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Business Intelligence Gets Smarter

Ease of use and other improvements in BI tools have given higher ed leaders more data power for decision making than ever.
University Business, Nov 2011

Have you noticed colleagues on campus talking more about business intelligence lately? Considering how much these tools have evolved recently, it wouldn’t be surprising.

BI tools in higher education have made significant improvement in the last three to four years around ease of use for the end user, points out Erik Bowe, executive director and chief data officer at Kennesaw State University (Ga.). He says BI tools have evolved in the concept of metadata, which describes how and when a set of data was collected. BI tools hide the technical nuances, such as where data is located, and make it easy for the end user to generate reports without IT expertise. 

“In the past, BI tools were very IT centric,” Bowe says. “Now it’s extremely easy for the end user to write a report by just dragging and dropping necessary fields, with names that are more user friendly.”

Kennesaw State has more than 500 people on campus using its SAS Enterprise Intelligence Suite for Education in a variety of ways, from SAS power users to SAS data users. The university has seen a 30 percent to 40 percent drop in centralized reporting requests since the SAS solution allows self-service access to data. Previously, faculty, administrators, and staff waited one to two weeks for their custom reports.

Dave Wells, a business intelligence consultant, teacher, and mentor based in the Seattle area, says BI systems have just followed the natural progression of a more intuitive interface and user-friendly design.

BI evolved from data warehousing and started out as a combination of data integration and online analytical processing, Wells explains. More recently, the user interface of BI has been designed to look like a dashboard or scorecard, with a few high level points on which people can drill down to get more detail. At the desktop level, “the visual presentation of what’s happened [consists of] charts and graphs instead of rows and columns of data tables. It’s just naturally more friendly.”

Moving Beyond Anecdotal Info

Basing decisions on opinions versus facts is neither a practical nor profitable way to conduct business.

In the past, Tarleton State University (Texas) relied on anecdotal information around its enrollment and couldn’t pinpoint what helped or hindered it. Now, thanks to its SunGard Higher Ed Banner Enrollment Management Suite, the university can improve its enrollment strategies, determine which prospects are stronger than others, and focus limited resources on students with the most likelihood of attending.

“The BI tool helped us use data and trend analysis to prepare for larger classes and increased enrollment,” explains Denise Groves, dean of enrollment management. “We also were able to educate stakeholders, like academic affairs, so they could hire to prepare for increased enrollment.” Groves shares that they tried to prepare as early as February rather than be reactive and wait until August.

Tarleton State relies on SunGard’s Banner Relationship Management and Banner Recruiting & Admissions Performance solutions. As a result of more targeted and personal communications, attendance at the university’s campus preview day increased 79 percent, and group tour participation grew 140 percent.

“These tools helped us prepare for 19 percent enrollment growth and write custom reports for financial aid to help with their yield,” Groves shares. “It also helped with budget cuts last year to reassure administration we could rely on growth.”

Self-Service Reporting

Business intelligence tools help Florida State administrators recruit and retain the best students.Florida State University’s journey with business intelligence, which began in 2000, is a mature one. The 40,000-student university moved from third-party legacy BI tools to Oracle BI Suite Enterprise Edition Plus last year to standardize on one platform. Today, it boasts 1,600 users and 189 dashboards in 55 subject areas. “Our philosophy with business intelligence is to enable as much transaction-system content as possible to our end users and to empower departments to do a lot of reporting and dashboarding on their own through training,” says Michael Barrett, CIO of Florida State.

Since the move to one platform, the institution’s leaders have definitely seen a productivity increase. In the past, departments made formal requests of other offices to see information. Now the system facilitates that, says Byron Menchion, BI project manager. The school has saved about $200,000 per year in redundant equipment and software.

“The sharing of information has significantly increased, and departments can see a holistic view of students from admissions to financials,” Menchion explains. “It also empowers end users to develop their own reports.”

In one example, Menchion says Florida State uses BI to determine how to recruit, attract, and retain the best students. The school can run scenario analyses based on variables and acceptance criteria that determines which students to accept, deny, or put on hold.

“Florida State has one of the best recruit classes I believe, in the country, because of its decision-making processes,” Menchion asserts. “The challenge now is keeping up with the demand of our user community. There’s a newfound epiphany to access more information and ask more questions. It’s a shift from a backlog in developing reports, but we remedy it by empowering people.”

Data in Real Time

The power of these business intelligence tools is in drilling down to the granular level which shows the impact of student performance and success, as well as the institution’s efficiency. When John Fritz, assistant VP of instructional technology and new media at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, didn’t have the information he needed from Blackboard Analytics, he just created his own dashboard. While Blackboard did include reports, Fritz was the only one who could see them.

