Dashboards and Data Viz | Higher Education

“Reports” is a vague word these days.

It’s common for administrators at an institution of higher education to inquire about “reporting” tools and their interest comes from a variety of different places. Pressure to produce accurate reports can come from the board, accreditation organizations, system office, Deans, parents, donors or alumni. It also stems from a lack of relevant information about how well administrators have progressed toward realizing strategic planning goals. Many institutions have settled for antiquated tools and methodology, resulting in numbers and information with different versions of the data.

If you were to ask two different cabinet members about the current enrollment this week versus last year, chances are you’ll hear different answers. And, most likely, you’ll hear a number of questions before a shaky answer comes out. “All students or just Full Time? Online learners too? What about our Part Time students? What about Awards or Certificate students? Do we count those as Part Time?”

So let’s fast-forward to the part where it has been determined that “We need insight into our data for better and more accurate decision making!”

Sounds good, right?
The next logical step is that a committee is formed, comprised of executives, data champions, IT & IR, key faculty and additional administrative employees. Many educational organizations want to include opinions and expertise from all areas of campus. It is important to understand who all the stakeholders are and what they want out of the available data.

Still sounds good, so far.
Committees from higher education institutions should address what’s important to monitor, who should have access and what capabilities different people should have with the “reporting” tool. In many instances, IT and IR departments typically start looking in the market for industry leaders and possibly talk to peers in their network about what reporting tools they use on their campus.

Sounds like we are making solid traction, right?
Now it’s time to test the different higher education reporting tools. During product evaluations, the project managers will see many differences in these tools. The most glaring difference is the distinction between “reporting” tools and dashboard tools. Many systems have different core competencies and, sure, there is some crossover functionality, but the truth is that any reporting tool with a charting add-on or component is going to be too limited and won’t sustain heavy editing. Any dashboard tool that claims to have an enterprise ready, ad-hoc reporting tool to satisfy all higher education reporting needs may not be representing itself as accurately as one would hope. A tool that works wonders for one campus might become “shelfware” on another.

Read next: Top 10 Dashboard Mistakes to Avoid

What do we need?
It’s all about what your needs require. People use the word “report” interchangeably and it can mean a number of different things. “Reports” could be dashboards, spreadsheets, summarized data, KPIs, or scorecards…

Do you want a 30 second, at-a-glance tool that users can quickly access without requesting anything from IT or IR? Implement a higher education dashboard. Do you want a data analyst to build queries, summarize it and send out those people in a .pdf? Well, a reporting tool might just be a fit. What a number of higher education institutions find is that they need more than one tool in their business intelligence (BI) toolkit. Chances are you need both reporting and higher education dashboards for different users and audiences.

OK, so we need both. Now what?
One vendor will not satisfy an education institution’s needs for predictive modeling, ad-hoc reporting, dashboards, warehousing, data manipulation and so on. Some of the big BI companies claim to have modules to satisfy these needs. After a few years of potentially heavy IT and consultant development, often upwards of a $1M investment, late nights, countless lost weekends and missed deadlines, most higher ed institutions will seek out the specialized tools that focus and deliver on what they do best.

Where do you get your sushi?
I always go to a sushi restaurant when I’m craving spicy tuna rolls. It would be nice if within the same restaurant, my friend could order a top-notch cheeseburger and we could have Italian gelato for dessert. Unfortunately, this magical restaurant only exists in my culinary dreams. The most successful sushi restaurants aren’t the greatest at making cheeseburgers or Italian cuisine. They solely focus on what they do best and perfect it.

The same goes for reporting tools. It makes sense to use an organization for your higher education dashboard and reporting tools that is an expert in the field. It is important to trust your critical data to the masters – quality matters in reporting, just like in sushi. It may take bit of extra attention up front, but using a few different and strategic tools in your BI toolkit will set you up for a successful business intelligence dashboard initiative.


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