Published on 2017/03/27

Take the Hint: Shifting from Anecdotes to Analytics

The EvoLLLution | Take the Hint: Shifting from Anecdotes to Analytics
By leveraging power data visualizations, institutions can make data-driven decision making a reality and move away from the anecdotal and tradition-steeped approach to organizational management that has dominated the postsecondary space for decades.

It’s no secret that higher education institutions traditionally experience lag when it comes to implementing technologies and management structures that take over the private sector. Whether it’s using CRM systems or taking online payments, colleges and universities have been far behind the private sector in making these part of the postsecondary fabric.

In today’s marketplace, however, postsecondary institutions no longer have the luxury to be complacent and slow-moving when a new technology comes to town. That’s why Next-Generation Enterprise Systems appeared on this year’s EDUCAUSE Top-10 Issues list: Institutional leaders know they need to become more agile, more responsive and more student-centric, and they know technology is the way to get there

Data (which also appeared on the Top-10 list) is the perfect example of a technology institutions need to get their arms around. Right now, many universities are reactive when it comes to data and its integration into institutional management systems. Even the most forward-thinking universities will have robust CRM and SIS capabilities, but these systems tend to be slow-moving, siloed and unidirectional. What’s more, while these systems collect huge amounts of data it’s often difficult to access and even more challenging to analyze, as all the data is stored in diverse and complex ways that do not necessarily jive with other systems. Further still, some of these systems aren’t even collecting the massive amounts of data flowing through them every day.

This is no “victimless crime”—ignoring the capacity data brings to the table can actively harm an institution. A lack of data integration can have a significant impact on institutional effectiveness and staff productivity, which ultimately negatively impacts students

A Poor Data Infrastructure Negatively Impacts Staff

Staff productivity, and satisfaction (more importantly), is significantly hampered when their institutions are slow/stalled on the data front. After all, institutional staff need to make crucial decisions every day—from choices around marketing spends to registration periods and more—but without the right reports and dashboards they’re left guessing. This can lead to significant and harmful errors in judgement, but frankly, these issues are not the fault of staff.

Even when institutions do make data available, it needs to be done right. At institutions that have numerous systems collecting data in different ways, staff are left to run a range of different reports and then spend a lot of time combining and manipulating data in Excel. Ultimately, staff—or IT divisions or internal business analysts—can build a custom report but this costs a huge amount of time and money. And the end result might be skewed because, with “dirty data,” the outcomes of the analysis can be faulty.

Anecdotal Decision Making Can Damage an Institution

Institutional effectiveness is also affected, on a much grander scale, by this decentralized and manual approach to data. It leads to statistics being underutilized in favor of anecdote and instinct, which can have disastrous consequences. For an example of the effect this can have on institutional success, we need look no further than JC Penney.

In 2011, Ron Johnson took over as the CEO of JC Penney after successful senior roles at Target and Apple. What JC Penney thought they were getting was an innovative leader who could help take the century-old retailer to even greater heights, but what they got was a HiPPO (someone who believes in the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinions”).

In the two short years Johnson was CEO, JC Penney lost over $1 billion outright, more than halving the company’s available cash balance. Their revenues fell 25 percent (losing the company another $1 billion), and JC Penney’s market capitalization fell more than 50 percent. I know that right now you’re asking “What does JC Penney have to do with higher education?” but bear with me.

Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy, executive consultants with a great deal of experience in the corporate space, pointed out that Johnson’s HiPPO attitude was behind this stunning collapse in an analysis of what went wrong with the retail giant.

“When making changes, Johnson trusted his gut rather than the data in front of him,” DeRose and Tichy wrote. “He not only ignored existing data, but he was also convinced he didn’t need new information to validate the righteousness of his strategy.”

Though willful ignorance of data is admittedly not the same as a lack of accessibility, the end result is the same: ineffectiveness that leads to disaster.

JC Penney could recover from the hit, but with thousands of colleges and universities all competing for an increasingly smaller pool of prospective students, postsecondary institutions cannot take the risk.

