Author Archive: kaiyen

The Latest from Moody’s – TL/DR – Not So Good

Moody’s released their higher education credit outlook report (IHE article, too) yesterday. This is the second year in a row that it’s been a negative rating (used to be “stable”). I found a few interesting points in the report. A quick summary is that low net-tuition revenue growth continues to make for a bleak forecast, and that expenses should outpace that revenue, to boot. We’d have to get to a 3% increase in revenue to get level again, and to get to a stable rating. Privates are forecast to be a bit better off than state schools. The full report, which is for subscribers only, is a lot more illuminating, but I’ll reference information in the linked article only.

Labor remains the biggest cost for higher education institutions, up to 75% of total expenses. A professor at U Wisconsin Madison says that it’s just the “nature of the beast” that it takes a lot of staff and faculty to run a higher education institution. This is completely true, and Baumol’s Cost Disease speaks to the fact that economies of scale are extremely difficult in labor-intensive industries such as higher education (massive oversimplication). If you want an 11:1 student to faculty ratio, you have to hire enough faculty to achieve that result. Faculty salaries go up. Labor expenses go up. There is no way to use scale that doesn’t erode that student to faculty ratio. It’s like trying to make a musical quintet more efficient in labor. You can’t have a 5 piece band with 4 people.

If this truly is the “nature of the beast” then we need to be asking some hard questions about our business model. I don’t mean that in the “higher ed should be run like a business” kind of way – just how we get things done. None of these questions are all that new – different channels for delivery (online), for instance.

There is another part about how colleges and universities are expected to “control those costs in the coming year.” This is about cost containment. Or, in most cases, cutting costs. But that’s a simplistic analysis, too. What if you’ve already cut things to the bone? What if there are few remaining efficiencies to be gained? At this point, I’m slicing a few thousand dollars off our phone bill and calling that a win (there are loads of other places here at the College where we can save money. I’m not the only one trying to contain costs and I’m not saying that all costs have been trimmed. We are not perfect. My point is that this isn’t a winning strategy forever).

It’s an interesting time in higher education, to be sure. Certainly reports such as Moody’s cast a negative forecast on things, but there are a lot of exciting and positive things happening, too. How we react to the forces identified in reports like these will partially determine where we – as an “industry” and as individual institutions – will find ourselves in the coming years.

 

Higher Education – if not a business, then what?

Use the phrase “higher education should be run like a business” and you’ll usually get polar-opposite responses from a wide range of people. One CIO might agree while another runs at you with a pitchfork or torch. Some presidents may feel sympathy for the argument, while others will take a completely opposite stance. In other words, it’s not as if one group of individuals (like CIOs) agree while others (like presidents) don’t. You get the bi-polar set of reactions everywhere.

Even what one means can be controversial. Do you mean all of higher education? Including the academic side? In which case you probably (but not definitely) mean teaching at scale (large lectures or even MOOC-style ones), accessing new channels (online), and perhaps even modifications to curriculum. Or do you mean the administrative side? In which case you’re talking about business operations. Of course, it’s not a clean separation. What about a business analysis of the output from academic departments? Many institutions (I’ll find some links later) have been cancelling majors due to low numbers of graduates, meaning that the major is not producing the “ROI” that the institution expects. I usually interpret that investment as in the form of the faculty paid to run that program, but I  might be narrow-minded on that.

For me, I generally mean business operations whenever I ponder this phrase. I am not sold that it should be run like a business. We are an educational institution, with service providers and “consumers” (I mean that literally, and not as akin to “customers.” I mean people that consume the service we provide) that are focused on education and the growth of young adults and adult learners. But then I look at how I spend my days trying to do “cost containment” (ie – cutting expenses) on things such as phone bills and internet service, or getting bids on projects, and it sure does feel like a business sometimes.

