Cultivating a Data Culture in Higher Education

eAIR recently spoke with editors Kristina Powers, President, K Powers Consulting and Angela E. Henderson, Director of Institutional Research & Effectiveness, Stetson University, about their recent volume, Cultivating a Data Culture in Higher Education.

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Kristina Powers and Angela E. Henderson

eAIR: What is a data culture?

Great question! In fact – this is the very first thing that we focus on in chapter 1 (page 3) of the book because it is a common question. “At the core level, a data culture focuses on the use of information to make sound decisions that help an institution attain a competitive gain. It is not a focus on numbers, but rather on effective use of resources to make advantageous decisions. Let us be clear that a data culture is not a reliance on figures at the expense of individuals with subject matter expertise within the institutions.”

eAIR: What does it mean to be a change agent within your institution?

People often think of a change agent as someone who is a senior leader because they have the ability to make change. While this is true, change can occur by people throughout the organization at all levels. Given your role and responsibilities, consider who you work with and what change is needed within your sphere of influence. Everyone has some influence. Even little changes can create noticeable impact. For example, an analyst brought forward a thoughtful proposal on how to improve data quality that frustrated her. While she had intended for me to make the change based on the information she shared with me, I encouraged her to see that the most appropriate person to evoke the change was her since she knew the issue and players better than I did.

eAIR: Who is the right person to lead a data culture and what are some strategies to kick off a data culture discussion at my institution?

There is no one “right” person to lead a data culture. This is why it makes identifying a data culture leader so difficult. Let’s take finance-related matters as an example. If one has a question about policies and practices as it relates to travel reimbursements, one would typically consult with someone in finance or business services. Since data is used across the institution by many people, there are many people who could lead a data culture – or a committee of data leaders to collectively utilize the group’s talents.

Once data leaders are identified, the next focus is on action. There are a number of strategies to initiate discussion of an institutional data culture. Here are just a few:

  • Realize that to many the word “data” suggests a stigma of complexity. Grounding initial discussions around “information” rather than “data” can facilitate ease and acceptance.

  • Host open forums to allow stakeholders from all areas to gather and discuss current uses and challenges of institutional data and processes.

  • Collect broad feedback to assess your current culture; identify common data structures, goals, opportunities, and potential roadblocks.

  • Broadly disseminate information on key metrics to promote awareness and shared understanding and ownership of data. That which matters is measured.

  • Designate a data agent to shepherd the process. For maximum effectiveness, this individual should be a data enthusiast rather than a data expert or administrator. This key role requires a person who is known for results, relationship building, and motivating change.

eAIR: What is the risk to institutions that do not develop a data culture?

Institutions tend to be data rich and information poor, awash with data points yet lacking processes to transform that data into actionable insight. In short, institutions without a data culture make decisions without knowing the whole story. Such decisions have the potential to have substantial impact upon students, faculty, staff, alumni, and prospective students - to name just a few. Without a cohesive data culture in place, decisions with widespread implications are made in isolation and campus mythologies seep into the decision-making process which can influence outcomes. 

Interested readers can view the entire full text of the book through October 20, 2018.



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