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  • Writer's pictureStudent-Ready Strategies

Cracking the Code: Consulting, Technical Assistance and Professional Development

Several months ago, the SRS team was in a deep discussion with a group of people from a different industry, describing what it is we do. When we said that we provide colleges and universities with technical assistance, they sat quietly for a moment, and then asked, “What is technical assistance?”

It turned out to be more challenging than expected to describe technical assistance to people unfamiliar with our industry. This simple question and our struggle to clearly answer it led us to deeply examine our own definitions and attempt to crack the code on technical assistance, how we design it at SRS, and how we have provided and received it in the past. We thought not just about how technical assistance is delivered today, but how it should be crafted in the future. And we came to two important realizations related to three terms that are often conflated: consulting, technical assistance, and professional development.

Realization #1: Technical assistance is not the same thing as consulting.

One of SRS’s early clients said to us, “I don’t like working with consultants.” She explained her perspective that consultants came in and gave her direction on what should be done, but did not help her actually do it. Her engagement with various consultants always left her with more things on her to-do list - not less - and she was not interested in paying someone to increase her workload.

Our clients and partners often resonate with this sentiment. The dedicated people who work at colleges and universities are often charged with multiple roles while still keeping up with students’ needs and the day-to-day running of the institution. These professionals have little human capacity to do “other duties as assigned.”

Further, the work of transforming complex educational systems to achieve equitable student success is highly specialized, and most institutions do not have teams of people who are expert in doing it, nor do they hire people solely for that specific purpose. They can’t make use of even the best consultative advice if it does not come with direct assistance - not because of lack of commitment, but because of lack of capacity.

If a service only helps you figure out what to do, and doesn’t help you do it, it is not technical assistance. It is consulting.

Realization #2: Technical assistance is not the same thing as professional development.

In past roles, we have been involved in many projects involving cohorts of institutions and have delivered and received service through one or more large-scale convenings. People come together in a central location, listen to a keynote, and hear from panels of practitioners. Essentially, they learn. After learning, they get consultation during team time or another working session which aids in their learning. The actual work, however, does not happen at that event. It happens when the attendees get back to their campuses. Participants will have gained knowledge and perhaps some tools and templates to advance the work, but it is still up to them to execute - sandwiching these extra tasks in between their existing day-to-day work. The expert panel does not follow them home.

If a service teaches you how to do something, but doesn’t help you do it, it is not technical assistance. It is professional development.

Technical assistance is exactly what it says: assistance.

The SRS definition of technical assistance is to act as temporary team members at the organization and complete the tasks that others do not have the time or specialized knowledge to do. We will often provide consulting and professional development along the way, but at the core, we are completing tasks that would otherwise be on the to-do lists of people at the college, university, or organization. We often assume the mental load for the project or initiative, keeping our eyes on the big picture and all the moving parts. The professionals we work with may need to do a few discrete tasks that we cannot do for them, but we clearly identify those tasks and support our partners in moving them forward.

In practice

At SRS, our services are highly customized, and we end up providing all three types of services. Here are two examples of how each looks in practice.

Policy Change

  • As consultants, we use our knowledge of the field and the institution’s identified challenges to suggest changes to one or more policies.

  • As professional development providers, we deliver workshops and provide frameworks that help institutional participants review and amend their own policies.

  • As technical assistance providers, we write or red-line the policy directly, and create the slide decks and one-pagers needed for stakeholder engagement.

Data Analysis

  • As consultants, we suggest certain metrics, templates, and methodology to use to answer a particular question.

  • As professional development providers, we convene teams, teach them how to use tools like pivot tables, and give them dedicated time to develop their own conclusions.

  • As technical assistance providers, we receive data from our partners, analyze it, provide the key findings, identify the actionable implications of those findings, and develop customized communications material.

The challenge

True technical assistance is what so many institutions need, but it is very hard to deliver at scale. There are many foundations and nonprofit organizations that have a keen interest in finding scalable ways to deliver it, because they are trying to maximize impact with a finite amount of dollars. However, when “technical assistance” is delivered at scale, it almost always turns out to be either consulting, professional development, or a combination of the two.

At SRS, we are striving to tackle this challenge head-on. One of our five Equity Actions is to develop innovative approaches to technical assistance that address inequities in access and quality, expand the number of institutions engaged in transformation, and achieve greater impact for marginalized students.

Achieving a scalable approach to true technical assistance would be the pinnacle of meeting this ideal. So, of course, that is what we are working to do. For more on this in the coming months, stay tuned and subscribe to our mailing list!

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