Yesterday I had an excellent day visiting the architecture team at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UWM). The UWM team was created as long ago as 1995, following a major reorganisation of IT in the university, so they have had plenty of time to learn what works and what does not work for UWM.
One of their recent successes is a major initiative to transform support for their student advisors. The advisor role is rather like our personal tutor, guiding students on their choice of courses and helping them when other issues arise. In fact, one of the outcomes of this architecture work is a web site for UWM students that explains what services the advisors can offer – see https://advising.wisc.edu/ .
The problem the team set out to address was hugely complex. There was no co-ordination or sense of community connecting the advisors in all the different schools, colleges and departments. Advisors and students had to deal with as many as 17 different IT systems, most of which required different login credentials, has different UIs, presented different versions of the same data, and in general were hard to use. Advisors and students spent most of the half-hour sessions fighting the IT systems rather than important discussions about the students’ courses and other issues.
The first step to address the problem was to create an Advisory Architecture Review Board (AARB) to oversee the programme of work. This board had to decide strategy, identify problems and prioritise work. To aid them, the architecture team worked with them to create a Core Diagram – a high-level description of the advisor’s activities and the capabilities needed to support them, on a single page.
Having created this diagram for the advisors, the team realised they need one for the students’ experience as well. This shared some common tools and added others that are only used by students.
The AARB then added a heatmap to the core diagram to illustrate which areas worked and which were broken, along with an assessment of the impact of each. For example, training was deemed broken and of major impact, so was assigned a large red circle. Recording contacts was deemed to work and of lesser impact, so had a smaller green circle. Similar circles (red/amber/green) were placed on each activity. The result was a single page that showed the key activities and which were most in need of work.
This Core Diagram had several benefits. The process of developing the diagram in the first place helped the AARB and the advisor community at large to share understanding of advisors’ needs. The disparate groups could see that they faced many of the same problems and therefore could work together to address them. Finally, the addition of the heat map helped them to prioritise their work, covering non-IT issues such as training as well as IT concerns such as making data consistent and providing a single-sign-on function. The architecture team did much more as the programme of work progressed but the core diagram provided an important basis for the whole programme.
The work has progressed significantly since and has been very successful. Some of the advisors are reporting that the entire nature of the advisory sessions with students is changing: instead of the IT forcing conversation along particular lines, the advisors and students are now free to explore the issues that matter to them.