Most colleges recognize the need to have detailed and timely data available for decision making. However, for most, there is an ongoing struggle to achieve this. There are as many reasons for this as there are colleges, each with their own culture, but some stand out: Partly a culture clash between de-centralized decision making and centralized data analysis, partly a lack of expertise in driving tech strategies by campus decision makers, partly a lack of managers knowing how to treat data content as an asset.

Yet there is agreement that campus execs don’t have the data they need in a timely manner to drive their institutions mission forward. Even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research into understanding this phenomenon.

So what does a college president do? Where do you start bridging this great divide?

A good approach is to avoid the temptation to initiate a full culture change all at once, or to launch a multi-year project, or to buy yet another expensive software license from a vendor. These will often collapse short of the goal, meanwhile putting off needed short term changes.

Better to dig into some of the key barriers that hold back progress at your end. By tackling problems in small doses, working on clarifying and fixing them one by one as a group you can build trust with the process, the people, and ultimately the data and technology such that the decision workflow begins to just incorporate data naturally.

Here are five scenarios that make the case:

Your data is not ‘decision ready’

    Colleges collect lots of data, and more all the time. They have libraries of reports – (some of which are actually used!). But there are problems: maybe there’ve been some differences in numbers that are hard to explain, concerns about bad data input or lack of quality checks, difficulty mapping between systems, resources too busy (with what?) to address any of this in the short term.

    Any such concern goes directly to trust. If I’m a decision maker and I don’t fully trust the data I’m looking for any of these reasons, why would I use it in my decision making?
    Start here. Trusted data is used – untrusted data is a large cost of time and money with little or no return. Assemble a team and go deep on a couple of key reports until you come to an agreement on definitions, sources, and corrected values and get the fix done and deployed. Then go for the next report, iterative and systematic until trust is restored.

Your data is not ‘decision supporting’

    You are making a decision and need some information to help. If you’re lucky there’s a report you can run in a list that extracts that answer into Excel. What if you need to get more detail about the sub categories or regions, or both? Or to drill down into the details so that your decision is more finely tuned – and effective?

    Do you have to go through hoops to get such answers? Do you have to get someone, who is no doubt busy, to do something for you? If it’s difficult to use data to support decisions, managers will continue to make decisions the old fashioned way, by ‘gut feel’, backed up by a couple of static spreadsheets. This does not imply that you need to buy software. First, try to get one report into a pivot table that’s easy to access with updated data and begin to change the thinking about possibilities.

Your decision process not yet ‘data informed’

    Perhaps the most common issue – people and process as opposed to data or technology. Even when data is available to help inform decisions about adjusting programs or curriculum, upgrading student services, or taking other steps to improve success, there’s inertia or some other barrier keeping that data from playing the role it should. Change is not easy, and the decision makers may not be trained in strategic use of data. You may need to step back and look at your decision process. ‘How did we miss that?” Perhaps by not looking more closely at the data you had when you made some key decision, or by continuing a long-standing top-down decision process. This has to be a practiced and deliberate shift in your exec meetings.

    Data is democratic – collaborative decision making is too. If you can’t actually make decisions that are dictated by the data in front of you, why bother gathering it?

Silos are a major roadblock

    Colleges are known for de-centralized management – much like other organizations that are led by practitioners. Recruitment, Enrollment, Registrations, Academic Affairs, IR etc. often work with only their specific data, as the student moves through these silos. The students, of course, don’t see it that way. They view the college (more accurately) as a continuum. Having a central database that reflects the needs of these groups in one place will help force cross departmental analysis and create improvements. But inertia and ‘the way we do things here’ can be major impediments. This lack of buy-in is perhaps the single biggest reason why colleges struggle with moving to data driven decision making.

    True collaboration requires that decision makers focus on the truth as it is, not as they may wish to see it.

We need more software!

    Well, probably not. Are you using what you have to its potential? If you bought something would it fit right into your master plan seamlessly? Often there is no real roadmap that connects technology strategy with institution goals – and software purchases are made to address individual issues with little regard to an enterprise plan. Software purchases often come at great expense of time and scarce funds, take longer than expected to deploy, don’t deliver quite as expected, and delay work on anything else, such as the crucial iterative changes referred to above.

    I’m not arguing against good software purchases, if they are part of a strategy and there is a clear plan for how they will help. But you should make sure you don’t put technology first, instead put people first. Use tools you have and dig into the data you have until you understand it, believe it can be useful, and start to trust it in your decision process. With this experience you’ll be in much better shape to understand your own true requirements and payoffs so you can then make informed software purchases.

For many colleges, using data as part of the decision process is a culture change but well worth the effort. Improve your chances of success by learning what’s working well and building from there to address what’s not – step by step. The improvements in small areas will generate the needed incentive and enthusiasm to continue.

Thanks for reading. Please share this with others who might find it of interest. At Smart Data Decisions, we work closely with colleges and universities to address issues like this and help them develop a strong system of sharing data and making informed campus decisions. Our unique approach lets these institutions tackle big challenges in small, manageable steps, which leads to high success rates in achieving change. How can we help your institution this semester? Be sure to follow us on LinkedIn for this and other tips and commentary on helping higher education make better use of their data to enable smart data decisions!