So my question is – if not to be run like a business, how is an institution to be run, on the administrative side? What is the framework or model that one would prefer to use? And can you articulate that framework?

my own fail: EDUCAUSE Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force

I have had a strange experience as part of the EDUCAUSE Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force over the past 6 or so months. I was honored to be a part of this group and to be working on this important topic. The group was convened by John O’Brien, EDUCAUSE President, to tackle the issues of increasing DEI in higher education IT in general and at EDUCAUSE specifically. How do we make our work force more diverse, our leadership more representative of at least industry norms (higher ed IT lags behind even corporate IT in diversity, on several dimensions, much less against the population at large), and be more inclusive once we develop greater diversity? Wow, such an important topic.

For some reason, though…I found myself paralyzed as I tried to contribute. It wasn’t the people – many were friends of mine, and all were very accessible and engaged. I didn’t feel intimidated by them. It wasn’t the leadership – John and Joanne Dehoney (also from EDUCAUSE) were great, too, and both asked engaging questions as well as gladly accepted feedback. I just couldn’t…find a nook or cranny from which I felt comfortable contributing. For some reason I just couldn’t contribute! I was holding back on ideas and thoughts, for instance, or drawing a blank when I should have been inspired to new ideas.

It was all very surreal. And infuriating because the topic is so important.

So. The real question is what have I learned from this?

First, I need to critically evaluate how I can contribute before I agree to participate. I was so excited to be invited and included that I jumped in before I put in thought as to what I could offer. It’s not that I would have said “no” – it’s that I needed a game plan, from my perspective and of my opinions, of how I would take part. If I’m going to be part of something this important, I have to know that I will pull my weight.

Second, I need to be willing to be bold. There were times when I found that I didn’t speak up when I should have for some reason. There were even a couple of times that I didn’t say something that, later on, someone else did to much appreciation. I have no idea why I froze like that. But I did. I need to be willing to just say it and see what happens.

Finally, I think I need to accept that I have good ideas. This is related to item 2 but deserves it’s own spotlight. I might not have great ideas and I might have a dud now and then, but I cannot let the concern (fear?) of a dud prevent me from saying what might be a good suggestion. We all have both good and bad ideas. We’re allowed to have them if the point is brainstorming and sharing.

boosting retention vs. invasion of privacy

In a recent article, the Chronicle of Higher Education covered a product from Degree Analytics that looks at a lot of “big data” – specifically WiFi location activity – to aid in student retention. The article is also about the privacy concerns when one starts digging into such data. Just because most if not all systems at least passively collect location data on WiFi networks doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to be using that information. Students haven’t specifically given permission to have their data accessed that way. I’m willing to bet a lot of money, too, that they aren’t aware that their movements could lead to such analysis that somehow “predicts” their success at the institution.

I’m not going to get into Degree Analytics specifically. I will admit, though, that we gave them a legitimate look here at Muhlenberg. And that I was pretty torn about the matter of boosting retention vs. a potential invasion of privacy.

I realize that this post will get a few up in arms, including some that I consider close colleagues and even friends. I would expect that to be the case, though, considering the topic. Certainly there were some here at Muhlenberg that were up in arms at the mere notion of using data this way. But we did take a look; this is a polarizing topic to say the least.

But here’s my take, and my conflict.

Retention is a big issue today. The connection to student academic success is obvious (though there are many, many other aspects to “success” than just academics). There’s the altruistic aspect to this – we want students to succeed because it’s the right thing to want and pursue. That’s far and away the bigger side of the issue, and I won’t belabor why that is so important. But there’s also a business side to this, all the more important considering today’s higher education climate – every student we retain from year X to X+1 is a multitude fewer we have to enroll as a first-year, provides revenue at a lower discount rate (presuming discount rate goes up with each class, as it generally does), and improves our graduation rate (which affects rankings).

So if we can retain even one more student for all the above reasons, altruistic and business…is that bad? Is it even…good? Good enough? How much is enough to justify using data however we want?

