Lead, follow, or get out of the way

Apr 22, 2014

In helping our clients pursue a culture of data informed decision making, the maxim at ASR is" People, Process, and Technology." The technology part is relatively easy; it's the people and the process parts that are hard. At many higher ed institutions, there is an Institutional Research (IR) department that is responsible for reporting most of the public facing statistics. Often called the "Fact Book", it includes data such as enrollment counts, student demographics, retention and graduation rates, etc. This type of quantitative reporting is a classic example of traditional reporting and analysis that forms the foundation of a Business Intelligence (BI) system.

IR will generally partner with us and their Information Technology (IT) team to develop data models and self-service reporting systems that remove the time-consuming burden of manually culling together data into spreadsheets. However, the real IR leaders understand how this BI architecture does more than just improve longitudinal reporting. Ultimately, it will free up their staff to focus on higher value analytics and research including predictive models that can anticipate enrollment trends and course utilization.

Unfortunately, in some cases we have been challenged with IR groups that don't understand the benefits of this automation - perhaps because they see it as losing control of what they are accustomed to doing and aren't sure what their role will be in the new world order. They tend to be marginally engaged throughout the project and at the eleventh hour decide that the BI infrastructure will not meet their needs. In some cases they may attempt to introduce entirely new requirements. This scenario can create significant delays in the rollout and benefit to the campus users as a whole. In other words, IR was not leading, nor following and their actions didn't get them "out of the way" of progress in time for the rollout. In fact, by entrenching themselves in their old processes, they became obstructive.

What's going on here?

This is a typical case of "Who Moved my Cheese" Many IR departments are invested in their processes. They believe that it is their job to do labor-intensive validating of data sets from the transactional systems into Microsoft Excel/Access or even apply high-powered software such as SAS or SPSS to do this manual reporting. They especially want the ability to massage the data to ensure that it fits the business rules that are defined internally or externally. During meetings we will begin to hear concerns that the data models do not contain every attribute that they use today, that the data is not in "real-time," or that the new architecture prevents them from changing business rules for doing research and analysis.

Digging deeper, we find that these objections are invariably unfounded. In fact, the IR staff spend the majority of their time doing repeatable, standardized reporting. This is their comfort zone and unfortunately (for them) it is precisely the burden a good BI system takes away. So how can we encourage true research that is ultimately more important and valuable to the institution?

Moving Forward

In order to get past this challenge you need to ensure the following (note that this works with other entrenched user groups as well):

  1. You need a strong executive sponsor for the project that can keep IR engaged throughout the project and, if needed, has the ability and authority to bring them back to the table.
  2. Ensure there are no technical roadblocks (e.g. significant missing data elements) that would prevent IR from using the system. Another ASR maxim is that the 80-20 rule never works for BI. You need to be closer to the high 90's if you want to move people over to a new reporting and analysis platform. This is especially true for groups that are rooted in a "that's not how we do things here" philosophy.
  3. The IR group has to commit to learning BI and becoming one of the more prominent users of the system. Just like they have honed their Access and Excel skills over the last 20 years, they are going to have to make the same commitment and effort to becoming experts in BI tools. Access and Excel are not secure, and sending around copies of data that can be further manipulated and changed at will from their original is not a sound way to create a data informed culture.
  4. Sometimes, it just takes some more good old-fashioned salesmanship. Pull the naysayers into a meeting and show them what is possible with the new architecture. Also, help them understand that from day one this may not solve all of their challenges out-of-the-box (e.g. State Reporting). Additionally, there may be opportunities to leverage the BI architecture that will help speed up some manual processes that may not be addressed today.

If you cannot bring IR around (or any entrenched group), you may find that they just have to "get out of the way" – for now. This is where a strong executive sponsor can help disarm this type of behavior. For example, ensuring that IT resources will not enable archaic processes via parallel systems, programming support, or other technical assistance. Reinforce that support is focused on the new BI platform when they are ready to take advantage of it. In our experience, if an IR department has to "get out of the way" there is always another enthusiastic group of institutional users ready to move forward with BI. Ultimately, however, it's better for the institution when IR is leading the BI charge with solid partnerships throughout the institution.