Five tips for faster, data-informed decision making

Three universities share their best practices

By Georgia Mariani, SAS Global Industry Marketing Manager for Education

Have you ever been in a meeting that begins with people sharing thoughts and ideas but turns into a quagmire of conflict? Everyone thinks their information is correct, and time is spent discussing who or which report is right instead of understanding the issues and identifying a course of action. Before you know, the hour is up and nothing has been decided. 

Without a single trusted source of truth and easy-to-use tools for interpreting and understanding data, this is an all too common scenario. With data spread across dozens of departments, schools and campuses, universities have been dealing with the problem of disjointed information and difficult decision making for a long time.

To better understand how colleges and universities are deploying and using data visualization for data-informed decision making, SAS interviewed experts from three educational institutions: Western Kentucky University, University of Connecticut and Sinclair Community College. This paper, Best Practices for Modernizing Enterprise Decision Making, summarizes what they learned – things that are applicable to any organization.

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Advice from educational experts on data-informed decision making

Data visualization reveals patterns that you wouldn't see using business intelligence tools.

Tuesdi Helbig
Director of Institutional Research
Western Kentucky University

#1. Create a centralized enterprise reporting system

“Enterprise reporting systems give you a single source of the truth,” says Tuesdi Helbig, director of Institutional Research at Western Kentucky University (WKU). “They integrate data from systems across the enterprise and validate and reconcile data from different sources.”

As an example, Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, deployed an enterprise reporting system that helped them move from decentralized to centralized reporting for everything from enrollment and academic affairs to compliance.

“We deployed a federated data warehouse to capture data from about 20 to 25 years and over time layered SAS Business Intelligence and SAS Visual Analytics on top of it to surface information for our users,” says Karl Konsdorf, Sinclair’s acting director of Research, Analytics and Reporting. He says that is key to helping people answer complex “why” questions like why student are dropping out and not just the “what” questions such as how many dropped out last year.

He adds, “Centralizing the data from disparate sources into one reporting platform allows us to use data as a strategic asset, so it is not just the byproduct of operational transactions.”

#2. Clean and validate your data

This is a point emphasized by all successful organizations. “If you do not have good, clean data, the credibility of your system will be in doubt and it will not be used,” says Helbig. She says at Western Kentucky Univeristy they have spent “inordinate amounts of time” cleaning data so sound data-informed decisions can be made.

Konsdorf agrees. “People need to have trust in in the data that they are consuming – that the data they are looking at and analyzing is correct. Otherwise they won’t use it.” Data validation is very fundamental to the success of any analytic or data visualization endeavor.

#3. Go beyond business intelligence with data visualization

All of these educational experts have taken their institutions beyond reporting and business intelligence by implementing data visualization software. They agree everyone wants to interact with data independently, explore it quickly and understand it faster by visualizing patterns and trends.

“Data visualization tools reveal patterns that you wouldn’t see if you were using business intelligence tools,” says Helbig. “These tools make it faster and easier to dig into tons of data and get meaningful results. You don’t even have to know all the questions to ask…simply seeing the data visually generates questions you didn’t know to ask.” She said SAS Visual Analytics helps users at Western Kentucky University see things they might have missed. “They can explore trends further by digging into the data to understand why things happened.”

WKU also uses analytics and data visualization software to support institutional research and reporting. With data at their fingertips, leaders are now able to ask more complex questions. It’s no longer how many students we have. It’s more about how to make these students more successful. What are the stumbling blocks for these students, and how can the university alleviate those?

#4. Meet a wide range of reporting needs

Sinclair Community College uses SAS to surface reports and visualizations that are easily consumable by users. With a focus on student success initiatives, analytics are used to identify at-risk students and the interventions they need to get back on track. To increase course completion rates and ensure students earn labor-market value credentials, analytics are used to target completion rates and classroom efficiency.

Sinclair’s Konsdorf says building trust is important, but you must provide real information decision makers can act on. In addition to making sure data is of high quality, it must be presented in an easily consumable format. He says, “We don’t want just charts and graphs. We want something that’s meaningful, that’s targeted, and that an individual chair or faculty can connect with. We want them to connect with the data, just like they would with a student. We make sure the visualizations we present are relatable and actionable.”

#5. Create a culture of data use

Finally, it is important to cultivate a culture that embraces data-informed decision making. Securing executive leadership is important, as is empowering people with self-service reporting. Konsdorf says SAS Visual Analytics has opened up analytics to a whole new set of business users at Sinclair Community College. “They can now take care of most needs themselves because it’s so easy to use and renders data so quickly.”

Top executives like the president and provost require vital information at their fingertips to make data-informed decisions. The University of Connecticut (UConn) offers a dashboard that includes data from student and faculty information systems. And they plan to add human resource, finance and accounting data, as well as data from a research information system, to create a more powerful and complete visual portal.

In this video, Sivakumar Jaganathan, executive director of UConn’s data warehouse and business analytics efforts explains how giving leaders instant information to answer questions makes everyone look good.

“Executives love it when they are sitting at say, a Board of Regents meeting, and can easily pull up evidence-based justification for funding. For instance, they can show that additional resources are required to meet the needs of rapidly growing departments. The analytics bolster their negotiating power,” said Jaganathan.

Download the white paper to learn more about best practices for simplifying data access, empowering people with visualizations and providing insights for better data-informed decision making.


Georgia Mariani

Georgia Mariani is the SAS Global Product Marketing Manager for the Education Industry. A 17-year SAS veteran, Mariani works with customers to share best practices, successes and recommendations that enable education institutions to get the most productive insights from their data.


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