Four Steps to Bridging the Business Intelligence Gap in Higher Education

By John W. Webster
Dakota State University

Successful organizations excel in their missions and maintain a competitive edge based in large part on their ability to make faster, better, and smarter decisions than their competitors. Today that means employing data-driven decision making, for which executives demand that their IT groups convert mountains of data from their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and disparate internal and external data sources into rich, meaningful information. Business Intelligence (BI) technology is the key driver in this critical process.

And yet, if you go to an IT conference where higher education is the focus, you’ll find scant few people talking about Business Intelligence technologies. It is far from mainstream conversation. That’s in stark contrast to conferences geared to the corporate market, where you will find executive leadership engaged in all things BI, including conversations and presentations about business analytics, scorecards, dashboards, and green and red lights. That is not to say higher education is devoid of anyone working with BI; there are indeed some stars, but they are more the exception than the rule.

There is a distinct Business Intelligence gap in higher education. What has to be done to bridge that gap? Here are the first steps:

First, learn what to expect from BI and spread the word to decision makers. Higher education executive leadership needs to understand that, from their vantage point, BI is a suite of intuitive, user-friendly business tools, developed with executive decision makers in mind. These tools allow execs to extract exactly the information they need to make their best decisions, even in difficult and murky areas such as revenue inflow management, expenditure anomalies, student behaviors, cost-saving opportunity management, historical trending, and other user-defined decision making needs.

Second, search out models relevant to your institution. Higher education executives and IT leaders should talk with their corporate counterparts or with higher education leaders that possess real-world BI experience to gain an understanding of these powerful tools before asking vendors to respond to an RFI or before attending any informational meetings. In my research I have found a dizzying array of BI tools that range from relatively inexpensive, basic BI applications built by higher education organizations to high-end, fully integrated BI suites that can slice and dice data into anything an executive can imagine and afford.

Of course, you could begin by contacting any number of BI vendors who will provide you with a wealth of information through Webinars, flash demonstrations, and white papers, but these only provide a scripted glimpse of how the tools would relate to your institution’s needs. Instead, visit another college or university that uses BI tools to get a better perspective on the functionality and application of the tools in a higher education environment like yours.

Third, look to vendors with a track record. At this time higher education leaders would be ill-advised to look to their primary ERP vendors for the insights, roadmaps, and BI tools they need right away. These vendors are on the road to creating suites of BI tools for their customers, but truthfully, most organizations would be better served at this point in time by looking to third-party vendors who have years of experience providing these services. At some future date, organizations may want to circle back around to their primary ERP vendors, but for now the major ERP vendors’ BI efforts are simply not ready for prime time.

Finally, don’t think the technology is out of your reach. The technology required to support BI applications is very straightforward, requiring users to invest little in additional technical training. Equally nice is that third-party BI applications generally have the preconfigured capability of drilling into just about any database, making their integration and use less challenging or costly. My observation is that most third-party BI applications are more manageable, less costly, and less likely to fail than ERP systems, making BI a good candidate for consideration.

Today’s dynamic business environment requires speed-of-light decisions, so say goodbye to “green bars” and hello to “green lights.” BI is a manageable, straightforward, user-friendly data management tool, just waiting to help your organization make better decisions. But first be sure to invest the time to understand what you are buying, how it will help you, and how it is supported. After that, you will be ready to unleash the power of BI on your campus. Your decision making will never be the same!

John Webster is PeopleSoft Programs Director at Dakota State University (SD) and the Executive Director of CRESH Inc. Webster will moderate a panel discussion, “How Will Market Consolidation Impact Your ERP Plans?” at the Campus Technology 2006 conference in Boston, July 31-August 3.

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