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How to Benchmark for Departmental Success

You know what they say — “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Looking toward institutions (or offices) that you admire can be one of the best ways to keep up with the rapidly changing challenges we face in student affairs.

It is our responsibility to keep up with what is going on in the field to learn how we can improve our own policies and practices. There are a variety of methods for keeping up with changes and getting new ideas, but getting ideas from comparable institutions is one of the most effective. This practice is commonly known as benchmarking.

Benchmark: To evaluate or check something by comparison with a standard.

— Oxford English Dictionary

Competitive Solutions identifies 6 major benefits to benchmarking, which are to:

  1. Gain an independent perspective about how well you perform compared to other companies
  2. Drill down into performance gaps to identify areas for improvement
  3. Develop a standardized set of processes and metrics
  4. Enable a mindset and culture of continuous improvement
  5. Set performance expectations
  6. Monitor company performance and manage change

Although this was written from a business perspective, the same practice and benefits can easily be related back to student affairs. This post explores different things to keep in mind while developing your strategy for benchmarking. 

What’s Your Mission?

Before the process even starts, take a good hard look at your office and institution and identify what your mission is. Understand your stated values. Take inventory of what it is you want to achieve. It is important to know this because before you can know where you want to go, you need to know where (and who) you are. How can you take stock of how your department stacks up to others if you don’t know where you’re at now or what’s important to your office?

These important first questions will help you start to build a framework for how to navigate the benchmarking process.

To analyze your own starting point, review any applicable websites or material that discuss your office and institution’s mission, values, and goals. Have anyone else involved with your office also do an internal review so as to start getting everyone involved in the process. Once everyone is operating from the same starting point and is able to identify how to move forward, the process towards benchmarking can begin.

Identify Your Needs

Before looking elsewhere, really think about what it is your office needs to work on. You may already have an ongoing issue that has inspired you to start looking and thinking of changes to make, but maybe there are multiple areas you can improve in. Start by doing an internal assessment of your colleagues and stakeholders to get ideas of where changes can be made and some areas you aspire to.

A simple survey is a good starting point for gathering the information needed before benchmarking. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. Some things you could include in your survey to stakeholders could include:

  • What are our weaknesses? How can we improve them?
  • What are we only doing OK at?
  • What are some long-term goals you have for our office?
  • What are some other institutions or offices you admire?
  • How do you define success for our office?

Starting with these questions gives people an opportunity to contribute to the direction the evaluation may go toward. 

Choosing Role Models

While national data can be useful, ultimately, you can learn best from other institutions that are similar to you. After identifying what issues you would like to address or get ideas for, the next step is to research comparable institutions and offices. At this phase in the process, you can identify not only schools that you currently are similar to, but institutions that you can aspire to be more like! Don’t be afraid to dream big in this process. The main focus should be to identify changes you can make now, but looking at some big, long-term goals and keeping them in mind is also helpful!

When identifying institutions to include in your benchmarking efforts, there are several factors to consider :

Type of institution:

Try to stay close to your institution type to get ideas. A 4-year public, 4-year private, and community college may all do things differently, so you want to stay within similar institutions when benchmarking. This may also include considerations like the proportion of residential and commuter students, average student age, and things like operating budget and departmental budget. 

Institution demographics:

Attributes like the number of students at the institution as well as attributes like race, ethnicity, gender, income level, and residency status can make a big difference in how you approach solutions to complex problems. When looking for comparable institutions, make sure you are taking into account what the population of your institution is compared to the schools you are looking at. Try to remain as close as possible to your institution demographics.

Existing connections:

Do you have a colleague at a comparable institution you could reach out to? It could be easier to reach out to existing connections as opposed to trying to start entirely new relationships. The existing relationship can also make it easier to have an upfront conversation about the success and challenges the institution you are looking to so as to get better information.

Reaching Out

After identifying comparable or favorable institutions, the next step is to actually reach out and make the connection (if it doesn’t already exist.) Identifying the best person to start with can be challenging, but hopefully, your initial research may have helped you identify that person. Just browsing the university website is the easiest place to start, and should point you in the right direction.

Once you have identified a person to contact, an introductory email is a good way to give them an idea of what to expect prior to any further conversation. Introduce yourself and where you are working, and give them an idea of what lead to your current benchmarking initiative. Let them know what it is about their office or department that drew your attention so they know what points to expand upon. Once you (hopefully!) get a response, schedule a more in-depth follow up via phone or video call so you can get more detailed notes and information. 

Incorporating Results

Once you have had a productive conversation, it’s time to actually incorporate what you learned in your research. Revisit the initial assessment you did internally to see what it was that your team was looking for, and compare it to the notes you took during your research. See how things line up and what you can incorporate into your own work. Not everything you got information on during your research may work out, but it can provide a helpful framework for your office moving forward.

Remember, it is important to take into consideration what your teammates and coworkers feel is important while making changes. As your team is gathering feedback and looking at comparable institutions, make sure to give progress reports on what connections are being made and what is being learned. It is important to make sure everyone has a voice and that the possible changes are understood.

As student affairs professionals we are constantly facing changes and new challenges. Looking to other comparable institutions and offices for ideas can be a great way to strengthen efforts and incorporate new and exciting ideas. What works somewhere may not work everywhere, but there is no harm in continuously trying new ideas!

How does your institution or department work to assess itself? Share your tips with us @HelloPresence & @Ruben_Market.


Ruben Mercado

About the author: Ruben Mercado is a Student Programs Advisor at The University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys exploring the city with his dog Patrick. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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