Let’s look at the other side of the coin, which is a doozy. First, students don’t realize that this kind of data on campus whereabouts based on WiFi connections is even collected. They certainly wouldn’t think we’d use it to literally track them, then draw conclusions about their “success” and intervene when we fear that “success” is in jeopardy. Second, just because we collect something doesn’t mean we should use it at all, much less in this way. By the way – at Muhlenberg at least we don’t “monitor” people through whatever data we do collect. Yes, our WiFi logs go back 90 days (but not farther, for any reason whatsoever), but we don’t comb through them pro-actively. We only use them if we get a DMCA complaint and we have to figure out who was connected to what IP address at a particular time. But that’s pretty darn specific. Degree Analytics is very, very broad.

So this is a pretty big invasion of privacy. A massive one, to many.

We didn’t do Degree Analytics here, but probably 30/70 cost vs. privacy. It wasn’t all privacy concerns. And I was among those torn about it. Because we do have to worry about retention. And maybe, just maybe, this is a way to improve and get all the benefits, to us and students, that better retention entails. But it’s a dangerous path that we’d be starting down, without question.

What Twitter Has Taught Me About Myself

Over a year ago, I decided to start reading up on higher education more actively. I fired up my Feedly RSS reader, updated my subscriptions, and now spend about 20 minutes a day at minimum reading through various articles. Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Education Dive dominate the education space, and Inc.com, CIO and Fast Company fill in with various productivity and business articles. Throw in probably a dozen individual blogs and I keep myself plenty busy with reading.

Now, I figured that reading wasn’t enough. I wanted to share the great things I was reading. So I took to Twitter. If I bothered to read all the way through the article, then I tweeted it. I didn’t mention people, I didn’t use hashtags. I just tweeted it. Partly as a record of what I’d read, but partly because I figured someone out there might appreciate my curation of all these articles. Maybe there’s one person out there that would find my specific reading habits interesting.

As I tweeted more, a few people started retweeting me, or replying. As I started to not only tweet out articles but also comment on them, I started a few conversations. I added a Twitter routine to my mornings and afternoons, going through as much as I could using Tweetdeck. I (re)discovered lists and sorted my feed a few different ways. As time went by, I followed new people, added them to various lists and things kept snowballing. Nothing new here for anyone that has spent anytime on Twitter at all, I know.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that there is a pattern to the topics I tweet about, engage in, retweet, etc. Twitter has taught me something about the things I care about. For instance:

College Affordability

Turns out the rising costs of college is really bothering me. Yes, between Sara Goldrick-Rab @saragoldrickrab (and her book, Paying the Price) and various articles I sate this thirst pretty easily. But I do care about it a lot. Considering I work at a small liberal arts institution in the northeast (and with a price tag consistent with this type of institution), I have found this passion interesting.

Student Debt (and Loan Forgiveness/Borrower Defense)

This is certainly related to affordability, but a bit different. We all know student debt is rising, and default rates are, too (though some good nuance to this generalization in a book I’m reading now – Breakpoint by Jon McGee). So that’s a big thing right there. But then there are a lot of students that have been seeking forgiveness due to debt accrued while attending defunct institutions (I think mostly if not all for-profit ones). The current administration has made these borrower defense options harder and harder to take advantage of, which is just upsetting in general.

I am lucky that I finished at a very expensive undergrad institution with little debt. But I did loans for the vast majority of my MBA and I’m still paying that off. Overall, it’s been over 18 years of paying off education debt, and I certainly wasn’t bilked out of my money by an institution that went belly-up and left me high and dry without a degree.

Viability of the Small College Business Model

This might be more about the college model in general, and it’s related to affordability. But I find myself reading a lot about this school having to layoff staff or even faculty, another school going through troubles, and a few schools even closing down. I’m fascinated and dismayed at the dynamics of this situation. Bryan Alexander in particular does a great job analyzing not only the space in general of failing smaller institutions but of specific failures, queen’s sacrifices, etc.

