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Report Card

Collecting data is crucial, but so is an efficient system for putting that data to use.
University Business, Aug 2007

DESPITE THE CHALLENGES OF SECURITY, user education, and redundant records, a database can be a beautiful thing-not only in tracking prospective students through school until they become alumni, but also in streamlining processes, keeping tabs on financial goals, reducing repetitive data entry, and automating billing.

However, as many higher ed institutions are finding, a database is only as good as the reports that can be drawn from it. After all, there's utility in compiling information like the age of all professors, but there's even more in using that data to predict retirement so that new hiring drives can be started early.

As databases get more complex and departments begin building their own as well as relying on centralized databases, reporting functions also become more multilayered, with challenges all their own. Some colleges and universities are attempting to equip departments with their own database applications to take the pressure off IT, while others prefer to hire more reporting specialists to do technology support and respond to requests.

Either way, the issue of how to create accurate, consistent reports is affecting every institution of higher ed and driving the need for stronger reporting and more oversight of the reporting process.

"There's a cultural shift for a lot of schools around reporting," says Dwight Fischer, who has implemented information systems at three campuses within the University System of New Hampshire and serves as chief information officer at Plymouth State University. "With legacy systems, everyone wrote their own reports, but as institutions put in ERP systems, you were able to pull data from integrated databases and run reports off of that."

That transition caused IHEs to develop systems that aggregate data, but it has also led IT departments to wonder which is the best tactic: keeping reporting functionality centralized within IT, or using more tools for departments to write their own reports? At many institutions, the answer isn't clear. Rather, the blend of tactics shows that the question is likely to linger for some time.

Reports generated from database systems can be crucial for creating a cohesive view of issues related to admissions, accounts payable, and development objectives. At an operational level, these reports can show information such as who has outstanding bills or who attended the latest fundraising event. At a higher level, data can be compiled for more complex tasks, such as determining what type of revenue is generated from research grants and how much of that funding has to be put toward expenses like equipment and research assistants.

The value of tailoring reports can be formidable, notes Andrew Lootens-White, director of Educational Technologies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In the past, his department used an Excel spreadsheet to compile information and then put the document into a shared system. Whenever one person had the file open, no one else could access it, and reporting was basically done by printing out large sections of the spreadsheet.

"Obviously, we knew there had to be a better long-term solution," he says. Using a FileMaker application, the department was able to keep track of which faculty was teaching classes, how many were using technologies like Blackboard, and who was using online forums in their courses.

'The IT department knows some of the things we're involved in, but there are so many  projects going on across campus that it can be hard to get support right way. So that's why I look to FileMaker instead, to do my own reports.'
-Ann Marie McGinnis, Syracuse University

Using the reports generated from the data, Lootens-White was able to present his department chair with information that showed a significant number of professors were using online tools, sparking discussion on how to help other professors use the same technologies.

Beyond providing strategic directions, reports are also vital in meeting the federal government's call for institutions to be cognizant of and to start tracking learning outcomes.

"We have faculty committees working on educational plans, and outcomes are a big part of that because of the federal mandates," says Joanne Bossert, director of administrative computing at Oglethorpe University, near Atlanta. "We've been working on finding a way to track students in a way that ties to outcomes, and thinking about how to report on those results."

Vendors are getting a jump on these reporting directions by adding new features, Fischer notes. Those related to outcomes based learning are already embedded in some reporting tools, he says, but vendors call all the time with news of upcoming modules that have even more functionality.

"This is going to be a major push with the greater demand from government agencies and parents about accountability," he predicts.

In response to increased requests, some IHEs have beefed up their IT staff with more reporting specialists. At the University of New Hampshire, five developers have been put in place to handle reporting, notes Fischer.

Who takes requests within an IT department, how the reports are processed, and how long they take depend on a number of factors, such as the complexity of the reports needed, whether the data must be pulled from operational or management databases, and how much historical data is involved, Fischer adds.

"Clearly, it's an issue of resources," he says. "Reporting takes time, and how much time depends on each report." Data has to be analyzed as well as discovered, he says, to make sure that what's being given to the requester is accurate.

Oglethorpe uses Datatel for its ERP system, and Citrix for application delivery. Although the software has some basic reporting capabilities, Bossert notes, the IT staff has had to build custom reports by hand, a process that can be very time consuming.

"We can write quick reports with an ad hoc tool, and that works well for straightforward reports," she says. "But it's not a great long term strategy."

Bossert has been researching options for putting more reporting into the hands of other departments but hasn't found anything that suits both her needs and her budget. So for the time being, reporting will stay the domain of the IT staff .

One of the advantages of Oglethorpe is its size, adds Bossert, who previously worked as a Datatel consultant for Albany Law School (N.Y.) and Saint Peter's College (N.J.) and also as a programmer at Yale University.

"At other schools, people expected custom reports, but it's not one of the big demands here," she says. "Most of the focus here is in integrating with other servers, which is always a big goal when you implement new ERP systems."

