Business Intelligence Solutions Enable Data-Driven, Strategic Decision-Making

By Michael Hites, New Mexico State University (NM)

Anyone who has developed a comprehensive strategic plan knows that it is a time-consuming process that requires the input of many people. However, the process is merely basic training when compared to undertaking the implementation of enterprise-wide business intelligence solutions. Implementing business intelligence solutions – and fostering the necessary accompanying cultural change – is a lengthy, yet necessary and satisfying experience.

Michael Hites

At New Mexico State University, our vision of a unified campus is more than a single point of access to services and information; it also means a unified voice. We want all authorized staff to have access to consistent and historical data. An institution’s data ultimately affects funding, public perception, and decision-making. How can we expect people to make good decisions if the data is not consistent and accurate? Right now, it’s easy for a department to pick and choose the numbers they want to make something look more or less attractive, depending on their desired outcome. At our university, we want the phrase “my data” to be replaced with “institutional data." For this reason, we are in the midst of a five-year process to build and implement a secure Operational Data Store and Enterprise Data Warehouse from SunGard Higher Education.

The first step in our process was to make sure that the data in our administrative systems was consistent and reliable. We chose Banner as our administrative system because all the data is stored in one integrated database. Without this integrated database, we would not be able to trust the data because multiple (and conflicting) entries could exist for a single person.

Now we are in the process of moving data from Banner into the Operational Data Store (ODS), and then into the Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDW). The ODS contains current operational data formatted for ease of operational and ad hoc reporting. The EDW contains detailed, historical data that is transformed into formats that support analytical reporting and analysis. In the past we developed our own data warehouse that began to provide us with the benefits of business intelligence. However, the time and effort required to build and maintain it became a major drain on our IT organization. By implementing the packaged warehouse, we’ve offloaded the integration and maintenance and freed up our IT organization to focus on other priorities while also allowing new capabilities to be rolled out faster.

We went live with the data store in our human resources and finance departments in 2005 and are now implementing the data warehouse for these departments. We are underway with the implementation of the data store for our student, financial aid, and advancement departments. Implementation of the enterprise data warehouse for these departments will begin after the data store is up and running.

But before migrating the data to these business intelligence solutions for each department, we must ask ourselves: “What are we moving over, who needs access to it, and how will they access it?” These answers cannot be gleaned by asking only top administrators. It requires meetings at the departmental level with all functional user groups on campus.

We have thousands and thousands of people who have had access only to limited and static data. It is difficult for some of them to even envision the information that would be useful to them. Also, some people are not accustomed to participating in planning. The sheer number of people, and their varying backgrounds, has made the input-gathering process quite lengthy. However, we have found it effective to present people with examples of paper reports, followed by a demonstration of the capabilities of the business intelligence solutions. Then we ask them what they want to accomplish, as opposed to asking for the data they would like to access. We also ask them for a list of the information that they can provide to others for their planning. It has been very gratifying to gather the departments’ input and then develop the operational data that meets their individual needs.

We knew there was a pent-up demand for information, but we have been taken aback at how eagerly our staff is embracing the business intelligence solutions. Several departments, like enrollment management, had already created new staff positions dedicated to report writing and business analysis. Departments are clamoring for more information. Once users understand the power of the data store and the data warehouse, they are eager to have them operational.

Transforming data into intelligence is critical for our institution to be effective and successful. Information empowers our staff to make effective decisions. Executives need information in order to optimize classes, measure student information in terms of enrollment growth or loss, and measure the cost of programs and their outcomes. They must understand our pipeline of students from the time they are prospects to the time they apply, the time they enroll, and every step from that point on. The need and quest for information has always been present, but the technology was not commercially available until recently. Users need to have accurate data more than ever because we no longer have the budget to make a wrong decision.

Although the process of building our data store and warehouse is a lengthy one, it is necessary to the success of the university. And quite frankly, the process has been enjoyable because of the numbers of people involved throughout the university. We are affecting a true cultural change as well as providing people with the access and information they need to make data-based decisions that will strengthen the university.

Michael Hites is chief information officer at New Mexico State University.

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