And other technology stuff

Kind of had to have a heading for this one. Obviously miscellaneous technology stuff interests me. I’m particularly intrigued just the last few days by the wild back and forth swings of opinion on smart devices (such as Amazon Echos and Google Homes) in the higher ed environment. Some institutions are using them in residences, adding new “skills” all the time to make them more and more advance and integrated with the educational experience. Some faculty are using them in classrooms to augment learning. You get some writers commenting on the powerful impact of these tools. And others that feel it’s Armageddon. I”m not sure where I sit on it. I certainly oppose a surveillance type of situation; I’m just not sure where these tools are in terms of the type of surveillance I oppose. Are there positives to them? Can they engage students in new ways that affect retention and success? Can that ever justify the other things they do? Is there a middle ground, with some kind of new smart device that is more narrowly focused in its design and data gathering?

The Chargeback model

I hate charging departments back for services or equipment. Yet we do it. It bothers me deeply that we cannot afford to provide important services, hardware, and software to people. Yet it’s the truth. And I am loath to have yet another conversation where I simultaneously say that we support the mission and business of the College and that someone else has to pay to play. But I do.

There are institutions that charge back, like we do at Muhlenberg, for add-on services and items such as software beyond what we currently offer or hardware beyond the standard, such as second monitors. There are institutions that charge back for any kind of service at all. We are fortunately not the latter, but I am finding us pushing back more and more often requesting at least some funding from departments. The line which we’ve drawn between standard and extra has stayed still, but the demands of faculty and staff have changed.

For instance, we still charge for a second monitor, but more and more users are requesting this option. We upgraded all of our monitors to larger units just a couple of years ago (previously, we still had 17″ 4:3 units out there…) which has mitigated the challenges that users face considerably, but we still get a fair share of requests. Do we need to move the goal posts? Should we be budgeting in for a certain number of second monitors every year, until requests die down? Rather than asking departments to pay?

What about Adobe, the boogeyman of software licensing (Microsoft is more complex, but I think Adobe is tougher on the actual users)? It is incredibly expensive to provide Adobe on any large scale, and in fact many institutions, due to changes in their licensing model, now offer fewer seats today than they did before. Muhlenberg’s demand doesn’t come close to justifying (and our budget wouldn’t accommodate) a campus-wide license, so departments pay. Need Acrobat? Need Creative Cloud? What’s your account number so we can transfer the charge?

There isn’t an answer contained somewhere in this blog post. I’m just frustrated at not being able to meet the needs of users more effectively. Maybe, as I said, it’s time to move some targets – remain strict, but draw a new line to create a new demarcation.

Governance for the New Guy

We spun up 3 major projects almost right off the bat following my arrival here at Muhlenberg. We were to replace the Student Information System (SIS) with an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution, the email system, and our Learning Management System (LMS). All 3 are pretty big, and any one would make for a busy year (the ERP in particular is a really huge, multi-year effort).

One of the first challenges I faced was how to build proper governance on these projects. Governance is a two-way street. It keeps people involved, it keeps the community informed, but it also asks the community for input, and is a way for the project to respond to such information and adjust. While I could certainly be such a conduit myself and I could use our existing faculty-based College Committee for Technology and Digital Learning (CCTDL), I did not feel this was the best approach so soon after starting here. I definitely wasn’t going to make any executive decisions or recommendations without a great deal of input, either. Who was I to say I “knew” what the college needed? That such and such product was the “right” one for Muhlenberg (I say this in general – that was I so new I was still getting lost on campus compounded the fact).

So I created committees. Lots of them.

For the LMS and email projects, they each had a committee that included staff from multiple different departments and faculty. The LMS one was, not surprisingly, a bit more heavy on the faculty side and there was an emphasis on instructional technologists from the staff population. The email project had a broader cross-section of the community. The former was chaired by a faculty member, and the latter by our Library Director, who had been involved in a similar project at another institution. CCTDL members sat on both committees.

