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October 3, 2016 | Analytics
Higher education data professionals need to work to take the complexity out of institutional data, making it easily accessible, understandable, and actionable.
Institutions must take fundamental steps to successfully implement an effective, institution-wide business intelligence and analytics capability.
In building this capability, institutions must provide greater visibility into the critical connections between enrollment, student outcomes, and financial data.
Technology alone isn't the answer — investing in data science and storytelling expertise is critical to glean insights that lead to action.
There's never been a better time to be a data and analytics professional in higher education. Our institutions grapple with questions every day that left unanswered can threaten their near- and long-term health and sustainability. Business intelligence (BI) and analytics help universities and colleges focus on decision making and navigate these challenging times. We data pros have an opportunity to demonstrate the "art of the possible" to university stakeholders by unlocking the value in institutional data to help them ask and answer questions they never could before. As data leaders, we must seize the opportunity to transform our role on campus by facilitating meaningful conversations using data to engage the university community in a significantly different way. Our job is to take the complexity out of the data to make it easily understandable and actionable.
I've always been a data and BI guy. I spent the early part of my career working in data management, business analytics, and financial planning and analysis. I later ran the BI department at Rosetta Stone, where I built new analytics functions into finance, accounting, sales, marketing, and customer operations. I had the opportunity to apply these skills in a university setting from 2011 to 2015, when I developed and led the Office of Analytics at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). I was hired to apply business analytics expertise to pull more value from the data.
In 2012, UMUC began to experience unprecedented enrollment volatility and turned to analytics to help chart a path forward. Thus began what would become a multiyear journey to effectively leverage data to inform decisions, affect student outcomes, drive policy, and guide the university along a continuing path of stability and growth. During this time, the university also experienced an organizational and cultural transformation into a state of advanced, institution-wide analytics.
In 2015, the Maryland Board of Regents approved a plan to spin off the Office of Analytics into a private company. I became the CEO of HelioCampus, which officially launched in 2016 with a commitment to help other institutions jump-start or accelerate their path to advanced analytics.
My perspective on analytics is grounded in and fueled by my experience in both the private sector and a university setting. I've learned three things over the past two decades:
Many institutions remain unable to answer a common set of questions critical to their sustainability. While pressures and challenges persist, and well-intentioned investments in BI and analytics initiatives fall short, higher education has a growing need for effective institutional analytics.
At UMUC I learned the importance of integrating data across all stages of the student lifecycle, increasing visibility into the connections between revenue, student outcomes, and expenses. Without this visibility, institutional blind spots prevent leaders from planning effectively and, more importantly, identifying risks and intervening early. Many institutions have reached a point where they can't afford not to invest in BI tools. Common themes that are top of mind, yet unanswerable, for many college and university leaders include:
The challenge for many institutions isn't that they haven't already tried to answer these questions. In some cases, institutions have become fatigued from trying to develop an analytics capability in-house. In other cases, they may have invested in BI and analytics solutions to help address a challenge at a specific stage in the student lifecycle only to realize they are missing key information from another area of the institution. I've also met with institutions that have had tremendous success in data integration but lack the resources to support data analysis, storytelling, and data science needs.
Institutions must take certain fundamental steps before they can answer these hard questions. They must also build their level of maturity to reach a state of advanced analytics. I experienced this firsthand over five years in a university setting. In building this capability, institutions need to solve the technology, talent, and time equation to build an advanced analytics capability in-house to support stakeholders and provide greater visibility into the critical connections between enrollment, student outcomes, and institutional financials.
Once these steps are in place, institutions can begin to introduce high-value analysis.
While technology serves as the foundation for actionable data and sophisticated analyses, it will never facilitate a cultural evolution. Departments evolve at varying paces, and institutional inertia is still one of the greatest hurdles facing implementation of effective BI and analytics programs.
You may ask, “How does an institution reach a point where data is critical both within and across traditional departments?”
I can't overemphasize the importance of building relationships across departments. My experience has shown that the best technology and dashboards in the world, alone, will never achieve the adoption and impact desired. Facilitating dialogue and decision making around the data is critical. Independent, unbiased experts are needed to drive the conversations that will yield insights leading to action. Only through a combination of technology and services can an institution effectively leverage data to inform decisions, affect business outcomes, drive policy, and guide the university's path forward.
I will close with this call to action for my peers and colleagues in data leadership roles: Whether you are a chief data officer, an institutional researcher, or the data lead for your department, you are in the best position to challenge the status quo and show your institution the "art of the possible." You understand the data, the tools and technology, and the challenges facing your university or college. Each of us has the ability to help ask and answer the most pressing questions at our institutions, spark conversations, and facilitate healthy debates that lead to data-based action. Seize the opportunity to make a significant impact.
Darren Catalano is CEO of HelioCampus and formerly the vice president of Analytics at University of Maryland University College.