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Business Intelligence Growing in Popularity in Higher Ed

Well placed technology tools for information management have traditionally been a way for IT to cut costs while improving services. Business intelligence (BI) software is a good example, with more colleges and universities beginning to see better data sorting, analysis, and reporting tools as a ticket to smoother, less costly operations.

Information Builders, for example, which offers its WebFocus business intelligence and reporting tool to higher ed with specific templates tailored to education, says it has seen growth of 150 percent in its higher education business in North America over the last two years.

When implemented correctly and used well, BI tools can help get critical decision-making information to the right people with less IT intervention. A good BI tool can also clean up data, reduce inefficiencies, and streamline the process of preparing necessary reports such as those often mandated by the state.

For example, 25,000-student San Jacinto College in Harris County, Texas, recently implemented WebFocus as a better way to extract data from its SCT Banner enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. "As with many ERP systems, you can get the data in there all right, but getting it out in a meaningful way for users is somewhat of a challenge," according to Suzanne DeBlanc, director of data management at San Jacinto College.

Until recently, her 15-member team wrote and modified reports on request to meet user needs. But with WebFocus in place, administrators can do much of that themselves, choosing reports and even tweaking their own parameters in some cases to produce exactly the sets of data they want.

So far, the college has rolled out the new system to a select group of about 30 high-end users including the president and vice president, chancellor and vice chancellors--administrators who deal with issues such as demographics, student enrollments and student accounts. She plans to make additional WebFocus reports available over the next few months, DeBlanc said, and to a wider range of people. The eventual user number will be at least double the current set, she predicted. To give users quick, visual access to data, her group has also built executive and operational dashboards, and will be adding more as time goes on.

The college worked with an Information Builders' consultant for about a week on the initial installation. Another eight weeks or so of on and off consulting help followed; also helpful was a trip to an Information Builders' user conference. Her staff also did reading and training on their own, LeBlanc said. The installation, which began in May, culminated with a rollout into production near the end of August.

Learning the intricacies of a new software product can be challenging, LeBlanc said, but she's hugely enthusiastic about both the product and the process. "I'll tell you what, we're not going to be bored. We have seen the possibilities with WebFocus. We've got a lot of things to learn... [including] new ways of getting to the data and presenting the data, but it's going to be a treat over time, I think."

Another institution finding success with its BI tool is Tarleton State University, whose main campus is in Stephenville, Texas. The university has close to 10,000 students currently enrolled and according to Brad Chilton, executive director of the university's Office of Planning, Evaluation and Institutional Research, the school has been using WebFocus since late 2006 as a vehicle to give a range of users access to data about the university.

Through both a public Web site and a password-site protected meant only for students, faculty and staff, WebFocus is used to offer a controlled inroad to the university's student information system, Banner, as well as other systems such as financial aid. The BI software is also used to prepare reports for the Texas state board governing aspects of higher education.

In one use, data is extracted daily about both registered students and those applying for admission. That allows administrators to compare enrollment patterns historically based on student characteristics, using some 30 different attributes stored in the data warehouse, Chilton said. "It gives us an historical reference; we use WebFocus to compare enrollment patterns for this day this year versus this day last year; we can do the same thing for students who applied for admission... The comparisons have been very handy."

A popular WebFocus report at Tarleton is a new student advising report that is run on all incoming students as they attend orientation sessions. It summarizes a range of student information, including previous courses taken, credits, and grades, testing information, and eligibility for advanced courses. Advisers can use the report to immediately spot holes in a student record that can block them from being able to register. Just a few years ago, according to Bonnie Hurford, senior database developer, that sort of report "was done by hand by student workers. I don't know how they managed it. Now it takes maybe five or ten minutes to run, where it might have taken a week to run a few years ago."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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