Field Trip: Rocking the Paper Boat
Heather Stocking wanted to give her Human Resources team more time to be creative and strategic. That meant getting rid of a lot of their paperwork. Sounds great, right? But it wasn’t that simple.
This is the story of how the HR department at Bettendorf Community School District went paperless. But it’s really a story about change management. It’s about getting buy-in from teachers, leaders and the school board. It’s about how Heather and her team at Bettendorf carefully (and successfully!) navigated a massive shift away from “the way things have always been done” — calming fears and addressing concerns along the way.
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HEATHER STOCKING: We had more on our plates and we had paper everywhere. So from staffing to lane changes to professional development, every one of those was coming with documentation that needed to be signed, filed, passed. That was my initial, “Oh my goodness, we need to fix this.”
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HEATHER STOCKING: I’m not doing this and I’m not pushing this to try to take anyone’s job. I’m actually doing this because I believe we have a super talented team who are spending more time pushing papers and filing papers and finding papers than they are being able to be creative and innovative and providing the best customer service that we can do.
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
We’re here talking with Heather Stocking, Director of Human Resources at Bettendorf Community School District in Iowa. Heather, it’s good to have you on the show.
HEATHER STOCKING: Thanks for having me.
So how long have you been at Bettendorf? Have you always been in HR?
HEATHER STOCKING: So I have kind of an interesting background. I actually came from career counseling at the university level. This is my fourth year in human resources with Bettendorf.
Bettendorf is in an area called the quad city, right on the Iowa and Illinois border. They’re a small school district nestled in with quite a few others… nine schools within eight square miles, 4600 students, about 600 staff members. Today we’re talking about something Heather and the HR department set out to do, but the deeper story is really all about change management. How to walk an organization through a time when the boat is rocking and the cheese is moving.
HEATHER STOCKING: Not being from the industry, I wasn’t born and raised through the education ranks. I kind of had a unique perspective when I came in, but one of the things I noticed right away was we were touching a ton of paper, and as many districts or corporations in general, we were tasked to do more with less. So we had some staffing changes, we had a couple of retirements, we had a superintendent leave, so we had an interim there. We didn’t replace a lot of positions, so we had more on our plates and we had paper everywhere. So from staffing to lane changes to professional development, every one of those was coming with documentation that needed to be signed, filed, passed. That was my big task when I got here four years ago. That was my initial, “Oh my goodness, we need to fix this,” but you never change anything in year one. So year four, I decided it was time to start diving in.
Touching all this paper, all this stuff that you saw as you looked around the office, all the filing cabinets that were around, what impact did that have on your team? What kind of downstream effects did that lead to?
HEATHER STOCKING: When I got here, I was housed in an office where all the files were kept. So I have two, they’re classified as administrative assistants, I consider them generalists, they handle our classified and our certified staff. They would have to come into my office, out of my office multiple times a day to file, to pull a file, to get employee information, which is super— anyone who’s either sharing an office or having to go into somebody else’s office, there’s always that small talk that has to happen, you know, “Hey, how are you?” Which kind of ceases productivity.
Things were getting lost as they were passing around to different people, people weren’t knowing about things, and so it was really causing a lot of tension and really some misplaced blame on, “Well, who lost that document?” or “Who didn’t send it?” And that was one of the pieces that got me going as far as, “This is not looking good for our team. This is not helping us out at all.”
A lot of these sound like things that people all across a school district deal with all the time, not just in HR, right?
HEATHER STOCKING: Part of it was we acquired some of the PD which used to be out of curriculum. Some of the lane changes, maybe, are housed in different places, FMLA which may be housed in finance. So there’s a lot of cross and in school districts it always depends on who does what work. But the reality was whatever work we were doing was touching a whole lot of paper.
Going paperless: what did that look like? How did you do it and what were some of the things that you put into place in order to move toward that?
HEATHER STOCKING: We started with a lot of research and really starting to figure out, “What does this look like, what does paperless look like for us?” We dove right in. I am one of those people that I feel like sometimes we just need to pull the band-aid off and get right to work. And so we went all in with getting our professional development online, our lane change information online. Then really looking at hiring and recruiting, onboarding. And so what that meant for us was taking all of these rows of filing cabinets, personnel files, scanning them, uploading them. But on top of that, what happens is, you start realizing, “Oh my goodness, is this the system? Is this how we want things to look?” Because you start noticing the inequities or the places that aren’t looking as a put together or aren’t as user friendly.
