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In Search of Continuous Improvement: An interview with Watermark's Brian Robinson

By Tonia A. Dousay / August 2023

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As the dean of a school of education at a regional comprehensive university, I am particularly interested in continuous improvement. Before my current role, I served as an associate dean for assessment and accreditation for a college of education, health, and human sciences and as an industry-based instructional designer for public works agencies prior to that. The latter position provided a solid foundation for the role and importance of program evaluation—the former introduced layers of complexity like specialized accreditations and integrated technologies. Thus, when I sat down with Brian Robinson, Senior Vice President of Product at Watermark, I listened to his words with enthusiasm and expectation. I was enthusiastic to learn about how this leader guides operations within the organization, and I had expectations grounded in more than 20 years as an instructional designer practitioner, higher education faculty member, and administrator, as well as a decade of experience as a researcher in learning, design, and technology. Brian satisfied my curiosity by the end of our conversation.

 Before moving into the educational technology industry, Brian was an academic advisor in the Texas State University (TXST) business school for five years. Here, he developed a passion for continuous improvement, honing his natural tendencies toward systems thinking and design and applying his master’s degree in organizational communication. This role helped Brian become familiar with student and organizational assessment, and he gravitated toward assessment processes in higher education.

As chair of the assessment committee for advising and later co-chair of the assessment working group for the campus Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), Brian explored how non- academic outcomes of university services support where learning occurs. The QEP focused on helping students use their first-year experience to make better choices, and this focus on students in every aspect of the process cultivated a dedication to iterative human-centered design. Brian also experienced the natural relationship between continuous improvement, closing the loop between academic and non-academic supports, and how efforts contribute to student learning outcomes. If we are the culmination of our experience, he is certainly a pinnacle of continuous improvement.

Brian left higher education to join Tk20, an edtech startup focused on helping institutions better prepare teacher candidates. When Tk20 and Taskstream merged in 2017, Watermark emerged as a brand dedicated to addressing all aspects of continuous improvement. Subsequent mergers targeted companies with strengths in the different areas of the cycle. In his role at Watermark, Brian’s teams use the skilled AGILE framework for iterative design, which likely resonates with various industry instructional designers. The questions I posed to Brian focus on continuous improvement and how that happens in organizations.

You’ve talked about continuous improvement and how it is so core to your beliefs. How would you define continuous improvement and characterize the concept for someone without a background?

At its heart, continuous improvement identifies and implements improvements through relevant products and services. A key characteristic makes it continuous–it must be repetitive and incremental. It’s not just something that you do once. You ingrain it into operations, aligning all other processes with your goals and outcomes. Once you know where you’re going, you can measure progress. Then, you can adapt and change plans based on the process. 

If continuous improvement is the outcome, what would you say forms the foundation of your approach to product development?

Continuous improvement and institutional effectiveness initially ask, “How do we build a high-performing institution with purpose and high-quality offerings?” Once you have a high- performing institution with a purpose and high-quality offerings, student success and services ask, “How do we support and engage individual learners on their journey?” These are complementary and reciprocal processes that form the continuous improvement cycle. This cycle thus informs every product. In other words, every step of the continuous improvement cycle incorporates one or more products.

To help institutions address continuous improvement, we must understand where they are in process maturity. For this, we keep it simple and align with a basic philosophy of continuous improvement—the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle guides the approach. We begin with an approach that meets clients where they are, analyzing needs in juxtaposition with process maturity. Then we plan for the need, do the project, and check the outcomes for effectiveness.

What philosophical and design principles underlie this PDCA cycle and product development?

First, our design team is human-centered and focuses on creating engaging and accessible experiences for higher education. The team employs three goals to enact this mission:

  1. Reporting that tells a story—make it easier for leaders to tell their story as they engage in reflective self-inquiry
  2. Workflows that guide and support—make it easier for leaders to access and incorporate their data and stakeholders
  3. Experiences that are usable and accessible—make sure all users can engage with the tools

Second, to build tools that meet these goals, our processes follow three design principles, each with additional supporting guidelines:

  1. Resemble the user’s world
  2. Support a positive continuous improvement culture
  3. Guide and support

Contextualizing the continuous improvement process is an important first step to culture shifts. Additionally, shifting a culture requires careful guidance with inclusive considerations. Our designers keep these ideas in mind as they work with clients to create the right continuous improvement process for their needs, driving a culture shift.

