Director, Penn State Online MBA Program, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Michelle Rockower
Managing Director, Online Specialty Master's Programs, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Michael Waldhier
Managing Director of Resident Graduate Programs, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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