Strategic BI for All
For small to midsize schools and community colleges, a strategic
BI initiative may still be an elusive goal. But here's how schools
with limited resources are making the dream a reality.
WHEN JANICE MILLER ATTENDS
higher education technology conferences,
peers from large universities tell her they
have five or six staff members assigned to a
business intelligence (BI) project team. "I
just have to laugh when I hear that," says the
Long Beach City College (CA) research
systems analyst. Truth is, Miller is the only
staff member assigned to BI implementation
at LBCC, a two-campus college with
29,000 mostly part-time students. "And
that's just part of my job description,"
emphasizes Miller, who works in the college's
Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
Yet, although LBCC leaders realize they
have a fairly small budget and IT staff compared
with some schools, that hasn't
stopped them from thinking big. Starting
in November 2006, with approximately
$250,000 from a federal Title V grant plus
its own district funds, the college has
worked with BI consultancy Phytorion to build a data warehouse,
develop web-based reporting tools,
and train many campus business analysts
to create their own reports.
"The data warehouse and reporting
tools now automate tasks that used to take up people's
valuable time," Miller explains. "Now those individuals are
freed up to perform more creative tasks."
In fact, Miller contends that the new system already has
resulted in significant revenue improvement. In their first
year of using Cognos Enterprise Planning software to focus on trends in enrollment and better
target their marketing campaigns, school administrators
were able to increase the number of full-time-equivalent
(FTE) students by more than 800. LBCC may now be far
ahead of the pack of small and midsize four-year schools
and community colleges, in terms of making progress with
Operational vs. Strategic Data
According to Graham Tracey, director of higher education
services at consultancy ASR Analytics, most small and midsize institutions are still so
focused on the operational side of reporting (for instance,
creating lists of students who have yet to make tuition payments
in any given quarter) that they spend relatively little
time on strategic reporting. Seeing administrators struggle
to pull data from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems
and use various paper-based forms and spreadsheets
for their reports, small-school CIOs may be inclined
to push their institutions to invest in BI toolsets. Yet that
ROI case can be a difficult one to make, Tracey says, "because aside from cost-- BI tools can cost hundreds of
thousands of dollars-- most small schools also have to bring
in consulting help to get a BI system up and running." And
unlike major research universities such as Stanford (CA)
and UCLA, which have programmers who can either build a
solution from scratch or customize an off-the-shelf product,
smaller schools frequently end up with a project manager
who has technical skills as an administrator or knows something
about databases, but doesn't know anything about BI
methodology or research, Tracey points out.
On the other hand, with university presidents and chief
financial officers under growing pressure to demonstrate
greater accountability and transparency, the push to go forward
with a BI project may come from the top, down. That's
what happened at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with
7,300 students on campuses in Troy, NY, and Hartford, CT.
Several years ago, RPI administrators were bothered by
the fact that cabinet meeting time often was wasted disputing
who had the correct numbers, instead of focusing
on strategy, explains Ora Fish, acting director of integrated
administrative computing services. Finance executives also
were too dependent on IT staff to run reports for them, and
they lacked the ability to do analyses on their own PC desktops.
Yet, once they witnessed a demonstration of the
potential of a data warehouse and BI reporting tools, Fish
remembers both RPI's president and chief financial officer
admitting they couldn't imagine continuing without them.
Soon after, RPI launched a combined data warehouse/BI
project, using tools from Oracle. Gradually,
the project grew to encompass more than 650 staff
members on both campuses using role-based dashboards
focused on student registration, human resources, and
admissions, as well as advancement and research. The
level of BI sophistication continues to climb each year.
"Recently, we added a compilation of key performance
indicators [KPIs] in a dashboard, so that users can look at
enrollment or fundraising campaign trends, comparing them
to the previous year or quarter as well as to benchmarks from
peer organizations," Fish explains. "And with all these measures,
you can drill down into deeper levels of detail," she
enthuses. The best reward, Fish says, is the feedback she
gets from users. "Our vice president for enrollment tells me
he could not imagine his life without the BI tools. He needs
them to balance diversity and complexity of incoming classes,
and to monitor and shape recruitment strategy." Still, she concedes
the transformation to BI reporting at RPI was not without
difficulties, which included data quality and data gathering
issues, plus staffing challenges.