And so that was my task, to say, “Okay, what do we want this to look like, what, what do we want our processes to be?” And that was hard, because there are a lot of pieces and a lot of people in play who all had something to say about that. And so we started by looking at our processes currently. Was that working or not? We had to identify what did we want our process to look like in the future. So if we hadn’t, what I always say, what my question always is if we had our dream district, if we had our dream process, what would it look like? Then, how do we move forward towards that?
Before you really set out in this direction of going paperless, what were some of the issues that you knew you would face, what did you expect in terms of resistance from people that you work with, other people in the district or just trying to bring about a pretty massive change in your team?
HEATHER STOCKING: I knew first and foremost, I would face some feedback from our board. Even though you’re going paperless, which doesn’t sound like it’s a cost process, it is, because we needed to buy programming. We needed to identify what that programming was. And one of the things I knew that I could not say was that I wanted to do this because it made my job easier. And while it did make my job a little bit easier, that wasn’t why we were choosing to go down this road.
There was a lot of streamlining and efficacy and data integrity that we were really looking at, but I knew that was going to be a piece that I was going to face. So why do you need this? I also knew that I would face some internal pushback. I think change is always hard for people and one of the biggest things that I had to combat was helping people understand that I’m not doing this and I’m not pushing this to try to take anyone’s job. I’m actually doing this because I believe we have a super talented team who are spending more time pushing papers and filing papers and finding papers than they are being able to be creative and innovative and providing the best customer service that we can do.
Can you talk a little bit more generally about the kinds of change that districts face and what that’s like? I mean, educators are no strangers to change, are they?
HEATHER STOCKING: They are not, they are not. I think we’re dealing with change on a daily basis. Like you said, we’re in Iowa. We just went through the chapter 20 changes and collective bargaining. So we’ve seen those huge changes, we’ve seen changeover in superintendents and board leadership and board directors. We’ve seen staffing changes, and I think as standards change, as evaluations change, as assessments change, we really live in the world of change. I always kind of joke that when you’re in education there is no normal, because when we get to something, we’re always looking for the next best practice or the next best way to make us stand out above somebody else or make sure that our students are receiving the best education that they can. And so I feel like in education we live in the world of change. It’s how we deal with it. That is the biggest indicator.
One of the things that is challenging, I’m sure, is that you have any number of stakeholders who were involved. You have your administrators, you have your teachers, you have your school board, you have parents, depending on what it is that you’re trying to change that might be involved there. How do you go about building consensus and getting buy-in and bringing everybody on board to the change that you see as necessary, but that maybe other people don’t?
HEATHER STOCKING: Sure. I think the biggest thing is really starting with trust. One of the biggest things that I’ve done and why I said I didn’t start in year one was I felt that one of my most important roles was to not only build relationships, but it was to build trust with them, our stakeholders. And so I needed them to know that what I was doing was not to hinder anyone else’s job performance. It was actually to help. Part of that, though, is being able to identify what your stakeholders need and understanding them and knowing them well enough that you can create buy-in to what they want.
So if I were to go to my stakeholders and say to my teachers, “Hey, I’ve got this awesome new process for HR, it’s only going to take you 35 minutes per day to do it,” they’d have no interest in me. So I need to know their why and I need to know my why and how did those mesh together. So I really had to look at each group and say, “What have they been tasking you with? What have I been asked to do? What have I heard complaints about or frustrations about and how can I help fix that within our team?”
Can you give me an example of one of these conversations, can you give me an example of maybe one person or one group of stakeholders, and what that looked like to try to do that? What was their why and how did you identify what that was and, and meet that?
HEATHER STOCKING: Sure. So one of the things I would say is we are very, very fortunate that we are able to provide a lot of professional development to our teachers and our administrators. But what was happening is that information was done on a Google Doc. And that was the advanced version of it. It used to be done on paper that moved to a Google Doc, and then was kind of pushed out, and so there were absences being entered in one system and absences being in another system, and the secretaries were getting really frustrated with, “Okay, I don’t know where my people are, I don’t know when they’re going, I don’t even know if I should make this reservation or not. I don’t know if the principal’s approved it.”
