For any college or university that has experienced the challenge of implementing a campuswide business intelligence (BI) initiative, the experience of Wright State University (OH) should be an inspiration and a reminder not to give up too easily.
Five years ago, Wright State made investments in an enterprise data warehouse, operational data store and the Cognos reporting tool from IBM. But the technology’s potential was never fully realized. Cognos ended up being used as a static reporting mechanism, meeting various state reporting obligations as well as some day-to-day reporting needs of the university — but not operating as a true BI tool.
Then in 2013, Wright State began transforming its budget model to one that emphasized entrepreneurialism and innovation, and the need for BI tools became more pressing. “We realized that in order for that model to be successful at the unit level, we needed to provide the tools for people in a self-service approach,” said Mark Polatajko, vice president for business and finance and chief financial officer for the university. “We realized that this underutilization was driving the manner in which we work. We have a lot of analysts’ time and effort focused on the compilation and development of reporting instead of the value-added aspect of emphasizing analytics.”
The first step, a gap analysis, found several problems that had to be addressed, he said. First, users were frustrated with errors due to inconsistent report setups. Reports created to analyze similar information could bring back very different results because they used different underlying algorithms that are not transparent to the user. Users also felt an urgency to get the data, yet they were dependent on Wright State’s limited number of data specialists for help. That increased the workload of the data specialists and slowed the turnaround time for data-related requests. Frustrated by these roadblocks, users often created their own databases — essentially Excel files housed on their computer desktops. A significant amount of time and energy was spent on maintaining these databases rather than performing data analyses.
“We realized that it is crucial that this be self-service,” Prabhala said. “More importantly, you have everyone looking at a single version of the truth.”
Following a thorough assessment of user needs and technology capabilities, Prabhala and his team identified three focus areas (student, finance and human resources); four key performance indicators (KPIs) for each of the focus areas; and the corresponding attributes for each of the KPIs. For example, the KPIs for the student focus area are application, enrollment, retention and graduation. For an initial pilot, the BI team worked with leadership from the college of business, college of engineering, institutional research and enrollment management. “We quickly realized there was a lot of momentum and others wanted to jump on board as quickly as possible, so it was sort of a self-fueling fire,” Polatajko said.
Once the results of the pilot were shared with the council of deans and the cabinet, the project team decided it was time to broaden the scope across the university and emphasize development of key dashboards and analytics with data-mining capabilities.
The Wright State executives see the BI initiative a foundational building block that will allow them to do more advanced analyses and predictive modeling in the future. That has become increasingly important because Ohio is the first state in the U.S. for which 100 percent of its universities’ funding formula is based on course completion and degree completion.
“Retention and getting people to the finish line is of the utmost importance, so we are aligning our activities, our data analytics and our systems in order to drive course completions, retention of students and degree completion,” Polatajko said. “When we do that successfully, we are getting rewarded in terms of our share of the state operating funds we get to fund our activities. That is huge.”