We have big data. It’s time for big insights.

We have big data. It’s time for big insights.

By Henry DeVries on Thursday, March 16, 2017


In my daily work with higher education institutions, I often hear decision makers say, “We need more data.” But given the extraordinary volume of data that now exists on most campuses, I know the more likely scenario is that they need more insights. If so, I turn the conversation to analytics.

Every institution should be having a conversation about analytics. Gartner predicts that by 2018, decision optimization through analytics will no longer be a niche discipline; it will become a best practice in leading organizations to address a wide range of complex business decisions.[1]

What does this mean exactly? It means that access to data, as well as the capacity to extract insights from that data, can no longer be the sole purview of your IT or IR team.

It means creating a self-service analytics culture, where decision makers can access the data they need, when they need it, in a format they can understand.

So what’s preventing this from happening? Well, a lot of not-so-small things. Barriers range from practical to ethical, technological to cultural.

And yet, we have a responsibility to tackle these challenges in order to offer more students better access to higher quality education. Analytics will also play an increasingly crucial role in each institution’s ability to remain competitive and get the most value out of its investments.

If you have not started a conversation about analytics, or are at the preliminary stage, below are three things to keep top of mind.

#1: Get data out of the hands of IT and IR and into the hands of decision makers

Self-service is the direction analytics is going. It can no longer be a specialized practice, with end users “ordering reports” from a walk-up window run by IT or Institutional Research. Too often users end up with long waits and data that isn’t quite what they need. And technical staff end up in permanent reactionary mode,“filling orders,” instead of focusing on more strategic activities.

To realize the promise of analytics, every dean, department chair, recruiter, advisor, and other key player on campus should have information at their fingertips, presented in ways that are relevant to their role.

I know this is easier said than done. But the potential return on investment—in operational efficiency, strategic growth, and student success—is huge.

So as you think about campus modernization, set your sights on self-service, role-based analytics and a culture of data-informed decision making. It may take awhile to get there, but it’s the right path to advancing student and institutional success.

#2: Deliver relevant insights in a visually compelling format

Most institutions have operational reporting covered—the transactional data that supports day to day administration. What they lack is business intelligence (BI)—the questions beyond the questions, the innovative manipulation of data to produce new insights.

BI is a challenge across all industries, not just higher education, it has been for years. Institutions are usually grappling with old, legacy architecture and data that is stale and buried in silos. That can’t last.

We’re all getting used to an “app world,” where the user experience is friendly and intuitive. Where we are empowered to accomplish tasks and goals on our own time. In this context, old BI tools—which have been off-putting for years—are now even more off-putting. In fact adoption of BI tools has remained below 25% since 2005.[2]

So what should we be striving for?

If you ask a basic question, “How many students have enrolled?,” you should get more than a number. Your search results should include additional information relevant to your role—the data sliced in new ways based on best practices and strategic lines of inquiry. Picture a Google-like approach that makes searching for data an easier, richer experience.

More compelling visualizations are also key. This means charts, graphs, and reports that make information easy to consume—offering bite-size insights that tie directly to the business questions that matter most to your role.

#3: Change your culture, not just your systems

Each institution has its own culture of decision making. For many, self-service, role-based analytics will require changing that culture.

In an analytics driven culture, staff and faculty use data to begin, advance, and improve every conversation. They are empowered with information, not frustrated by barriers. They are active participants in developing systems and dashboards that contain information they need to do their jobs. And IT and IR staff are dedicated to aligning analytics with the institution’s strategic goals.

This new culture is also based on collaboration and innovation. From a technical standpoint, that requires integration—data available across functions, enabling new connections between people and information. From a cultural standpoint, it requires the proactive search for solutions to institution-wide challenges.

In this eight-part blog series, we’ll be expanding on these themes, covering emerging trends and best practices in analytics, and interviewing a few institutions doing innovative work in this arena.

If you have specific questions or a story to share, please leave a Comment. This is an important dialogue, the more input the better.

Read blog #1 in series: New study finds students willing to share data if you use it to improve their experience

Learn more about Ellucian Analytics powered by Ethos


[1] Gartner, Market Guide for Optimization Solutions, May 2015
[2] Cindi Howson, Principal, BIScorecard, “The Successful BI Survey,” 2013

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  • On 4/28/2017 01:15:18 AM Victor Murage said:

    Well analysed


About the Author

Henry DeVries

Dr. Henry DeVries

Management Consultant at Ellucian

Henry DeVries serves as management consultant, principal, and leads the business intelligence services in Ellucian’s management consulting group. Dr. DeVries has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a faculty member, researcher, and administrator.