It turned out that when it came to data quality, the data
warehouse was only as good as the information fed into it.
RPI identified problems with timeliness of reporting in
transactional systems, and worked to fix them. "We had to
create policies that require people to be accountable, and
we had to name individuals responsible for making sure the
processes are met," Fish says. As for data gathering, she
found that when her team started asking executives what
types of data they needed to perform strategic analyses,
they often found that no one in the university was capturing
that information. Traditional systems capture operational
information, but not necessarily data needed for strategic
analysis, Fish notes. "We pay people, we register students,
but that may not give executives the information they need
to improve recruiting strategies, so in some cases we have
to change the types of information we collect."
And when it came to staffing, Fish and her group quickly
discovered that though many staffers who worked in the
university business offices had operational experience, they
lacked analytical skills. RPI now focuses on filling these
positions with more people who have analytical skills, and
proactively training those who do not.
With costs and campus IT resources in mind, some campus
IT execs choose a more gradual approach to introducing
BI, and outsourcing is one solution. As CIO of a recently
founded college, Joanne Kossuth knew that supporting a
new ERP system and report writing was going to be a challenge
for her lean IT staff. The Franklin W. Olin College of
Engineering (MA), which opened in fall 2002 with 300 students,
had just one staffer to support its Jenzabar ERP software. "It was a challenge for that
individual to understand the business processes in all
departments," Kossuth explains. "He was overwhelmed
with requests for reports, so in 2006 we outsourced support
for the Jenzabar ERP system, which included report
writing." The college just wasn't ready to build its own solution
or add more IT staff, so early in its existence.
Although she has been satisfied with the outsourcing
arrangement with Serensoft, consultants
utilizing Cognos BI tools, Kossuth believes that with
clear metrics and proper training, the college administrators
can take on some of the report writing themselves.
"In 2007 we started shifting back to having financial
offices write more of their own reports," she says. "Our registrar's
office now can handle making changes to parameters
in reports, so it speeds up the turnaround time. We are
not at nirvana yet, but we are making strides." Kossuth adds
that a data warehouse might be in the long-term future, but
she says that for a school of Olin's size it is better to start
small with pilot projects that prove the value of BI, and outsourcing
has helped to foster that process.
ASR Analytics' Tracey agrees that for a small school,
building an enterprise data warehouse should not be a first
step. "A project like that could take two years before you do
anything else," he says. "It's better to focus on one area
such as recruitment, achieve early successes, and lay the
framework for a data warehouse."
For some small, midsize, or community schools, BI toolsets
from leading vendors may seem expensive because they
are priced for industry at large. The BI tool providers "have
yet to discover a business model that really suits the higher
ed marketplace," Tracey says.
But some recent developments hold promise. Microsoft has begun to incorporate BI capabilities
into tools colleges already own, such as the Microsoft
SharePoint portal. In addition, schools are starting to consider
commercial open source BI tools, such as Pentaho and Jaspersoft,
both with the potential to drastically lower the up-front cost
of software so that schools can put their resources into services,
and stretch their dollars farther.
For many schools, large and small, consolidating on one BI
platform is the first important step, says Scott Dulman, director
of worldwide government and public sector marketing for
SAP's Business Objects division.
Even small and midsize schools that Business
Objects works with, such as The College of New Jersey and the University of New Hampshire, have benefited
from moving to a single BI platform deployed across all
departments and fully supported by IT, he points out,
adding that the next step universities are likely to take
(already underway in many public-sector settings) is to
move to a shared-services model in which IT charges
departments by usage, based on service level agreements.
"The evolution we usually see is: First, consolidation;
then, the creation of a BI center of excellence," Dulman
maintains; "following that, the move to a shared-services
No doubt, implementing a complex BI system at a small
school or one with limited resources can seem daunting.
But if you're thinking about horror stories of BI software
purchased and still sitting on a shelf somewhere, remember
what Janice Miller and her colleagues at Long Beach City
College were able to accomplish.
Describing herself as "a Commodore 64-era girl," Miller
helped lead the transformation of LBCC's analytical capabilities--
which should indicate that any tech pro with a
sense of commitment to the cause can make strategic BI a
reality on campus. Quips Miller, "We knew we had the data
locked up in our systems. We just had to get at them.