And so one of the things we did when we went paperless was to look at our professional development and say, “Okay, how can we link this, once they’ve gotten their professional development and they’ve tracked everything,” we’ve made it required so they know what’s expected.
It goes to the principal for approval, it goes to the superintendent for approval. By the time the secretary is notified, we know that this is good to go, the absence goes into their system and we don’t have this calling and calling and calling multiple people and touching multiple things to find out an answer that can actually be automated. So that’s one example that really helped us out, not only from an implementation standpoint and a streamlined process, but also some data integrity and some reporting features on the back end as well.
So you’re seeking win-win for everybody, and in order to get someone else to buy-in, they have to see how it makes their job easier, better, more effective, that kind of thing.
HEATHER STOCKING: Absolutely. I think anytime that you can make it not about you or your department — because we all want our jobs to be easier. I mean, I want my job to be easier, our teachers want their jobs to be easier and more efficient, our administrators — but we need to work together to do that. And part of it is, if we can find common ground that helps us all one a little bit, it’s much, much better in the long run.
What kinds of things did you bump up against that maybe you didn’t expect or didn’t foresee when you began the process?
HEATHER STOCKING: I think like anything, and change, I think sometimes we have really, really big aspirations and really big dreams and we realize that sometimes it’s a lot more work than we initially thought it was going to be. So we kind of ran into some of that, where my vision was enormous and I think that’s great, but we really had to scale that back and say, “Okay, what’s our priority though? We can’t do all of it by the end of the summer.” And that’s when we started our big project was summer. In my vision, I wanted it all to be done because that’s how I work. But the reality is we couldn’t. And so we had to step back and say, “What’s important to us? Why does this matter?” And if we’re going to create consistent wins, which one is going to be our biggest win to start with?
Can you flesh that out a little bit for me?
HEATHER STOCKING: Sure. One of the things that we did, it was really important for us to… our personnel files, for example. We had tons of papers, we have a lot of classified turnover, which means all of those are handwritten folders, printing off paper, passing around documents. And that was a huge thing for us to say, “Okay, what do we do with this?? I wanted that done, and I wanted all of our hiring and onboarding done for new employees all at the same time. Well, when you have 600 employees that need to be scanned and sorted and unstapled, and all that work to be done, and you have all these new people to do, you have to choose. And we chose to move forward with our current staff and getting all of their personnel documents updated.
So we did, we spent all summer, we actually brought in some assistance, and we went full force into uploading and scanning all of our current personnel files, so that as we had new people we could create their files, but we also had current employees who we were getting consistent, continued paperwork on that now I could just scan and put it into their personnel file. We’re still working on our onboarding and it’s almost there. But we had to choose what was our main win for the summer.
We live at a time right now which is fairly unique, right, with the Internet and with older generations who did not grow up with the internet or computers being a part of their daily lives, and then younger digital natives who have grown up with this from the time even before they were born. Did you see a difference in how your more veteran team members responded to going paperless to making this change versus your newer younger team members?
HEATHER STOCKING: Definitely our younger team members, obviously it’s a little more natural for them because everything they’re doing is online, from buying houses to cell phone plans to applying for jobs. The great thing, though, about education as we had some resistance from our veteran teachers, but the reality is great teachers are moving forward, they’re looking for best practice, they’re looking for ways to do it. So one of the things I did is, I felt like I tried to be pretty proactive in that regard. I actually created a screenshot, help sheets for everyone. Some of our people, so they don’t care, they don’t even need to look at that because it’s pretty innate for them. It’s pretty natural for them. But some of our veteran teachers wanted those pictures because they want to be willing to do it, they want to buy in. But sometimes it’s a matter of fear or the unknown that stops them. And so that has been super helpful, and what I’ve done, because I feel like I am of the tech generation where it’s a little bit easy for me, is I will take those sheets and I’ve gone to some of our veteran teachers and I’ll say, “Okay, here you go, do this and tell me what I’m missing out on.” And that has been super, super helpful to our team and to our district.
Change can not only be challenging to work out the details of how something works, it can also be an emotional process. Did you run into that at all?
