Listen to higher ed futurists and you'll be convinced that business intelligence is the wave of the future. It is the next "it" thing that will connect every part of the enterprise. Best yet, BI will link all data, allowing disparate software programs, provided by numerous and sometimes-competing vendors, to "talk" to each other.
Admissions files will connect to financial aid information will connect to student services files will connect to academic records, and so on. The end result will be data that can actually predict what that student might do next, and even calculate financial aid needs and shifting interests.
It sounds wonderful, and BI is already fulfilling its promise at some colleges and universities. Trouble is, the BI's potential is so vast that it remains hard to get a simple understanding of it. Each vendor has its own definition of BI. Some claim that systems such as CRM (constituent/customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) are BI technology. Others say that data warehousing, decision support systems, online analytical processing, knowledge management, and web personalization are all part of BI.
So, which is it? The answer may be a little bit of all of the above and then some.
"Everyone and their uncle is calling their solution 'business intelligence,' " notes Nicole Engelbert, senior analyst, public sector technology, at Datamonitor. "Institutions are asking, 'What does this all mean to me?' "
Most BI systems have been around for about eight years, and most of the early adopters were in the retail sector.
Engelbert offers her own clarification. ERP, for example, provides transactional reports, she explains. "ERP will give you how many students enrolled on Tuesday, or will tell you if Organic Chemistry 101 is full." A BI system will actually digest this information, and other data, and tell the user if Organic Chem is being offered at a good time, or if the class is losing students to the Biology 101 class offered at the same time, or if the college needs to offer additional course sections.
Comparatively, CRM systems are more about transaction and functions. They will manage recruitment campaigns, alumni appeals, and other processes. They capture the contacts of those who have visited online, and then drive the related mailing of the viewbook. But while CRM systems will certainly tally who replied and which part of the campaign delivered results, it is BI that will offer a deeper analysis. BI can predict which ZIP codes will be the most promising for a mailing, and which geographic areas will have students with the least or most need for financial aid.
Many ERP vendors in the higher education sector claim to have BI capabilities. Engelbert notes that some have formed partnerships with companies that offer true BI. Datatel's new partnerships with Business Objects and SAS, both BI providers, are good examples. Similarly, Intelliworks, a CRM provider, has a partnership with Microstrategy.
In mid-2006, Campus Management added two BI modules, thanks to partnerships with iStrategy Solutions and Noetix. One, called CampusQuery, provides analysis at a glance. The other, CampusAnalytics, can do predictive modeling.
BI systems are most noted for their speed and convenience tools that display metrics with spotlight indicators, or dashboards. These dashboards provide quick peeks on trends in real time-and do so in a format the average user can read.
"We were a very different university about one year ago," says Keith Werosh, registrar at the National University of Health Sciences (Ill.). He is referring to the operation pre-BI. NUHS installed BI from Business Objects a year ago. "Prior to having this system, we were departmentalized. Information was kept on spreadsheets throughout the university," he says. The Registrar would have relevant data, but not related information. "Paper touched hands a number of times. Other offices would even rekey the information," explains Werosh. As a result, NUHS officials wouldn't have a picture of the enrollment process until weeks into a term.
A BI solution was in order. Even so, NUHS didn't rush into deploying one. "During a two-year time frame, we discussed what we needed and how we were going to achieve it," adds Werosh, who was the executive on campus tapped to "get the ball rolling" because much usage would be centered around the registrar's office.
After the investigative period, NUHS invested approximately $200,000 in a BI system supplied by Business Objects.
The benefits have been multifold. Today the registration process is clearly viewed instantly. "We can process information on the spot," Werosh reports. NUHS can even determine the peak registration time during the day. For example, most online student traffic falls between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. "We added additional staff at that time to handle the traffic. Student workers were added to key areas and computer labs since more online use would lead to more questions. Others worked the telephones and were able to call back immediately to those students who had contacted online, but who wanted follow-up," he says.
Florida State University adopted BI several years earlier, according to Rick Burnett, director of student information management. "We saw data as the low-hanging fruit and wanted to start using it to figure out the best students to target." To that end, the university, which enrolls 40,000, uses a BI system that links to its CRM system from Talisma, its databases, and other resources, to determine which classes are filling up the fastest. "An alert goes out when a course is 80 percent full." This, in turn, affects room scheduling, and gives fodder for studying other course offerings.
BI has also added a layer of sophistication to the admissions strategy. Officials at FSU, which receives 55,000 applications each year, once had to cull through each file and hand-code information. If at the end of the decision cycle there was a change in the admissions criteria (such as the need for slightly higher GPA requirements), decision-makers would have to retouch all the files again.
Setting a BI query avoids all that. A new list of qualified applicants can be produced within 30 minutes.
"Business intelligence is in its infancy," notes Jim Strickulis, product marketing manager for Jenzabar, a technology company that offers BI functions via executive dashboards, datamart applications, and other analytics. "Higher ed usually follows about 10 years after business adoption."
An IHE like Ohio State might be well ahead of that curve because it is a large institution, but midrange schools-a common client base for the technology company-will move slower because of cost.
BI systems can range in price from five figures, to even into the millions, depending on the size of the institution and the number of users, says Engelbert. "IHEs are probably the most conservative market. If there is any ambiguity, it slows adoption to a halt."
Her observations are partly based on a Datamonitor survey conducted in mid-2006. At that time, only 12 percent of the 50 IHEs surveyed had already purchased a BI solution. Another 18 percent said they would implement BI in 2007. Sixteen percent said they'll implement at some point, but not this year. And 54 percent said they don't plan to purchase a BI solution.
"The vendor community has to do a better job of communicating and provide better examples of how BI is used," says Engelbert. She adds some words of caution for vendors: In the Datamonitor study, higher ed executives said that service and price were the most important criteria for selecting a BI system. The emphasis on service signals that they know BI is a sophisticated technology that may require much instruction and finessing to work well. Engelbert adds, "Institutions really want and need a strong vendor partner." clich?