The Future of IR - Opinion Paper

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The Future of Institutional Research -- Business Intelligence
E. Rob Stirton

E. Rob Stirton is the Director of Business Intelligence at Schoolcraft College and CEO and Lead Strategist for Personal (1), LLC.

Currently, at many institutions, institutional research is becoming, or has already become, a "compliance" office.  IPEDS, state reporting, Perkins, gainful employment, net tuition calculators, accreditation updates, program reviews, etc. are on our annual project calendars.  We administer surveys, conduct focus groups, participate in benchmark projects, and provide accreditation data, among many other activities.

We support the U.S. Department of Education’s student aid data requests, coordinate conversions to new race/ethnicity reporting requirements, and are charged to provide data on developmental education on behalf of our institutions. 

Further, the data that result from requests for research are often shared only with the requesting offices; this is a "commissioned" style approach, yet most primary and secondary research findings hold implications for an entire institution, not just a division or department.

Be honest here—do you really know that your college or university uses the data you provide and reports you write to improve programs or services?  Are you confident that the college or university uses the knowledge, insights, and analyses you offer to change processes or improve students’ and employees’ experiences? Too often the answer is “no.” 

For many IR functions, there is often a disconnect between an office’s outputs and subsequent utilization to effect change within the institution or to make strategic (not operational) decisions. 

Does this sound familiar?

So, the question is: Has our purpose changed or is it being morphed into a different function?  Is your IR office, in its current form, improving or sustaining your college or university’s growing need for information?

IR seems to be at a crossroads; either we continue our compliance role (conduct surveys that support accreditation requirements, analyze institution data for the benefit of one department/division, etc.) or carve a new path.

My colleagues and I believe IR, IT, planning, and accreditation are blending; the lines between what used to be separate functions are blurring, and thereby provide an opportunity for a very different and exciting new role for IR—the emerging role of business intelligence.

Think about the differences between the office titles of Institutional Research and Business Intelligence; the names imply dramatically different implications for our work.

We should consider changing our roles within colleges or universities.  In an era of reduced funding, increased transparency, scrutiny, and calls for efficiencies, we must become more "business" savvy, embrace the thinking of for-profit companies, and integrate their techniques into our offices’ functions. 

So, what specifically is routine in business that we can incorporate into higher education? A few examples are provided here to represent practices our office have deployed on campus.

We’ve incorporated automated data processing for state and federal reports, benchmark projects, and other annual routine projects so we can be much more efficient.  We’ve begun mapping our college’s processes.  For example, we mapped what specifically we require of students from the point they apply for admission all the way through registering and paying for courses (take assessment tests, meet with counselors, etc.).  We’ve started to build data mining models to allow us to provide the college with analyses that predict future enrollments, retention rates, and other key components of students’ patterns toward earning degrees.  We perform primary market research using best practices from relevant industries.

This involves very different techniques than the common ones I’ve seen in my 20 years in IR. 

In short, we looked outside of higher education practices and found what was being done at leading businesses and reshaped those techniques to work within our culture, and have begun changing our IR role into a BI function.

Let’s explore a few of the business practices our college embraced in a little more detail.

Identifying each department and division’s purpose provided us with a very different view of our office than gleaned from a typical hierarchical reporting-structure chart. At a grocery store, the bakery provides a very different service than the butcher, which is different than the deli; they have clearly defined roles. So we sought to determine the unique roles each department plays within the college. Each department’s purpose clearly aligns with achievement of the college's mission.  For us, “the mission of the College is to provide a transformational learning experience designed to increase the capacity of individuals and groups to achieve intellectual, social, and economic goals.” And our office’s purpose statement is “to serve as a knowledge repository for the college community; turning data into information that may be used by a variety of stakeholders to support institutional planning and management, policy development, and strategic decision making.” Having such a defined purpose statement allows us to ask ourselves with every project, ”How does what I’m doing, or being asked to do, support achieving the office’s purpose statement?” This provides a clear foundation for understanding our workload within the larger context of the college’s goals.

Also, we saw that businesses are heavily invested in understanding and managing their processes. Why? We discovered that we needed to help our college learn that “performance is based in process.” (If you are accredited by HLC and participate in AQIP and have submitted a systems portfolio, this will ring true to you.) What your students experience through the processes you require is the most important element in enrolling new and retaining current students.  While work flows and job aides are important in order to get work done, true process mapping is a critical service our BI office provides. For example, it identifies the path, all the documents and forms students complete, all the decisions student-facing staff must make, all the hand-offs across offices, and whether documents are paper or electronic, etc. Imagine being a new employee and fully understanding your role within an entire process, one as critical as converting an applicant into an enrolled student, simply by looking at a map. You would immediately understand how what you do not only affects the student, but other employees down the line from your role.