HEATHER STOCKING: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of mentioned it earlier, but why I think one of the things when I first started going is I have some veteran members on my team who have been around a long time who have great knowledge of our system. And I think there was some initial thought that you make change or are doing it to get rid of somebody or to take somebody’s job because you don’t want them. And that is absolutely not what I wanted to do, but I really had to have some upfront and honest conversations about that. I had to let them know my why and also my vision. So I think sometimes we ourselves know what that is, but we forget to share that out. And so I had to spend some time having some hard conversations and just saying, “You know, here’s my heart and here’s my vision for us and here’s your place in that and you have a place in that, but you also have a skill set that we are not utilizing at this point, and so I want to be able to utilize that better.” So there was a big kind of push. I think we even saw that from some of our veteran teachers: “They’re doing this so that I won’t stick around.” That was for sure not our process. What I really wanted them to have was more ownership over their information so that they could access that more freely. They could have the information at their hands.
You were playing to your team’s strengths.
HEATHER STOCKING: Absolutely. Yeah.
For anyone who sets out to bring about change in a school district, which I imagine happens, like I said, quite a bit, are there particular people or roles that you find are just vital to successful change management? Who is most important to get on board?
HEATHER STOCKING: I honestly think your naysayers are your biggest people to get on board. You have the people who will always support you. Those super innovative, super creative, jump on the ship, whichever ship is sailing, they will jump on with you. But it’s really important to get the people who maybe are scared, who are a little more fearful, and that’s what we found was I needed to create buy-in for the people who are most resistant to it. And the reason for that was, I needed them to understand our process and I needed them to understand what their role was in that and how we were trying to support them rather than push them away.
Turning naysayers into yea-sayers cannot be an easy thing. I mean, how do you do that?
HEATHER STOCKING: Well, it’s a process, and part of that always goes back to having built trust. None of this was done overnight and none of this was done with me coming in and throwing the hammer or throwing power and saying, “Well, I’m in this position and we’re doing it.” It really came out of listening, conversations, hearing people’s frustrations, and then taking those and using them to have conversations. So if they were frustrated about why turned that in and that document got lost, I would turn around and say, “Okay, this is our way of making sure that they don’t get lost and you have ownership over checking to make sure all of those documents are there and that we have them.” And so it’s really understanding your team. That means team big picture all the way through the school district, your board of educators, and also being able to identify what are their needs and how are we helping to meet them.
What about positions in the district? If you’re trying to bring about district-level change, is it important, say, to get all of your administrators on board, your principals, would you say you’ve really got to get the school board on board first or the superintendent? Aside from the groups like naysayers, are there any roles or positions in the district that you say, “This is really, no matter what it is you’re going to do, this is going to be a key ally for you”?
HEATHER STOCKING: I really started with, we call it the cabinet level, the superintendent and the upper level directors. So school finance, HR, communications, student services, special ed. And I really started with that, because I feel like they each have understandings of their continuums, and it was important for me to say, “Okay, here’s what my thoughts are, here’s what I’m thinking, what are your thoughts?” And they were able to push back on, “Well, I think this group will have an issue with this,” or “I think this may become an issue.” So that was my primary starting group. I felt that if I didn’t have their buy-in, if I didn’t have the superintendent’s buy-in, I wasn’t getting anyone’s buy-in. So I really started with there and that was data driven.
It was data driven on stuff that we’re currently doing. Time spent, processes that weren’t effective. And then I went to the admin level, so I went to the principals next, as my go to. Because again, they know their buildings, they know their people very, very well and gauge their thoughts as well and had the same conversation from there. I skipped and went back up to the board of educators, and so I had a different process on how that looked, and really that’s a different skill set to sell that and to be able to share your why, especially when it has cost involved.
That actually is a great intro to what I want to ask now, and that is, not thinking about the specific people that you’re talking to, what have you learned about being a voice for change in a school district? Are there given steps that are absolutely critical?
HEATHER STOCKING: I think there’s a lot of information you need to know. I think part of it is understanding the needs of those around you. I think what was really important for me was to not only gather data from my team and what they were struggling with, but understanding.
Let me back up a little bit. Our teachers are under a ton of stress. They are asking them to do more and do more and do more, and the state has more standards and we have higher criteria. And so anything that I’m going to do that’s giving them one more thing, does not feel beneficial at all. So I need to make sure that what I’m doing is being a help vs. hindrance, and that means understanding enough of what they’re doing to understand, “How does that all merge together?” And it’s not always about meeting the needs of just one group, but trying to meet the needs of lots of groups throughout that process.
