At the beginning of an initial accreditation journey, schools usually aspire to earn accreditation as quickly as possible, while at the same time attempting to reflect and make an authentic self-assessment of their performance against the standards, incorporate peer feedback, and develop action plans to close gaps found through this evaluation. While there are benefits of achieving all of this in a successful conclusion, maintaining momentum throughout an initial journey can feel like an uphill task.
By Amy Memon
Manager, Accreditation Services
It is in this context, while observing many schools in Asia, with an emphasis on South Asia, that I have identified these three essential elements of a smooth and successful initial accreditation journey: 1) breadth and depth of accreditation knowledge of the standards and how to apply this knowledge in the context of the school’s mission, 2) systems to gather and analyze data for decision making, and 3) continuity of accreditation leadership. Like a three-legged stool, the absence or disruption of any of these can destabilize and delay an initial accreditation pursuit.
Breadth and Depth of Accreditation Knowledge
At the onset of their accreditation journey, schools should invest in building and sustaining institutional knowledge. All members of the core accreditation team should thoroughly read the guiding principles and standards and attend the Business Accreditation Seminar. But more importantly, a basic understanding of the standards, and what it means to apply them in principle with a focus on outcomes, should be cultivated beyond the core team. This knowledge should be deep enough that decisions are made inclusively. Faculty leaders should be well enough informed to interpret the standards on learner success and engage meaningfully in the process of establishing performance expectations. At the same time, the institutional leadership should equip themselves with the knowledge to evaluate strategic decisions, such as faculty hiring and deployment, in the context of the school’s mission and marshal resources to deliver its expected impact. Acquiring this knowledge also improves the school’s ability at all levels to speak a common language among accredited institutions sought as collaborative partners.
One of the first questions asked by Indian schools is whether I can recommend a consultant. The answer is no, I cannot. There are plenty of consultants offering accreditation services, but schools should be aware that many lack the experience and currency to be effective guides in the process. Schools may also look to engage advisors from time to time, both formally and informally, to impart their accreditation wisdom. To note, all schools once they enter the accreditation process are assigned to work with an AACSB mentor. Mentors are current, or recently retired, deans or associate deans of accredited schools, and trained by AACSB in their role. Their experience and currency in leading the strategic operations of an accredited school is essential to their role as mentor. A word of caution however, consultants and advisors, and even mentors, cannot and should not substitute institutional knowledge of the standards. A quality school does not outsource continuous improvement, and initial accreditation is not sped up by quick fix actions.
A better alternative to hiring paid consultants, networking with peers, is highly encouraged in this knowledge acquisition. Through platforms like the AACSB Exchange, all the faculty and staff at AACSB member schools have the opportunity to engage a network of individuals at accredited schools ready to share their story and offer guidance.
Systems to Gather and Analyze Data for Decision Making
A common challenge of schools in the initial accreditation process is developing efficient systems to gather and analyse data to assess standard alignment and to answer strategic questions such as where the school is currently making an impact, where it aspires to make an impact, and how it will monitor progress in achieving its desired impact.
In reporting outcomes and impact, schools must be specific and provide evidence. Show, do not tell. Accreditation reports are often returned because aspirational claims lack evidence (e.g., quality of the graduates, learning outcomes, placements, starting salaries, etc.).
Further, some schools treat their reports like a dart board, with the logic that the more data you throw at the report, the higher the probability of hitting the target, meeting the standard. Providing data without presenting the analysis in the form and substance that the standards require only accomplishes one thing, proving that the school does not understand the standard. Remember, accreditation knowledge underpins the school’s ability to analyse accreditation alignment.
It is a good practice for schools to evolve their data management processes in the following steps:
First, the school needs to understand the data required and how its measured. For example, faculty teaching productivity can be measured in a variety of ways, such as student credit hours, courses or contact hours, but the choice of measure should be aligned to the school’s operations.
Second, “Find your source of truth!”, repeats my co-facilitator of the Faculty Standards and Tables Seminar, Carol Dowse from Curtin University. This means processes must be established to source the data systematically, and sustainability, i.e., without unnecessary duplication of effort. Questions asked at this stage are, who has responsibility for the data— the university, the school, or individual departments? How is it collected and stored—digitally or manually? How often is it collected—annually, semester, or some other periodicity, and by when does the school need to analyse the data and report it?
Third, this process should reveal gaps and inefficiencies in the established data management systems. Schools must then design and revamp systems to gather and analyse data that better informs accreditation assessment on a continuous basis. For example, a school may need to design a system to collect data at opportune times in the faculty performance review cycle to assess the portfolio of intellectual contributions (ICs) relative to the school’s mission.
Finally, as schools become more proficient at maintaining data and reporting, there is a shift toward the incorporation of benchmarking data and trends analysis into the strategic decision-making process. For example, if innovative teaching methods is a mission component, the school should be able to provide evidence showing how this component of the mission is reflected in the IC portfolio, in the curriculum, and teaching effectiveness programs. Additionally, the school would want to track performance over the past five years and compare to peer schools to identify strategic areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. AACSB’s Data Direct system is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to benchmarking against your peers and even identifying who your peers are. Your AACSB staff liaison can help you navigate this system if you need assistance.
To achieve consistency of performance, stability of oversight in implementation of the school’s vision and mission and commitment to continuous improvement is essential. Leadership turnover during an initial accreditation journey is common and to be expected, but it is still critical that the senior management team lead the accreditation effort. Responsibility should not be handed off to a team of staff members who do not have ability to influence strategic decisions. Too often a gap in leadership for any extended period delays the school’s initial accreditation progress.
Schools can avoid this common pitfall and stay on track by ensuring the commitment to accreditation and its responsibility is shared by multiple members of the senior management team and faculty, being realistic that the initial accreditation timeline may extend beyond a dean/director’s term, and having clear succession plans in the event of unexpected leadership turnover.
Likewise, the senior management has a responsibility to remain involved in the accreditation process to ensure that key staff turnover does not unduly delay the process either. Anyone new to the core team should receive training on the standards and accreditation process as soon as they begin their role. Schools are encouraged to keep their AACSB staff liaison and mentor updated during such periods of transition to ensure open lines of communication about next steps in the process and to seek guidance on managing potential challenges as result of turnover.
The invested time and effort in achieving AACSB accreditation is worth it as it will improve the effectiveness, reputation, and impact of the institution. Ensuring you have a deep understanding of the standards, have strong data management processes to produce reliable information for the accreditation reporting, and ensuring continuing of leadership and staff who support the initial accreditation effort will put your school on a path to success.