In order to share reporting access, some colleges and universities have been equipping departments with database applications such as FileMaker, Microsoft Access, and ACT, so that administrators and faculty can run their own reports and even tweak database sections to fit different needs.

For example, at the Syracuse University (N.Y.) College of Arts and Sciences, the director of the Student Records Office, Ann Marie McGinnis, developed a system with FileMaker that allows the office to collect data such as student class preferences, schedules, and class times, and then create student demand reports that are sent out to other departments.

Under the old system, which used PeopleSoft, finding open spaces in courses that would fit student schedules took about 75 minutes per student. With the FileMaker reporting ability, it takes around 10 seconds. McGinnis has developed other systems from the application as well, including a tracking program for missed classes and a ballot function that lets faculty elect colleagues for committees. Reports can be run from all the newly developed applications, McGinnis notes.

"Basically, we're looking at what reporting takes a long time to do and thinking about how to build a system that reduces that time," she says. "The IT department knows some of the things we're involved in, but there are so many projects going on across campus that it can be hard to get support right way. So that's why I look to FileMaker instead, to do my own reports."

At Plymouth State, Fischer has given reporting ability to a handpicked group of employees who use Microsoft Access so that fewer people submit requests. Using pull- down menus, people like the vice president of finance can find information, such as all students who are majoring in business and are in their senior year, Fischer says. With that information, he can arrange in-person meetings with students and not have to go through the IT department for the data.

Giving more reporting ability to departments sometimes comes as a result of upgrading systems and database applications. At the University of North Texas, the Information Systems department decided to move to enterprise application software PeopleSoft (which has since been acquired by Oracle) in 2001 from a legacy system, in part to get better data warehousing, but also as a way to deliver more value to end users by giving them more robust reporting. According to John Hooper, executive director of the university's Administrative Information Systems group, the legacy applications had only allowed for printed reports.

Delivering a stack of papers on the desk of anyone who asked for a specific report didn't seem in keeping with the technology age, so administrators began adding data into the university's new warehousing system and creating tables from which it could do reporting. The university allowed for some self-service reporting with a web-based system that established certain parameters and guided users through prompts.

For now, the extension of reporting ability to departments is rolling out slowly, with more reporting being done by IT staff , Hooper notes. "We'd like to get it to the state where it's more self service," he says. "But for now, we're focusing on getting the data into the warehouse in a way that can facilitate better reporting."

In creating reports, IHEs have been working to go beyond just compiling numbers and trying to track trends. To utilize the information to its fullest, institutions need to build business intelligence around database reporting, says Terence Atkinson, director of government and education solutions at Cognos.

"Business intelligence is taking information and turning it into actionable insights," Atkinson notes. "That improves the overall performance of an institution, and reporting is a major component of that."

'We'd like to get it to the state where it's more self-service. But for now, we're focusing on getting the data into the warehouse in a way that can facilitate better reporting.'
-John Hooper, University of North Texas

Over the past five years in particular, Atkinson has seen more IHEs investing in reporting systems and taking a hard look at their information architectures in order to get more value from their investments. Putting reporting into the context of business intelligence has helped to tie together seemingly disparate departments like human resources and accounts payable, but many IHEs still have miles to go before they have the types of systems they want.

Challenges include the use of multiple reporting systems and applications, including legacy systems, says Atkinson. Also, moving reporting from IT to multiple departments can be a tricky endeavor that not only creates a strain on support and training but sometimes goes against the culture of a university.

"Historically, IT has been the source of all reporting," Atkinson notes. "IT is now trying to push that out to users with tools like Cognos, but my experience has been that the big bang, datawarehouse-to-everyone approach where everyone has access to a lot of information has not been overly successful."

Instead, the implementations that tend to work best are when higher ed institutions roll out reporting based on need, he says. Specific user groups with particular demands-for example, a student records office that wants to track attendance or class scheduling- are the best candidates for reporting tools, and the use of reporting applications can broaden out once those needs are met.

Even when a reporting strategy is rolled out slowly to a number of departments, or kept completely within the IT department, a larger issue with reporting in general is the "single version of the truth" problem. A database can give the same information to everyone who runs a report, but the parameters of that report, and what's requested, can change the results dramatically.

This is not unique to the higher ed arena; corporations also struggle with trying to standardize their reporting layer so that everyone is working from the same information and pulling the same results from databases. Reporting is not like printing out an Excel spreadsheet, after all, but is interpreting multiple streams of information in a way that determines subsequent strategies or actions, from setting new financial goals to changing class size limits.

"One of the problems in any organization of archiving a single version of the truth is to lock down the data and have one person do all the reports, but that's impractical," explains Ryan Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and services at FileMaker. Instead, more work needs to be done on the backend, in the IT department, to ensure data integrity but also to train users in how to interpret data.

"One concern we have is getting the right presentation and definition of data," says University of North Texas' Hooper. "Three people can produce a report and all come to a meeting with a different number. So we're having a lot of conversations with people who own the data and trying to create more efficient data models. But every time we deploy something, we look back and wonder if we could do it even better."

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who specializes in covering technology issues.

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