Reflections on Communicating a Vision for iPASS Reforms

min read


iPASS as the Great Integrator

In 2006, while I was president of Montgomery County Community College, MCCC joined the Achieving the Dream network. For several years, the college implemented excellent student success work in a lot of spaces. However, the work we completed consisted of predominantly small, unconnected pilots, and we therefore had a difficult time significantly impacting student progression and completion. These pilots ranged from developmental education reform, to looking at the student entry process, to changing placement testing processes and procedures. While individually valuable, our efforts were all over the map. At one point, the college had nearly 37 interventions running at the same time.

In 2012, the college paused to map all student success interventions based on the way a student comes through the college, with the goal of figuring out which interventions we wanted to scale, and which we needed to stop. Completion by Design’s Loss-Momentum Framework served as an excellent way to map all of the college’s efforts and student support technologies.  We assessed where there were gaps and where our efforts could achieve greater alignment. As we were doing this strategy work, iPASS [] (formerly known as IPAS) was first introduced to the community college field as a new approach to advising. As we learned more, we began to see iPASS as the great integrator; a way to accelerate and streamline our student success work and the technologies that support it.

Since the first round of iPASS reform work, MCCC and the community college field have learned that when implemented properly, iPASS is so much more than even a technology-mediated advising transformation. It is the glue that holds together all of an institution’s efforts, so that it can achieve a holistic transformation of the student experience.

Translating this Vision

Fairly early in MCCC’s iPASS work, it became clear to me and my senior leadership team that we were not doing a good enough job of communicating this grand vision to all those involved in the implementation. While senior leaders were all on the same page about the potential impact and importance of this work on the college and its students, the 22 person cross-functional and cross-hierarchical project team all had different understandings of the vision of this work. It was at this point that we decided to pause and figure out how we could pivot our reforms from being a technical implementation to being truly transformative for our students and our college.

To achieve this, we needed to act more boldly and intentionally in our reforms. At the start, we hesitated to communicate this vision with our project team because academic advisors were in the room and we didn’t have all the answers. Instead of explaining where we were headed and how the student experience would change, we described the work as a technology implementation, leaving the project team with a completely different understanding of the work than the leadership team. At the same time, the advisors were craving the end vision; they needed to be able to see their role in this effort to overcome the fear of change that is normal in such a transformative process. So we began to translate the project implementation we had described into the vision we held for the work. Gradually advisors and faculty began to more fully understand and support iPASS.

Building an Engagement Strategy

It was at this point that we recognized that we needed to build momentum by leveraging this growing grassroots support. An engagement strategy is designed to inform all stakeholders, strategically and intentionally, with the right messages, and aligned messages, about the work. These are my recommendations based on the engagement strategy we followed:

  1. Connect iPASS work to other student success efforts taking place at your institution. A simple way to do this is to ensure there is overlap in the project teams and task these individuals with ensuring alignment across projects.
  2. Place advisors and faculty in key leadership roles. By design, iPASS reforms will have a significant impact on the role of advisors and, often, faculty. Identifying influential champions of iPASS reforms in these stakeholder groups and empowering them to lead the work will signify the importance of the reforms and the value the college places on the effort and input of these stakeholder groups. It can also go a long way in alleviating the fear of change that is commonplace during any big reform.
  3. Constantly talk about your vision at multiple venues. Use every opportunity to promote the vision of your reforms to maintain momentum and to reinforce the institution’s commitment to the work. Ensure that iPASS is a standing agenda item for all faculty, advisor, strategy/governance, and whole-college meetings. 
  4. Develop a variety of feedback mechanisms to build ownership of the work and strengthen implementation. Make space for those expected to implement the reforms to share their concerns, excitement, progress, and challenges in both formal and informal settings. MCCC held informal coffee and conversation sessions where anyone could discuss the reforms and provide input. Having senior leadership reinforce the importance of this work and recognize the excellent work being done helped set the tone, while the project team facilitated the discussion to emphasize the grassroots leadership. MCCC also held formal focus groups to engage stakeholders beyond those who show up for optional events.
  5. Leverage champions beyond the project team. As excitement for the work grows, develop ways to leverage this excitement to accelerate the momentum. From the beginning, design an engagement strategy that provides multiple ways to take on a leadership or advocacy role so that as your pool of champions grows, you can quickly channel the excitement to support your goals. At MCCC, within two weeks of launching the new educational planning tool, almost 8,000 students had already signed on and built their educational plans. This became part of how we demonstrated to advisors the importance of the work.
  6. Understand and accept hidden commitments. Then work to overcome them. Big change is scary for everyone, particularly if you feel you have little control over how it impacts you. In iPASS reforms, all come to the table with their own hidden commitments. Even if they agree on the vision, making big changes in their daily work is daunting. These hidden commitments come from a real place and should be considered carefully as you craft a response. However, hidden commitments should not make leadership shy away from sharing the full truth of the reforms. Doing so leaves space for speculation based on incomplete and often inaccurate information, which will make generating buy-in even more difficult. 

Supporting Emerging Leaders

Often when implementing big projects, colleges don’t plan intentionally to support emerging leaders so that they can do their work effectively. For iPASS, not supporting middle management, including academic deans and department chairs, as they take on new leadership roles can cause disconnectedness from the vision and work.

We have found that an effective engagement strategy comprises three key approaches: retail, wholesale, and mass market. All three approaches have to be in play at the same time on any type of transformational effort like iPASS.

The retail approach means that you figure out a way to deploy people to have one-on-one conversations, to convert key stakeholders one at a time. Talk to them about the vision, the new tools and processes, listen to their input and concerns, and help them see and focus on the possibilities instead. This approach is time-intensive and sensitive; an ideal way to leverage your iPASS champions. This will also help stakeholders feel more comfortable voicing their concerns and asking questions in front of senior leadership. At MCCC, we worked hard to get the deans to buy into the change, and then coached them to have these one-on-one conversations with their faculty.

The wholesale approach looks at how best to communicate with and engage different stakeholder groups on your campus. For example, how are you going to communicate with the deans? What is it that they need to be thinking about with this type of implementation? How will you reach the advisors, the students, the faculty, the board of trustees, etc.?

The mass market approach is the consistent and clear communication of the vision with the whole community, and is the responsibility of senior leadership, particularly the president. The goal of this approach is to reinforce the message that the work is integral to the college’s strategy, not a fad that will fade away within a few short years. The president should regularly talk at all public and college events about the vision, its importance, and how it integrates with other student success reforms.

As president of MCCC, my role became that of the “big champion and promoter” of the power of iPASS. The entire college community could see my excitement and support for the work.  But, critically, it only mattered because there were on-the-ground strategies in place to translate the vision into reality.

When done correctly—translating the vision, building an engagement strategy, supporting emerging leaders, and intentional communication—iPASS should be recognized as institutional design work.

Karen A. Stout is President and CEO of Achieving the Dream and President Emeritus of Montgomery County Community College. Follow her on Twitter @drkastout and LinkedIn.