Business Intelligence

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.

Strategic BI for AllWHEN 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 business intelligence.

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.

Outsourcing Reporting

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."

Changing Landscape

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 model."

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.

comments powered by Disqus