The Fog of Information and AnalyticsBrian Haugabrook | Former Chief Information Officer, Valdosta State University
Most colleges and universities have faculty who are experts in educating students in statistics. Learning complex math and statistical functions is a challenge most students face and overcome during their academic journey. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors face an even greater challenge with critical thinking and math. However, the application of math and statistics only takes place inside classrooms and research initiatives at many institutions.
Management and business processes in higher education rarely leverage analytics. Basic descriptive statistics are the only indicators used in many decision-making processes.
The lack of analytics in higher education processes is due to the complexity, variety and velocity of information resources. Higher education institutions are comparable to a small city with differing and independent information resources across the institution. Adding to this complexity is data—big and small—generated on cloud, social media and public sites that reference the institution. These challenges contribute to the reasons silos exist between various departments. Performance-based funding initiatives across the country in recent years brought executive-level attention to the lack of analytics as most institutions could not easily produce or match the information used in the formulas.
The fog of information and analytics will continue to worsen as hybrid environments and cloud applications grow. Tackling the problem with the traditional data warehouse approach often cannot produce the expected value, with costs over $200,000. The expense of building a complete data warehouse exceeds the budget and IT resources at most institutions. Larger institutions may have the flexibility in budgets to pursue a data warehouse, but their needs can be diverse. For example, colleges and universities with smaller enrollments and budgets often have the greatest need for information and analytics to improve academic outcomes and operational efficiencies. These institutions also accept students who may be less prepared academically and socially for the transition into a college culture.
Buying an out-of-box solution will promise a lot of value, but usually only provides analytics for data in the student information system(“SIS”). The SIS is a core resource for student data, but does not give a complete picture of the entire academic journey. While institutions with out-of-box solutions may solve a few challenges, they quickly hit barriers when new business needs or data integrations arise. Out-of-box solutions provide some relief in reporting capabilities for student service departments like Admissions and Registrar, but analytics on LMS, HR or finance resources often require additional solutions.
Choosing the right technologies is one of the last steps in cutting through the fog of information and analytics. Strategic plans that include statements such as “Improve the use of analytics” are too broad and will often result in a solution that delivers little value and is ineffective. Understanding the mission of the institution and strategic goals should begin the conversation. Mapping all the business processes related to the strategic goals should follow, including the applicant/student journey. When correctly done, process mapping will identify data points, key performance indicators, inefficiencies, automations and document job duties across the departments involved. This process also identifies the specific data requirements and information delivery options needed.
Many companies provide a range of business intelligence, analytics and Big Data platforms. Choosing the appropriate solution should be based on the current and upcoming strategic needs. Integration technologies will play a key role in incorporating strategies that require complex or multiple information resources. Integration platforms distribute analytics to other resources such as CRM, LMS and cloud applications. The biggest expense in implementing analytics is staff resources and the ongoing impact on IT. Almost all solutions provide methods for integrating multiple information resources, but the time and effort required by IT can vary greatly. Innovations in integration platforms now provide a pathway for most colleges and universities to leverage this technology with minimal cost and IT impact. Having the right business intelligence (“BI”) platform helps accomplish multiple strategic goals utilizing the same technology investment. BI platforms can also have a resource impact on IT and business users. Technologies that require a huge time investment by IT will limit the growth and not empower business users to access information. BI platforms should allow users with appropriate access the ability to view dashboards, create ad-hoc reports and provide data exploration features. Advanced users should be able to import spreadsheets for ad-hoc analysis without IT support.
Managers and executives will continue to primarily depend on reports and dashboards for monitoring trends and key performance indicators. However, reports and dashboards should not be the only delivery of analytics in higher education. Departments of Institutional Research and Effectiveness will benefit from business intelligence tools that provide interactive dashboards, predictive analytics, drag-n-drop visualizations and the ability to combine structured data with external files. In addition to reports, staff members who perform duties related to the strategic goals need alerts, triggers, automations and integrations. Analytics should also deliver personalized information and insights to students and applicants. This can be in the form of emails, text messages, push notifications, personalized web pages, pathways, account status updates and suggestions.
Business intelligence has to play a key role in continuous process improvement strategies for colleges and universities today. Analytics should be a foundational support component that informs and influences successful actions and results.
Author Perspective: Administrator