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BI | Viewpoint

An Intelligent Use of Business Intelligence

The Houston Community College System is operationally decentralized, with six colleges and 26 campuses spread out across 660 square miles. With faculty and staff running their own reports in different formats using data from various sources and time periods, it was not uncommon last year to find six different versions of the same report. HCC’s Vice Chancellor of Information Technology explains how a BI solution implemented in the past year has provided centralized online reporting, a dashboard, and consistent information for better decision making.

One of the most defining things about the Houston Community College System is our diverse student body. We have a combination of traditional, part-time and continuing education students, and this means that our Information Technology and Institutional Research departments need to have a cohesive way of organizing the wealth of information from our students’ varied backgrounds.

Transfer credits and grades, class enrollment, drop/add status and more all need to be integrated so that our academic advisors and other administrators can easily access the information and use it to make better recommendations for our students, all in real-time. HCC also needs to track outcomes across multiple semesters and years. For example, how many of our student job placements were successful? How satisfied are students with their learning experiences at HCC? Tracking key performance indicators like these are extremely important for our administrators, to serve our student population and develop future solutions that are mapped to their needs.

A year ago, we implemented our BI solution, from Information Builders, to provide a platform for users to reference one constant source of information in a common, accessible format. This offers a solid foundation for decision-making and analysis. Important factors in this selection were to be able to scale up quickly to meet the demands of our academic calendar, and to ensure a smooth integration with our existing and planned infrastructure, which includes PeopleSoft, Oracle’s data warehouse solution, Hyperion and OBIEE technologies.

We were able to implement the initial components of the dashboard and have them operational within just two months. The dashboard includes nine categories of information, all of which are accessible via a simple set of tabs on a Web page. The categories include: Access, Completions, Faculty Ratios, Financial Aid, Persistence/Retention, Placement, Satisfaction, Student Engagement and Transfer. The information related to each of these categories is displayed through colorful charts and graphs, which gives users the capability to drill down into the various aspects of the data that hold the most interest for them. For example, the Transfer tab reveals where students with academic and technical certificates go after they leave our college, whether that would be to another university or to accept a job offer.

The benefits of BI extend beyond KPIs like transfer and placement. With the dashboard, our board members can easily keep tabs on the accountability measures that are most important to the college, our staff don’t need to print hardcopy reports for budget meetings, and our in-house analysts save time--easing the burden on our IT department and increasing efficiency overall.

One of the most challenging aspects of managing IT in an academic setting is the discrepancy in user skills. Our dashboard had to be designed to incorporate features for our diverse audience, ranging from board members who want a pictorial view of the college’s enrollment to faculty who need to drill down into specifics at the program level. Each component is designed to address one key indicator, providing trends where appropriate. The data are easily updated as they become available during the work cycle.

Another challenge we faced in the project involved pulling vast quantities of data together from many sources so users could complete all information requests from one central system. To do this, we created a data warehouse merging information from enterprise applications such as PeopleSoft with survey data and other types of operational information into one environment. Prior to this data warehouse, our staff and administrators had to use disparate methods to collect and analyze performance metrics, statistics and other vital information about the college. By allowing our employees to view this data from a single source, we’ve given them the tools they need to make critical decisions with greater insight, which is benefitting us at every level of our organization.

We’ve finished our first year using our academic dashboard and have been supremely pleased with the results. By having instantaneous access to historical student data, our staff and administrators have been able to make more informed decisions that have benefited both our students and our faculty. By using trend data available on the dashboard, HCC is addressing the pressing needs related to smart growth and limited budgets. We are better able to monitor changes in student educational outcomes like graduation and transfer rates while demonstrating to our constituencies that we are aware of issues like financial aid that impact our students’ abilities to accomplish their educational goals. In addition to meeting our immediate needs, the dashboard also gives us a platform to incorporate future BI applications, so we’ll be able to keep our system current as our requirements change.

About the Author

William E. Carter is the Vice Chancellor of Information Technology for the Houston Community College System.

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