How did you do that though? I would assume that you’re in a central office somewhere. Did you actually get out and talk to them, spend time in the buildings? How do you best understand what is really happening out there?
HEATHER STOCKING: Because I didn’t have it from education and I wasn’t a teacher before, I actually love spending time in the classroom, which is a little unique from an HR perspective. When I used to go in, everyone used to get on high alert because HR was in the room, and what I did was work to really build relationships and understand, “Okay, what are we tasking them to do?” You know, when I walk into a room of 20 kiddos and I see a teacher having to manage the classroom, differentiate, help somebody who’s having a bad day, work with a para, there’s a lot on their plate. And I think sometimes it’s really important for us to step out of the realm that is so natural to us and step into somebody else’s realm, because it really gives us the opportunity to identify and to understand where they’re coming from and where their pushback comes from.
And doing that also helps you with the trust building aspect, I assume?
HEATHER STOCKING: Absolutely, because I can say, “Well, I saw in your classroom this,” and I always try to follow up with an email to thank them for letting me be in their room and hear any feedback they have for me, and trying to have open dialogue with people because my biggest thing here at the district is, I don’t know what I don’t know. And that also means that I can’t help in areas that I don’t know there are issues. Part of it is trying to get that feedback and understand what is standing in their way from being their best self.
Is your office completely paperless now then?
HEATHER STOCKING: We are really, really close! All of our personnel files are paperless, all of our professional development, our lane changes, hiring to the extent of postings are all paperless. The only thing that we’re still touching right now is our onboarding documents. So we are really, really close to fully implementing that. But that’s, you know, we’re bringing in some other departments, payroll, technology, the people that print our directories, just making sure that we are providing the best process for everyone involved.
How long has it taken you to get to this point?
HEATHER STOCKING: Well, my vision started four years ago, but really we, we really went full force about a year and a half ago, 18 months ago, where I really started digging in and my team started digging in, and part of it was we had talked about it for a long time, and at one point I just said, “Here we go, we’re going,” and like I talked about, ripping the band-aid off. Sometimes you have to do that to just get people to start moving. And once we did, we’ve been full force ahead.
Yeah. If you were to go back and start again from the beginning, what would you do differently?
HEATHER STOCKING: If I had to go back, I think one of the things I would do would be really to think about big picture, because I think when we started doing this, we were in the process already, but looking our end goal — and not end goal, I think sometimes we think end goal is being paperless — for me end goal really needs to be five or 10 years out. So, in five years, what does this look like in 10 years? What does this look like? And so we’ve had to make some adjustments and changes as we’ve gone, just because we’ve got in somewhere and said, “Oh, we probably should have categorized these teachers differently,” or “We should have made this so this was a reportable feature.” That’s always learning, there’s always pieces of learning there that we’ve done. But I overall, I think we did a lot of pre-work and we took a lot of time to get here. That really benefited us.
Here’s my last question: now that you’ve been through this process, you’ve gone paperless, obviously it’s not because you have a prejudice against paper, but what does it mean for your team, now being paperless? What does it enable you to do better that you couldn’t do before, or what does it enable your team to be better that you couldn’t be before?
HEATHER STOCKING: One of the biggest things is having data integrity and being able to pull reports and analyze data better, so that we can make more informed decisions. On top of that, we’re really able to provide better customer service. Our goal was to not have to sit in front of somebody with 300 pieces of paper that they needed to sign over and over again. When somebody came in, it was to start building a relationship. People stay because they feel invested in. And so that was my goal. The other thing is, we’ve started doing some really creative initiatives, some classified onboarding, looking at some of the ways that we are training our substitutes, and we didn’t have the time to do that before. We didn’t have the time when you’re pushing papers all day to look at creative and innovative ways to be better.
What’s next? Do you have anything else, any other big projects on the horizon that you say, this is what we’re going to tackle now?
HEATHER STOCKING: Well, our next big one, we’re really looking at some HR… some other districts are calling them HR universities, but looking at some HR professional development for administrators and really creating more of a process for that, as well as digging into some substitute training and how to make them the best that they can be.
That’s great. We’ve been talking with Heather Stocking, Director of Human Resources at Bettendorf Community School District in Iowa. Heather, thank you for talking with us today.
HEATHER STOCKING: Thanks for having me.
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