Using computers to do what they do well—automate repeatable processes—makes preparing data for submission quick and easy. We run one data process that produces upload files for multiple systems (IPEDS, our state, benchmark projects, and our data warehouse). Our automated data processing also provides statistical significance testing to identify outliers, conducts data error checks with variable identification for correction, and prepares files in multiple formats, all with one click. While it takes time over a reporting cycle to develop these automated processes, the return on investment is excellent. What took several days for people to complete is now accomplished in several minutes by a computer.

We also are preparing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for display on computers (desktop and mobile), which will allow our staff, faculty, cabinet, and others to interact with data when they choose to do so, not on a schedule directed by annual IR reporting cycles, survey administration timeline, etc.  Again, this leverages the purpose of computing capabilities across the campus. Anchoring the monitoring of the health and future well-being of the institution in KPIs will allow us to increase the number of employees on campus conducting analytical inquiries into data that are valid, reliable, and identical because all come from a common database source and strategies to be designed will influence those measures in meaningful ways.

Preparing predictive models through data mining changes the focus from trends and past performance to future-oriented projections, thereby allowing planning strategies to be based on leading indicators and scenarios, which further leverage our investment in people and computers.  The story changes from describing what happened to foretelling what will likely occur. Providing statistically significant predictive analytics would alter every institution’s approach to Strategic Enrollment Management.

BI, as an integrated office of IR, IT, and planning, provides the strategies, systems integration, critical analytics, and action plans that allow the institution to define and achieve its preferred future and mission.

Now, I know we’ll still need to perform the compliance functions, and we’ll still submit data for benchmark projects, but how we prepare the data will improve.  We’ll still conduct surveys and focus groups, but we’ll incorporate best practices from for-profit market research firms.  We’ll still provide research data, but through data warehouses that allow end-users to conduct analyses. We’ll still provide program review data, but we’ll leverage and incorporate benchmark data.  We’ll still support planning, but will identify KPIs, and distinguish them from results indicators, displayed in dashboards. In short, the work is similar, but the approach is dramatically different.

We’ve accomplished this work by radically changing job descriptions and hiring very different staff than a typical IR office. Instead of research and assessment coordinators, research and data analysts, we hired a business analyst, market research specialist, a data miner, data quality assurance steward, etc.  We appealed to business professionals through business-oriented job postings and through these new staff hires, our vision started to incorporate business practices within the college.

The future of IR is BI. Dedicate time this year to explore business practices, like scenario-building at Shell Oil Company or H.G. Well’s prediction process; examine maturity models, such as TDWI’s business intelligence or Zachman’s framework for enterprise architecture; and join an association that isn’t affiliated solely with higher education, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. 

Let’s keep the conversation going. Provide your thoughts below.



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Total Comments: 2
Wayne posted on 8/3/2012 9:18 AM

I agree with almost everything in your article except the premise that we need to change from IR to BI.

We work in "institutions" not "businesses”.

Having come to the academy with an extensive background in market research and competitive intelligence, I have found that analyzing truckloads, megawatts and students are quite similar. Same tools and thought process, just different “products”.

Yes, we need to look at all industry segments for best practices. Yes, we need to continually look for ways to improve our processes. Yes, we need to continually examine what we do and discern if it is still relevant. Hiring the best people for the work that needs to be done is always a top priority. These are things a good manager and leader should be doing whatever industry we are in.

Excellent management skills are required in higher education as much as in business. Changing from IR to BI is not necessary and only brings in all the baggage that is associated with the term “business” when used in the higher education environment.

Wayne Schneider
Research, Planning &
Institutional Effectiveness
Kent State Univ.
Rob posted on 8/8/2012 8:31 PM
Thank you so much for commenting on the article and I encourage others to do so as well.

Higher education seems to be becoming more business-like with new models for learning, e.g., MIT and Harvard's Edx; free learning from two prominent institutions. Why? What is the underlying reason for this successful adventure started in 2002? It must be based on a business model and may provide a paradigm shift in how learning occurs in the future.

IR, when conceived, didn't include assessment, federal reporting, etc. But, we took on those activities even though they were not a part of our original roles.

My hope for the article was to introduce new ideas for IR offices to consider as another change seems eminent.

Appreciate your comments Wayne. Thank you!