I formed 3 separate committees for the ERP project alone. The Selection Committee was a small, 7-person group of key operational staff that could move quickly through the process of gathering requirements, developing a Request for Information (RFI), schedule demos and interact with the vendors. This group included representatives from Advancement, Admissions, the Registrar’s Office, the Office of Residential Services, the Library and the Controller’s Office, headed up by a project manager from OIT.

A Steering Committee “governed” the Selection Committee. Departmental directors and other key management staff made up this group. VP of HR, the Registrar, the Controller, the Director of Financial Aid, Athletic Director, Director of Campus Safety, and the AVP for Advancement were among those included in this group. It was much larger – 17 total members. A member of CCTDL was the faculty representative and the Dean of our Wescoe School chaired it.

The Steering Committee was charged with both making sure the Selection Committee was doing what was needed/headed in the right directions as well as making sure they would be successful. If a group was slow in getting requirements back to the Selection Committee, then the Steering Committee had the responsibility to get things back on track. At the same time, it was ultimately the responsibility of the Steering Committee to write up the final recommendation.

Finally, the Executive Committee was made up of the college Senior Staff (those that report to the President). This group held the ultimate decision-making authority. As part of the Executive Committee, I worked with other members to help push down various initiatives as well as make certain high level decisions. We concluded, for instance, that we would go with an “off the shelf” and “plain vanilla” installation, adapting our business processes to the product, rather than pursuing customization. We also discussed policy on cloud hosting and SaaS delivery options, for instance. It was critically important to have this kind of executive sponsorship – the entire senior staff.

With the exception of the Executive Committee for the ERP project, I have stepped completely away from all the other committees. I didn’t attend meetings, I didn’t ask for notes or report-ins, and I only occasionally checked-in on progress for general reasons, not to keep tabs. With the LMS and email committees, I met with them at least once for general guidelines. I did join in on a couple of joint Selection/Steering Committee meetings for the ERP project. But overall I’ve kept my distance. I think it was very important that I let the committees do their work.

While we haven’t completed everything yet (I used the past tense just to keep things consistent, but the ERP project in particular is still ongoing), the LMS launch has already gone well, and email is closing in with the start of the new year. ERP will be another 1-2 years. But what I’ve discovered is that, through judicious use of committees, you can get involvement of the community in ways that are impossible as an individual. It’s also brought legitimacy to the process in ways that I hadn’t even expected.

the great unbundling

There has been a lot of discussion on “unbundling” of traditionally single-vendor, monolithic systems, especially the Learning Management System (LMS) and the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions.Essentially, rather than relying on a single solution that does 100 things, why not break out the functions into perhaps 20 products that are all efficiently and seamlessly tied together? Those 20 would be chosen because they meet operational needs better than that single solution could.

This is different than a straight “Best of Breed” approach. Gartner handles it pretty well in their discussion on the “post-modern ERP.” Best of Breed is focused on selecting products that are best in industry, in any given field. Being purposely black and white, it’s the best of that type of application, and that’s what we’re going to use. A post-modern ERP approach is based on business processes. The results might be the same – the best product in the field might be the one that fits your business processes the best. But one institution might do something very differently than another, and while both might be looking for “best fit,” the result might be two completely different products. Perhaps a subtle difference, but one that I think is important.

Unbundling an ERP, especially in higher education, is pretty straightforward. Perhaps the admissions module that came with the ERP isn’t an effective CRM. Let’s go out and find one, and spend our time integrating the two systems. We might see similar decisions with Advancement and its CRM needs, or perhaps analytics and data visualization.

At first ,the ERP would be the hub with other systems attached to it. Over time, the ERP is completely broken up, and all the systems revolve around a data warehouse. Energy is spent on governing the data integrity of that warehouse and on maintenance of the flow of data. The ERP (which by this point is probably just a Student Information System) is actually attached to the data warehouse, rather than fueling it. The great thing about using the data warehouse as the hub is that all reporting stays consistent from group to group.

