Data-Driven Decision Making

Business Intelligence 101

Utah Valley University uses technology to overcome information overload and get a clearer picture of its operations.

Gathering data isn't much of a problem for colleges in today's information age, but getting that data into a format that's useful for administrators, faculty, and students is a completely different story. To help manage and disseminate the information being generated in this electronic age, some schools are turning to the very source of the overload: the technology itself.

Utah Valley University is one school that's putting technology to use in this regard. According to Joe Belnap, senior director of administrative computing services, the Orem, UT-based institution's need for a better management solution can be traced back to its enterprise system.

"The system stores a lot of information that people weren't able to easily access or extract information from in a timely manner," recalled Belnap. Those accessibility issues varied according to job title, he explained. Administrators, for example, usually need quick "red light, green light" type answers, while directors require more detailed information that's then used to make important decisions.

"We had various levels of need for basically the same types of reports," Belnap said. "Meeting those requests was putting an incredible burden on our IT department."

To help ease that burden, Belnap and his IT team set out in search of a product that could effectively manage the information overload. They were looking for an intuitive, user-friendly option that came with ample vendor support. Also critical was the way in which the new product would integrate with the institution's existing applications.

The project was funded by the university, which put out a request for proposal last spring. Belnap said that while price was a factor, proof of concept was even more important.

"Everyone gives a good sales pitch, but not everyone can come in and use our systems and data and prove that their solution really does what they say it does," said Belnap, who enlisted the help of the college's staff and faculty to evaluate several options and make the final decision. "Our [selection] committee comprised not only technical people, but customers as well."

Utah Valley University selected Information Builders WebFocus BI platform for its new dashboard system and implemented it last year. Belnap said the fact that the system was Web-based and offered in an on-demand format was especially attractive for the school. Such solutions typically come with lower upfront price tags and shorter implementation times.

"We were able to provide a template for ad hoc reports and let the customers generate them on their own, without the IT department's intervention," said Belnap. "For more complex issues, IT could then become involved." The solution also eradicated the need to produce 15 different reports for 15 diverse users, all of whom were essentially accessing the same data.

"Using active reporting, we can send out a report and let the customer manipulate the data any way he or she wants to," said Belnap, "without having to call us." Going from the IT-centric system to one handled primarily by a Web-based system put up a few hurdles for the university, which was intent on creating a seamless transition to the new system.

"[Even though] we're using a third-party portal, we wanted users to have a seamless experience, and not even realize that they were switching to a different product," said Belnap. "We're still working through that." Cultural issues at the university also stood in the way of a smooth transition, thanks to some users' "this is how I've always done it" attitudes.

"It's like any change," said Belnap. "People like their old technology and get used to it and resist having to tackle something new." To overcome that challenge, Belnap said his team has taken a "show and demonstrate" approach to training, hitting users on a case-by-case basis as they present their reporting needs.

The system is working well. "We're now reaching the tipping point where instead of struggling to get people to give us their meaningful projects, we're inundated with them," said Belnap.

Belnap said the business intelligence solution is being used as a dashboard, and for the production of state/government reports. "Right now we're transitioning our Perkins Report over to the system so it can be generated without needing any tweaks," said Belnap. "Previously, each time a regulation was changed we had to rewrite the report."

The solution is also being used to generate reports for internal use. A general advisor, for example, can access the institution's enterprise database, pulling up only the applicable students' information without having to sift through superfluous data in search of those names. Another function allows the same staff member to extract a listing of at-risk students and then feed the data into a report that can be printed out and used to track those students' progress.

With the initial learning curve now behind it, Utah Valley University is now producing reports in a faster, more efficient manner and is looking to upgrade its enterprise-wide information system in the near future. Belnap said complaints like, "This is what I asked for, but it's not what I want," are fewer and fewer, thanks to the fact that users get "exactly what they want, even if they don't always know what to ask for."

Belnap said the improved access to information and reporting accuracy has also resulted in better decision-making by the school's staff and faculty. The administrator who comes to a meeting armed with a simple report, instead of having to pore over reams of data to find answers, said Belnap, is the one who can respond quickly and make the most education decisions.

"Our system displays all of the relevant data on a user-friendly dashboard, allows users to quickly prioritize and keep track of everything," said Belnap, "to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks."

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