Visit Modern Campus

Making Data Actionable: Visualizations, Dashboards and Leveraging Big Data on Campus

The EvoLLLution | Making Data Actionable: Visualizations, Dashboards and Leveraging Big Data on Campus
Collecting and analyzing data is all well and good, but data visualizations make it possible to understand the insights from the data at a more granular level and allow for the broader democratization of business intelligence across the institution.

Leveraging business analytics and Big Data to drive institutional growth, efficiency and effectiveness—all while improving the student experience—is the gold standard for college and university leaders today. However, as has been stated time and again over the course of the Special Feature on Big Data and Analytics, creating a data-driven institution is not as simple as flicking a switch. One of the biggest roadblocks to leveraging data is to make sure it’s understood, and this is where data visualizations and dashboards come into play. In this interview, Rob Dolan shares his thoughts on the impact dashboards and data visualizations have on supporting the leveraging—and democratization—of data across the modern postsecondary institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why do higher education administrators need to pay attention and react to trends and challenges identified by their business intelligence?

Rob Dolan (RD): There are a number of tangible and intangible factors that will be revealed to administrators though the insights from their business intelligence platform. Through those insights, faster decisions can be made, unknown patterns can be discovered and the institution can more quickly address issues that may arise.

On the academic side, student success also has both a tangible and intangible impact: According to, 30 percent of college students drop out in the first year. This has a financial impact on higher education institutions in lost tuition and increased recruiting costs (tangible) and in the institutions reputation (intangible).

Similarly, on the financial and operational side, these insights can have a noticeable impact on the institutions overall approach to campus planning. Understanding, for example, what tuition forecasts are likely to be, can help institutions better plan budgets and manage expenses incurred in delivering the academic goals of the institution.

Operationally, running a higher education institution is like running a small city with all the ancillary services required—housing, transportation, food, safety, etc. Understanding where the institution is financially and operationally at all times is critical. Again business intelligence offers the deep insights necessary to manage those costs and achieve operational excellence. What BI provides is that 360-degree view of everything—of students, of finance and of operations—all necessary to manage in challenging times.

Evo: How do data visualizations and dashboards help to make it easier/possible for higher education leaders to support their strategic decisions with data?

RD: Visualizations and dashboards deliver the necessary insight from the vast amount of data collected by higher education institutions. The ability to see and understand data and what that data reveals is powerful. After all, making sense of what that data tells you based on the questions the institution needs answered is the power of analytics.

To easily see how the institution is performing against its mission, academic, financial and operational goals and being able to quickly identify where there are gaps and take action is the power of a robust analytics platform. Too often, we see the focus only on the data. That thinking needs to be changed to looking at the goals and objectives, formulating the questions that inform the progress on those goals and objectives and then bringing a variety of data sets to populate a dashboard to deliver the strong insights necessary to manage the “business” of higher education.

Compelling visualizations also make it easier for anyone at the institution to explore and understand the data. The power of visual analytics means leaders can gain insights and make actionable, data-driven decisions no matter their background or experience with data. By making the data visual and accessible, people from across the institution are able to come together and better understand and assess the important factors driving their departments.

Evo: What are the most significant challenges most higher education leaders have when trying to launch business intelligence initiatives?

RD: The most significant challenge is changing the culture of the organization around analytics. Unfortunately, many people view analytics as a punitive measure—they see data as being used to find performance flaws. The real message needs to be that analytics helps to identify gaps and those unknown unknowns that hide in the data. By exposing those gaps, the institution can address them, not to place blame but to foster change in processes and actions.

Another challenge is the vast amount of data that exists. When you focus on the data itself, you overwhelm yourself trying to make sense of it. Starting with questions and the answers you hope the data will reveal allows you to better align the data around your key objectives and gain valuable insight.

Finally, from the perspective of the IT organization, it is around the lack of data governance and a rogue, often piecemeal, approach to analytics. There must be an analytics strategy agreed upon by both the line of business and the IT organization with a systematic plan in place for how an analytics platform will be developed, deployed and utilized. The IT organization, especially the CIO, can no longer be a passive participant in this discussion. They must be the driving force in building the analytics strategy around the goals and objectives of the institution.

Evo: How can college and university leaders overcome these kinds of obstacles?

RD: Embracing analytics as a helper versus a hindrance must be the first step, and communicating the need for a data-driven framework—and not deviating from the course—is essential. This is why changing the underlying culture of how to approach analytics is imperative. Senior leadership must “walk the walk and talk the talk” around analytics so that everyone in the institution understands and embraces this shift as a necessary step for the organization.

Senior leaders also need to put strong analytics capabilities into the hands of anyone who needs it and everyone who impacts the “business” of the institution. Data and analytics must be governed, the process documented and communicated and the line of business aligned with the IT organization. An analytics strategy in a silo where the line of business has one view and the IT organization another, is doomed to fail. Bringing a variety of departments together early on in the decision-making process to gather feedback and input is essential to developing a BI strategy that addresses the requirements each team has. The CIO must be an active participant, driving the enterprise-wide development of a business-intelligence platform that meets the needs of the entire organization. Only then can an analytics strategy take root and grow throughout the organization.

Evo: What are the steps you would suggest institutional leaders take to make business intelligence and data-driven decision making part of the organizational culture on their campuses?

RD: It is critically important that a data-driven decision-making framework be put in place by the leadership of the institution. This framework helps to align how the institution rolls out an analytics strategy that addresses the overall mission as well as the academic, financial and operational goals of the institution. The leadership must define the goals and objectives as well as outline what critical metrics must be tracked. By communicating the strategy of the institution, the administrators begin to tear down the silos of the decision-making process that can often paralyze progress across the institution. Stressing the need for a strong analytics platform to drive deeper insights, better decisions and improved outcomes must be the mantra of the institution’s leadership. There must be alignment between the IT organization and the line of business. As analytics becomes pervasive across the institution, having a strong partnership between the IT organization and the line of business is critical. It is no longer possible for an analytics strategy to be created in a vacuum that will only lead to a stagnant analytics approach that never truly meets the needs of the institution as a whole. Rogue analytics systems that are put in place piecemeal will only stall the institution-wide deployment of a strong platform. This delay leads to continued silos that prevent the much-needed single version of data truth and prevents the institution from ever getting the full 360-degree view of mission, academic, financial and operational performance.

Author Perspective: