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4 Reflections on the Ombuds Conference

The IOA conference is always one of my favorites. Surrounded by hundreds of active listeners, validators, empaths, who are skilled at being intuitive and providing solutions. Add in the intriguing ideas, creative presenters, and the delicious food, and it’s really just a self-care retreat.

This is my 15th IOA conference, so I have been able to observe changes in the field and the questions that people are asking, and I wanted to share some of those observations.

  1. Acceptance of technology. Ombuds have a primary concern of keeping their visitor’s data safe, so ombuds have traditionally been skeptical any written record of their work. I saw a marked change this year. Ombuds offices seem to agree that the technology has finally caught up with their standards. They are beginning to trust that they can use technology to manage their records, while still protecting their clients.
  2. Security concerns. With an increased reliance on technology, also means that ombuds have to be wary of the misuses of it. Specifically: what if their records are hacked? what if a visitor emails PII (Personal Identifying Information) and IT is able to view that email? what if they generate a case and pull employee information, leaving a digital breadcrumb? if they meet on the University’s Zoom account, is that protected? If they delete data, when is that data actually removed from the office servers? Can they operate completely off of the organization servers? I was blown away by the level of questions that ombuds offices had, showing that they are entering this world of technology well-educated, with intentionality.
  3. Time management. One of the most common challenges from established ombuds offices was the increase in visitors. I showed some ombuds offices how they could use our case management software for outreach and presentations, and many said, “Nope! The last thing I need right now is to do outreach!” My takeaway from this is that on one hand there is an increase in the acceptance of ombuds offices – which is fantastic! On the other hand, I believe this shows a great need for automation in the field. The work that ombuds do is too important to be waylaid by administrative, repetitive, or duplicative tasks. Again, with the advancement in technology, it is worth discussing how these tasks can be automated. For instance, intakes, visitor discussions and solution explorer, informing a visitor of options and the ramifications of those options, scheduling meetings, follow-up, and scrubbing personal data should all be automated processes to free an ombuds up to get back to their valuable work.
  4. Granularity of reports. I have been watching ombuds annual reports for years – I remember when John Zinser and Frank Fowlie gave a report on how ombuds report can justify budget increases in 2004. And the standards of reports have grown so much over the last few years. The differences that I’m seeing: a) a report on the numbers, and what the numbers represent. e.g. If there is an increase in a certain visitor population, is it because there are more conflicts in that population, or did the ombuds spend more time presenting to that audience, or is it culturally more acceptable for them to visit the ombuds, or is it potentially an ombuds bias — and how do we measure that?? b) Quantitative AND Qualitative. The numbers are interesting, but more ombuds want to understand how do their visitors feel about that resolution. c) Trend analysis. The data is interesting, but how can we use it to forecast? How can we prepare trainings in a specific department to curtail conflicts?

All in all, this conference was a blast. So great to see all of your faces, and to hear the increased commitment from the ombuds community to put their visitors first. They are so aware of mental health and privacy and understanding how they can support the visitors. As well as investigating AI and tech and discussing how this could support their office. Happy ombudsing, and see you next year!


Clare Fowler

Clare Fowler is Executive Vice-President and Managing Editor at, as well as a mediator and trainer. Clare received her Master's of Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law and her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, focused on reducing workplace conflicts, from Pepperdine… MORE

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