How Leading Institutions Leverage Data to Get (and Stay) Ahead

In today’s immensely competitive higher education marketplace—where competition is not only coming from other colleges and universities but private providers and bootcamps—the most sophisticated schools empower their staff and administrators with an easy-to-access archive data warehouse connected to real-time reports and interactive graphical dashboards to make effective business decisions. And this functionality is becoming available more widely every day.

Leaders need to trust the source data and the methods used to compile it. It’s critical to have one system of truth, because the last thing any leader wants is different departments using different metrics or calculations for enrollment counts or revenue. What’s more, an effective institution will have accessible and permissioned reports and dashboards that support decision making. All staff should be able to run the reports and dashboards that are relevant to their job function at any time. The permissions part is particularly important because it allows leaders to control who can see which reports and at what level of detail. Finally, leading institutions have the reports and dashboards they need to operate their businesses available on-demand in real-time. It’s impossible to be successful if you’re waiting days or weeks (or in some cases until quarter or year end) to get data visualizations.

Now, as has been said in every conversation that’s ever been had about leveraging data across an organization, it’s not just a switch you flip or a faucet to turn on. Leaders have a few key responsibilities in making data functional:

  1. Asking the right questions

Business intelligence strategy ultimately depends on asking the right questions so that your organization can leverage or create reports or dashboards that are relevant and provide the most value.

  1. Choosing the right format to present data

The same data set can often be presented in many different ways. Luckily, with modern business intelligence and visualization tools, like Tableau, you can easily connect to a data source and try different visualization types in seconds. Is your data set best suited as a bar chart? A line chart? A map?

That having been said, in the modern era, institutional leaders and staff should no longer have to spend huge amounts of time parsing through source data to make sure it’s clean. Leaders and their staff will always have to collaborate to define the most important questions they need answered, but once the question is asked it should be possible to leverage the data as needed to find the answers.

There are a few dashboards we’ve made available that really help to show how transformative leveraging data can be for an institution:

The Section Enrollment Curve, to start, helps divisional leaders track historical enrollment trends by program to see when most students tend to register for a particular offering. As a result, program managers looking at enrollments in your current sections might be worried that the counts seem low for this time of year in the sections they manage. However, rather than taking action based on their gut feeling, they can then plot a cumulative enrollment growth curve for the current section and compare it to all previous sections of that same course to see if this section historically fills up early or if learners rush to enroll at the last minute. This insight would be very difficult to ascertain with a static text-based report, but graphically it’s very obvious and can be leveraged to strategically drive enrollments and make marketing investments.

The Monthly Revenue Trend is an example of a dashboard that can be an absolute game-changer for senior leaders. Imagine you’re a dean or provost compiling data for your institution’s annual report. In the past, it took weeks of effort for your staff to submit final enrollment and revenue numbers. Imagine if this information was available in real time, across all of your departments—allowing you to see everything at once, or easily filter for a specific department. Better yet, what if you could easily compare multiple years at once to see how you’re doing in each time period compared to the same period in years past? With this information, senior administrators know in real time how their business is performing.

Making the Dream a Reality

Today, for many institutions, leveraging Big Data and analytics is a dream, but not the reality. For leading colleges and universities in this space, though, data is a fact of life every single day, and increasing numbers of institutions are finding ways to bring this kind of information onto their campus.

For institutions without robust data capabilities, it can be an immense struggle to track and seemingly simple statistics, from when the majority of students enroll in their programs to how much revenue they’re generating by month. This has a significant and negative impact on effective institutional management. What’s more, for institutions trying to bring this data into their decision-making processes but without the right tools, the process staff must go through to collect that information is tedious, time-consuming and distracting from their main goal: serving students.

Institutional leaders need to understand that their students are in a lifecycle, not just a single moment in time. At every stage of the lifecycle, their needs and tendencies shift, and in order for institutions to be able to react to, serve—and even predict!—those evolving needs, data needs to be leveraged by every member of staff. But it’s not enough to just say, “Make data the reality.” It needs to be easy to collect, analyze and understand.

That’s the only way institutions can move from reactive to effective.

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