As we seek to create a culture of continuous improvement, how do we engage the disenfranchised? What strategies do you recommend?

This is a tough challenge in higher education. I once had a faculty member in a business school stand up and aggressively tell me it was all a waste of time and he was going back to his research. Then I connected with him afterward to discuss the relationship between evaluation and research.

The first strategy is to make it relevant to stakeholders. If they’re researchers, present the process through that perspective and highlight the similarities. The second strategy is to give these stakeholders a relevant role. Directly involve and invite vocal opponents, capitalizing on their strengths, such as statistical analyses or writing. The third strategy is to hold an assessment workshop, sharing relevant data with stakeholders. Discussing the results in the context of improvement provides an opportunity to engage in shared governance. The fourth strategy selects tools that make engaging stakeholders easier, reducing workload. If the learning curve is too steep or the interface doesn’t make sense, it’s more work. The fifth and final strategy is to conduct a stakeholder analysis. Go into continuous improvement knowing your champions and detractors to inform the entire process and individual strategies.

This guidance comes from the change management field. Driving the process with these strategies should free up time, facilitating meaningful conversations between leadership and stakeholders.

What is the biggest question around continuous improvement facing higher education today?

Speed and impactfulness. Assessment cycles typically happen over an academic year. Program review cycles run three to five years, and strategic planning cycles last five years to ten years. We lose time in these processes, but the world is changing. It’s getting faster.

Technologies have changed the way instruction happens. The picture of who institutions serve and the needs of their students and communities are ever-evolving. In some ways, they’re

evolving quicker. The challenge is, “How do we create faster continuous improvement cycles that result in meaningful change?” There are appropriate times to conduct longer-range

planning. However, we can’t rely on time-consuming models. If an institution isn’t considering nimble approaches to improvements, it won’t be able to compete.

Do you think that there’s a role for artificial intelligence (AI) to play in continuous improvement?

Yes, but. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate when bringing AI to continuous

improvement. We must ask questions like, “What are the opportunities at different points in the continuous improvement wheel, and in what ways does it make sense?” I see two primary opportunities. One is where continuous improvement work requires synthesis. The other focuses on bringing data to leaders faster to facilitate better decision-making.

When it comes to continuous improvement, it often takes hundreds of hours to source data, generate summaries, and craft reflections based on the data and summaries. AI can simplify this entire process confidently and shorten the time to completion. During initial assessments, AI can scan artifacts, highlight potential alignments with standards, report on outcomes, and recommend sample evidence. Additionally, analytics tools can surface themes and report the overall sentiment rather than asking humans to read survey comments, expediting summary and reporting. Lastly, writing tools can assist with drafting narrative reports by synthesizing details and recommending relevant supporting evidence. These AI enhancements decrease the time necessary for these tasks and allow participants to focus their time on polishing final contributions.

Leaders also need access to data for good decision-making. If they are to consider bold new concepts, they need to compare their performance to that of their peers. Being able to present institutional data in context against peer and inspirational institutions will expedite a variety of processes and planning efforts.

Brian and I walked away from our conversation with a mutual agreement of foundations and motivations as we strive to help institutions think about how they learn about themselves and improve. This experience reminds us of our duty as leaders and practitioners to consider the underlying tenets of our processes, grounding our actions in sound decision-making principles. 

About the Author

Dr. Tonia A. Dousay is a K-20 educator and researcher, encompassing K-12, higher education, and continuing education. She is a professor of education and serves as Dean of the School of Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage. As a Google Certified Innovator with 20 years of distance learning design and education project management experience, Dr. Dousay designs and studies a variety of learning environments and activities with emergent and established technologies, focusing on instructional and multimedia design, creativity & collaboration, learner engagement, and distance learning. Her goal is to help others better design learning to foster interdisciplinary understanding and help learners take control of their own learning experiences.

Copyright 2023 held by Owner/Author. 1535-394X/2023/08-3616112 $15.00


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