Colleges Drill Down with Business Intelligence

Business intelligence entered Florida State University the way its students do — through the admissions office. The university deployed BI software in the late 1990s to fine-tune its selection process, ensuring that more promising prospects applied and that admitted students were prepared for academic success once they arrived on the […]

Business intelligence entered Florida State University the way its students do — through the admissions office.

The university deployed BI software in the late 1990s to fine-tune its selection process, ensuring that more promising prospects applied and that admitted students were prepared for academic success once they arrived on the Tallahassee campus. BI proved so useful to the admissions team that FSU launched a universitywide initiative in 2007 to enable analytics on its PeopleSoft Financial and HR data, says Byron Menchion, associate director for ERP reporting at FSU.

“We broadened the scope and complexity of BI to include the entire enterprise. Now we use it in many other aspects of academic ­affairs and extended BI to the ­finance and human resource administrative areas,” Menchion says.

The adoption of BI projects at institutions like FSU is growing, as those institutions are increasingly digitizing the mountains of information they collect, making data more readily available for analysis, says Dan Vesset, vice president of business analytics research at IDC. Like businesses, colleges and universities hope to glean greater insights, efficiencies and decision support typically provided by BI.

“Universities increasingly treat students like customers.”

“Universities increasingly treat students like customers,” Vesset says. “They want to improve the way they deliver services, distribute their resources and run their businesses. BI can help them do those things.”

FSU’s BI platform, Oracle ­Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, was selected because it integrates tightly with the university’s PeopleSoft HR and Financial systems. As it moved to OBIEE, the university also invested other tools in Oracle’s BI stack: ­PeopleSoft ­Enterprise Performance ­Management, a data integration tool, and Oracle databases. The ­solution now works across all major functions of the university.

Managers who previously ­received key reports once a month can now access information on their ­dashboards at any time, leading to more informed decisions.

In addition to improved financial management, BI has resulted in simplified auditing and increased staff productivity, Menchion says: “With our BI tools, there are reports that used to take more than a month to create that we can now do in less than a week.”

Academic departments use BI for course management, projecting staffing levels and following trends in student performance. Students don’t use the technology directly, but BI significantly improves their experience at FSU, Menchion says.

“The goal is to create a great student-centered environment, and BI contributes to that,” he says. “The general quality of service is better, and it helps to more effectively manage student academic progress, properly allocate the resources they need and improve course offerings.”

Access to Analytics


Percentage of respondents who say their universities have increased course offerings in BI/BA since 2010, according to a recent survey of students and faculty by BI Congress III

SOURCE: “The State of Business Intelligence and Business Analytics in Academia 2012” (BI Congress III, February 2013)

At the University of Washington in Seattle, BI has evolved steadily since the school invested in its first tools in 2006, says Anja Canfield-Budde, senior manager for decision support services. The BI governance ­policies UW developed in 2008, which provided role-based access to data and reports, were the real key to the long-term success of BI initiatives there, she says.

UW deploys Microsoft SQL Server BI and has been shifting from a strong emphasis on using the technology for operational ­reporting toward increased use of ­analytics. The IT team also is working to provide ­executive dashboards for nontechnical users in a move toward more self-service BI.

“We want to give wide access to analytic information to help answer questions in all subject areas,” she says. “UW uses the technology on all the main lines of information in the university: student data, financial data, data about space and resources.”

Clearly defining data ­models and eliminating data silos are critical so that BI provides a “single ­version of the truth” across the user community, Canfield-Budde says. Buy-in from university administration and subject matter experts, as well as making sure that the data ­warehousing/BI team has appropriate skills in key roles, also are ­essential to BI success.

BI’s true capabilities can be realized only when business and ­academic users work with IT to define high-value metrics and queries, FSU’s Menchion says. Because needs change, an organization should ­approach business intelligence as a dynamic process with evolving goals and metrics.

Analytics for Action

Administrators crave context and the ability to put things in perspective, to understand what it all means, says Cornell University’s ­Assistant Director of Data Operations Tony Damiani. The Ithaca, N.Y., university ­migrated to Oracle OB technology in 2008 to provide central administration financial analytics and planning support. By 2012, OB version 11 was deployed, providing top administrators with dashboard access to an array of both business and student data and analytics. The goal for the next phase is to provide a wider audience with the capability to drill down through a consistent store of data with increasing analytic detail.

“We can present a lot of high-level metrics, along with metadata so administrators can know the story the data is telling,” he says. “We want many more of our users to have access to what their data means.”

Clear and careful definition of the goals and key metrics is crucial, IDC’s Vesset says. Once an information-sharing strategy and the proper metrics are in place, stakeholders need to actually use the information.

“BI is not just about deploying software,” he says. “People have to have confidence in the reports and analysis, and take action.”

Serve Up Self-Service

A partnership between IT and business users is essential to the long-term success of any BI initiative, says Florida State University’s Byron Menchion. That collaboration begins with ­defining data models and queries, and when the process goes well, culminates in self-service BI.

“We encourage self-service reporting and seek feedback in our community dashboards,” he says. “Self-service helps to maintain user buy-in and, though we have an extensive support network, it takes some pressure off the IT staff.”

At the University of Washington, Anja ­Canfield-Budde says self-service broadens ­access to the benefits of BI: “Availability of information is the goal, so we try to provide a stable suite of BI tools for seamless self-service.”

It’s up to IT to ensure access to BI reports, and analysis is extended to busy — and, often, nontechnical — users, Cornell’s Tony Damiani says. “We work to give [faculty] the fewest clicks from where they start to the information they need,” he says.

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