Published on 2016/02/24

Emerging Trends: The Role of the Chief Data Officer in Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | Emerging Trends: The Role of the Chief Data Officer in Higher Ed
Though there is an understanding across the postsecondary space that it’s important to collect and analyze data, doing so without a guiding strategy or goal in mind can actually be damaging for an institution.

Higher education institutions are drowning in data. As technology has enabled immense amounts of data to be collected and stored, it has created significant challenges for many institutions. Decisions on how to organize the data and how to create processes to make inferences from data and take action to foster continuous improvement need to be made. Data has the power to truly transform an institution, but data for the sake of data can hinder growth and innovation for faculty and staff, thus ultimately negatively impacting students. The Chief Data Officer (CDO) role is a newer role that has emerged within the past few years across multiple industries. The CDO should lead strategic data and analytics activities to alleviate the increased data requests and support institutional transformation and innovation.

Currently, few colleges and universities have designated CDO role. Data sits in many departments and often is never shared in a centralized repository. Offices of institutional effectiveness, research, development and advancement, business intelligence, finance administration, admissions, and academics all face a myriad of requests and mandates for collecting and reporting data. A major gap in closing the data loop is being able to consolidate information holistically to analyze trends and patterns in the data to make informed decisions.

The role of the CDO is not simply to be responsible for data collection, analytics or anything else related to data; it is also responsible for making sense of the data and assisting in the strategy around decision making and action. This can be a huge undertaking considering the amount of data collected at higher education institutions. The key, however, is determining what data to look at, when to analyze the data and when to take action based on the data, and who to involve in the decision-making process to make the most impact.

While I’m reluctant to recommend adding yet another administrative role to the senior executive team, if structured correctly, this role can have a significant impact on the student experience, operational efficiency and ultimately financial growth. At many institutions, information is complex and comes from multiple siloed sources. Accountability up to one individual can eliminate this issue and allow for analysis across the entire business to identify new opportunities or challenges. Adding this role should expedite the collection of data and greater automation of reporting so that the burden is removed from the wide number of individuals that may have been involved across the institution.

I’ve talked with many faculty and staff members who are engaged in data collection but have no idea why, other than for compliance reasons or because “they” said it needed to get done. The CDO can articulate not just the strategy, but also the specifics around why, what and how the data is analyzed to ensure greater transparency and institutional meaning behind the data. I know of few institutions that have data and analytics training, let alone knowledge development around how to use the data to close the continuous improvement loop.

Ultimately, there are two major problems with data that a CDO can help mitigate. First, the data is only as good as the information input into the system. Bad data is useless or harmful to an institution and can lead the institution to make a bad decision or no decisions. A CDO needs to be responsible for quality assurance of data and the process of data collection, analytics and decision making.

Second, data is historical. While it can be used to predict trends and patterns, it cannot change what has happened in the past. Proactive practices around data use, driven by the CDO, can reduce the time to action in correcting unsatisfactory results.

The impact of a CDO facilitates transformational change that elevates the importance of data to the top of the organization. For organizations contemplating a CDO role, it is important to consider the organization’s openness to transformation. This role is not required to aggregate data systems, improve regulatory reporting, or put basic best practice in place. However, if an organization truly wants to use data to improve outcomes, deliver a higher-quality student experience and take action based on data, then a Chief Data Officer might be the right role to facilitate transformative change supported by data and analytics.

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