This isn’t remotely my idea, by the way. I can’t seem to find the trail but I know I first heard of it from Theresa Rowe (@oucio) who was in fact retweeting someone else. I’ll provide the reference if someone can send it my way. Also, all you (what, 2 readers?) should note that I’m in the middle of a comprehensive ERP roll-out right now. Just because I get the idea of the unbundled ERP doesn’t mean it’s the right time for me to pursue it for my specific institution.

The data warehouse could be the center for the components that make up an LMS, too. I get the idea – find the right assessment tool for the learning outcomes your institution has chosen and integrate that, rather than using one that came from a vendor. Do the same with e-portfolios, quizzes, cloud storage integration, just about anything. If student data is all managed effectively in that warehouse, and all the systems are connected properly, you could have a pretty powerful solution.

My concern, however, is that whereas an unbundled ERP likely won’t lead to a lot of user confusion, an unbundled LMS could. The finance office uses its software and Admissions uses theirs, and rarely shall the twain meet. But students all use the LMS components, and this could lead to confusion. Sure, we can implement single sign-on so at least it’s one portal and one login, but how do we manage this user experience?

This remains to be answered. I’m eager to see what comes of all this unbundling.

the other end of the Personal API

A lot has gone on lately about the “Personal API.” Getting information on it gets to be a bit meta, with one link leading to another article to a blog post then all the way back around to the first reference but start off with a great post from Jim Groom that in turn links to an article by Tim Klapdor that really captures the key ideas, then check out some talk on the Indie Ed Tech discussion from 

A massive oversimplification of an idea as expansive as a personal API is that it’s a way for the user to control how his or her own data is being used and accessed. An API in the software world is a defined interface for accessing data from a system like Twitter or Facebook. A personal API, therefore, is about controlling how personal data is accessed. It puts the power back into the hands of the individual, rather than the system. This discussion is taking place in higher ed, so the practical example would be a student deciding when personal data such as a phone number is available, rather than the institution controlling that information through access into, say, the Student Information System (this is the example Kelly Flanagan, the CIO at BYU, provides).

This is an amazing idea, and one worth pursuing regardless of your type of institution. It’s worth rethinking how you approach everything from digital learning in general to the LMS specifically. But it also has a flip-side challenge that is non-trivial.

Earlier this week, I was in a demo from an SIS vendor where we talked about ways to access data in the system. Not surprisingly, they discourage direct SQL database access, so the options were to either use reports (e.g. – giant Excel file, which requires more work to use) or build hooks into their APIs. The latter is preferred since it would inherently include getting the data into the right format for whatever the intended use, plus it would be more secure. The vendor was touting how they have well-documented and extensive APIs so that we can do what we wish in terms of software development.

APIs – whether for a Student Information System or a person – are great and indeed quite powerful. It’s like an extended hand in a way, but one that carries with it all the information about how high up the hand is from the floor, how far away it is from the body, whether it’s the right or left hand, etc. Taking this metaphor a bit further, the key is that the person extending the hand – the student in the personal API example – gets to decide all of those variables. The angle of the hand, the distance extended, etc. What data is included or excluded, and exactly how a secure exchange should take place.

However, having an API isn’t a complete solution. The problem with an API is that it’s only half of a two-part process. The hand is extended, but someone does indeed have to walk up, take hold, and offer that firm handshake. It’s great to offer access to data, and it’s even better to give control over that process to the individual, but it still takes two to tango.

Now, BYU and some schools involved in projects related to digital identity (see Domain of One’s Own – another Jim Groom brainchild – for a good starting point on this topic) are already or will soon be investing time and resources into the other half of this relationship. And this is undeniably something that every institution should explore as we find ways to empower students and create the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment, but there is part of me – the cynical half? – that keeps wondering about the resources needed. Looking with blinders on only at our department at Muhlenberg, I don’t see us being able to engage in a meaningful way for some time. We’ll take advantage of tools that others build, sure (and of course there is nothing wrong with that IMO). But as far as us being the other end of the handshake, building our own tools? I don’t know. Can we disaggregate the LMS on our own? Not likely in the near future.