‘There’s a newfound epiphany to access more information and ask more questions. It’s a shift from a backlog in developing reports, but we remedy it by empowering people.’—Byron Menchion, Florida State University

He conducted research and learned that, the more students interacted in the learning management system, the better they performed. He built a dashboard dubbed “Check My Activity Tool” that allowed students to monitor their activity in the learning management system. It also gave decision makers information to consider when thinking about how a LMS can help drive student performance.

“In the last three years, we’ve found students earning a D or F in a class use the Blackboard system 40 percent less than those students earning a C or higher,” Fritz relates.

In the admissions office at Hope College (Mich.), time was an enemy. But lag time in the recruiting admission process has disappeared since implementing Intelliworks. Adam Hopkins, associate director of admissions and international recruiting, can now see who applied overnight and what items are missing in their application.

“Having that real-time information when talking to students makes a large difference,” Hopkins relates. “Before, we had a download process at certain times of the day, which can take quite a bit of time to update.”

Hope College previously used a home-grown Microsoft Access solution with limited functionality. The web-based Intelliworks system encourages better communication and captures notes about prospects to directly affect correspondence with them. Folks with their finger in the recruiting process (admissions, athletics, and faculty) are all using the solution. Prospect data is housed in Intelliworks and later moved to Banner once a student has moved to applicant stage.

Participation in group tours at Tartleton State University has grown significantly, as least in part because of the more targeted and personal communications that business intellience solutions allow. The solutions are also helping campus leaders understand more about class rank, class loads, and how they relate to overall student success.

Although Hopkins realizes a lot of factors go into an institution’s success, since moving to Intelliworks in 2009, Hope College has had the highest number of applicants in history and full classes, as a school with capped enrollment.

More Big Features

Predictive analytics is a talked-about new feature in the BI space, according to SunGard Higher Education’s senior strategic consultant Scott Cupach.

“Imagine leveraging the historical data already stored in your data repositories to determine which students are most likely to drop out or not pay their tuition bill on time, which are likely to switch majors or become alumni who generously give back to the campus, or predict where crimes may occur on campus, thus allowing you to staff campus security accordingly,” Cupach says.

Usability is the killer feature, according to Intelliworks CEO Todd Gibby. “The best business intelligence solutions are those that make data actionable and accessible to end users. Business intelligence technology should not get in the way of you understanding your data and knowing the benefit that you want to derive from it.”

Data visualization capabilities are improving rapidly, according to Daryl Orts, vice president of engineering technologies at BI provider Noetix. “This trend, sparked in some ways by Google Analytics, allows users to explore their data interactively and dynamically, without the need for lots of complex configuration,” Orts says.

Selim Burduroglu, industry architect at Oracle Education & Research, suggests three core principles for successful BI in higher education. “Start simple and evolve, minimize variables, and link insight to action to provide continuous institutional effectiveness.”

Despite the impact business intelligence tools are having on higher education, Melanie Strodtman, business intelligence industry expert at Jenzabar, says she believes BI is in its infancy in higher ed. “Most of the concepts, from balanced scorecards to predictive modeling, are still out of the reach of most.”

Looking to the Future

The influence of social media is growing as folks watch breaking news unfold on Twitter and share memories on Facebook. Hope College added the social media module as just one of many to its BI toolkit. Intelliworks can track interaction when students and prospects communicate with Hope College via its Facebook page.

“Facebook is not a large part of interaction with students at this point,” Hopkins relates. “I’ll be curious to see if Facebook will be more about catching up with friends versus seeking out information, so that remains to be seen.”

Wells believes that social media is not as advanced and strong as it needs to be in the BI world.

“The purpose of analysis is to create conversation, which drives organizations to the right kinds of actions,” Wells says. “Very few vendors understand the social networking aspect and need for conversation. Data only tells me ‘what’; it doesn’t tell me ‘why.’ That’s where the whole social networking thing ought to come into play: drawing conversations and collective interpretation of what the data has to say.”

Tarleton State University is now beta testing SunGard’s Student Retention Performance tool, which reports data related to class rank, class trends, class load, and how class rank applies to student success.

“Strategic enrollment management is strongly supported by data-driven decisions. Efficiency can’t happen if you don’t base decisions on your data,” Groves relates. “It’s critical to have some tool to be more purposeful in your decision making and in resource allocation.”

Vicki Powers is a Houston-based freelance writer.