Automattic Possibilities

Global high-tech, high-touch academic advising.

October 9, 2014
Working from home and academic advising

You have probably never heard of Automattic. Founded by Matt Mullenweg in 2005, Automattic is the company behind the popular blogging platform - WordPress. Automattic is a rather unique company in terms of overall size and structure. According to their "work with us" webpage, Automattic employees work "from their own home or office" and are "spread out all over the world." Once a year, Automattic brings its employees together for an in-person gathering to share ideas, meet face-to-face, and foster a truly unique working culture.

One of the positions at Automattic that has always intrigued me is the "happiness engineer." Working to keep customers "happy," these engineers are a melange of coders, customer service representatives, and community builders.

A recent tweet exchange regarding how academic advising could be done via distributed individuals rather than housing all advisors on-campus made me immediately think about Mullenweg's happiness engineers. Academic advisors utilize a wide array of skills and carry out a variety of duties on a daily basis. Academic advisors tend to know a lot about the schools in which they work. At every interaction, academic advisors teach students how to navigate myriad policies, create bespoke academic plans, and guide their advisees on how to effectively utilize information systems as well as providing guidance on careers and leadership opportunities. Academic advisors are essentially the happiness engineers of higher education.

Academic advising is a vital component of the higher education environment. However, that environment is no longer bound to traditional brick-and-mortar locations. In fact, it hasn't been for quite some time. Just like a lot of areas within higher education that are benefitting from innovative and disruptive actions, academic advising seems ready for a massive change that could lead to more professional advising opportunities for qualified candidates all over the globe.

While the NACADA Annual Conference that is currently underway does include sessions for distance advising/advisors, perhaps it's time to think differently about how we frame the scale of academic advising when students are entering academic programs from all over the globe. Maybe we can borrow a chapter or two from Matt Mullenweg and the company that bears his name. Here are some of my initial thoughts on structure, requirements, scale, and culture for distributed academic advising:

Technical Requirements - A Different Set of Tools
High-speed broadband connectivity, a modern laptop, high- quality microphone, HD webcam, collaborative communication platforms (Google Hangouts), good lighting, comfortable seating, and a quiet home office.

Disruption and Innovation Require Reasonable Compensation
Salaries should reflect the global nature of geographically distributed academic advisors. These are not entry-level positions. Instead, these are highly-competitive jobs that require the same skills as on-campus advisors, plus an advanced fluency with digital communication channels.

Culture at Scale - Far Apart, Ever-Connected
Creating cohesive teams in a distance-based work environment can work, as seen at Automattic. Annual gatherings combined with virtual team building will be necessary in order to foster a culture of advising that mirrors the more traditional method of having on-campus teams.

Expertise - A New Generation of Student Affairs Practice
As I've mentioned before, the new niche within student affairs exists within an exciting array of unconventional positions. Our students are all over the place. Shouldn't we meet them where they are?

An Ethic of Care / Everyone Matters
The pace of change within higher education means that while some facets of the industry have kept up, other areas are a bit behind. For example, while I'm sure that campus administrators would actively say that "all students matter," does this really hold true when support structures for on-campus students are compared with online-only learners? A consistent ethic of care exists within the academic advising profession.

While my focus hasn't been solely on online-only learners in this particular piece, I do think that distributed advisors might serve them more effectively. Online-only students often have different life circumstances than their on-campus peers. They are spread out over multiple time zones, may never meet face-to-face with anyone at their school, and are pursuing a credential without the same benefits as their brick-and-mortar peers. Online-only learners should be afforded the same intensity of support and care...and who better than a specially trained and outfitted advisor to counter their unique challenges with customized digital support.

It's All About Having People Skills
Being part of a global team of academic advisors means that you're going to need phenomenal people skills. Your ability to communicate via digital means is essential to your success as well as for the success of the students with whom you work. It requires a dynamic and skilled practitioner who can be effective in this mode of interaction. Academic advisors who work in this capacity will have an advanced level of competency in communicating via social media, web-based audio/video, learning management systems, and the ever-ubiquitous email.

Cats Are Optional
Working from home requires a strong work ethic. Accountability shifts from having a boss who works next door to you, to having a leader who might reside in a different locale. You may be tempted to work whilst wearing your pajamas or to include your favorite pet in your conversations with advisees. However, distributed academic advising work requires a professional edge. Being able to work from home is a privilege. Working with students, regardless of location, is what academic advisors do.

Should We Do This?
What do you think? Can we scale academic advising on a distributed global level? Are you already working for a school or program in this capacity? What else do we need to think about in order for this to work? As always, I encourage you to share your thoughts, ideas, and comments.


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