Effective Subunits in Ineffective Systems: Simultaneous Tight and Loose Coupling in Higher Education Data Use

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Higher education institutions are pressured to use data for university rankings, accreditation, decision making, and technical support of students and faculty. However, these organizations also experience barriers and resistance to such data-driven aspirations. Rather than simply focusing on the whole organization, this research attends to variations in organizational subunits and asks what processes help and hinder data use. It pays attention to the puzzle of how data use variation can lead to effective subunits just as data fragmentation contributes to ineffective systems. Although universities may create centralized coordinating bodies, the structural and cultural bases of loosely coupled university subunits may upset these efforts. Using the case of a university attempting to centralize its data systems, we employ in-depth interviews of senior and mid-level administrators to understand why technical changes happen within specific subunits even as only ceremonial changes happen for the larger organization. This suggests new insights for interrogating how loose and tight coupling can co-exist in the same organization.