Absolutely worth it, without a doubt, to work to find a way to get involved. But it will take work to get to a meaningful outcome with the personal API.

taking your network up a notch

So the other day I was thinking about CAT 6 vs 6E plenum vs non-plenum networking cable and…

Just kidding. This post isn’t about that. And honestly I almost never think about networking cable (not because it’s not important, but rather because there are many out there that know it better than I do and I rely on them for their expertise).

A while ago, there was a product called inmaps. I think it started as an independent tool, then was acquired and then shutdown by LinkedIn. Inmaps was just great because it visualized your entire network. It literally drew a visual representation of all your connections, how they clumped, how certain long distance connections could be used to “shrink” the world, etc. It even color coded things in a logical way. I could have red be my old Stanford classmates, blue my co-workers from Santa Clara, and green various vendors with whom I’ve connected over time.

When LinkedIn shut this service down, it was sad news. With as many connections as just about any of us have, getting a different view of things can be very powerful. Being able to see that many linkages all at once can really say a lot about not only what connections we’ve made but the choices we’ve made in creating those relationships. I realized, for instance, that I had been too willing with vendors. Yes, they are useful connections, especially if they move to another company. But it’s a double-edge sword – as I’m able to leverage existing relationships with them at new companies, they are also able to connect them me from new businesses that I’m not even interested in. My mistake. And I could really see it when visualized.

There are some replacements coming out – the best so far is from sociallab.com though I’m not a huge fan of it’s actual visualization clumping method, and it is limited to 499 contacts. For those of us that went a bit contact-crazy for a while, that’s not enough. It generally clumps connections in a logical way, but not nearly as cleanly as inmaps did. I’ve heard linkurios is pretty good, too, but you have to install python and whatnot to get it working. More of a DIY deal.

While visualization is a great way to get further insight into your network, there are lots of other ways to leverage your connections. The easiest is to just take your closest connections and go to the next level, where you are interacting outside of purely professional settings. Usually we see each other at conferences, or send the occasional email when we have a question on something someone else is working on. “How are you doing video conferencing?” or “what help desk software are you using?” Stuff like that. But, while we all want to maintain a professional demeanor as often as possible, the fact is that we do grow close to some of our contacts, and we can in fact be informal and even – gasp – friends in the long run.

And when you can become friends, with a foundation of professional context, things get really powerful.

There are some of us that know each other from the SIGUCCS annual conference that have, over time, grown closer and closer in a personal and social way. When we talk, we still sometimes talk about professional matters. I recently grabbed a white paper from one about ITSM-based ticketing systems from a member of this group. But largely we interact in purely social ways. Joking about things at work or, on the other end of the spectrum, griping and venting about frustrations. The bulk of our conversations are in the middle, though – seeking advice from each other about how to handle things. There are many times when I’ve taken suggestions from this group and directly applied them to my work. It’s truly a group of peers, and we’ve fallen into a culture of sharing as such quite quickly.

Similar connections can be built from something as simple as a regular lunch group (though taking that up a notch, too, can be even more powerful than the straightforward decision to eat together) or getting together outside of work occasionally. It builds, at the least, a set of confidantes that can be valuable sounding boards or even peer mentors.

Of course, you can throw in formal mentors-mentee relationships that have grown out of professional connections (I am very thankful for the ones I’ve built over of time, as those people have made such a difference for me) as one of the undeniably most powerful “enhancements” to one’s standard network.

My point is that we can all take our networks above and beyond a set of connections with others. Whether through visualizing something as potentially-superficial as LinkedIn connection to building friendships to formal mentoring relationships, we can enrich our experiences so strongly through just a bit more commitment to such efforts. Just asking – “hey, can we get lunch together, I really value your opinion on a topic?” or something a bit more brave such as “will you be a mentor to me as I move forward in my career and face new challenges?” can lead to a exponential benefit to your overall existence.

I encourage you to take the next step, build your own tribe of friends from professional contacts, and transform your network into something else.