How Technology May Change the Horizon of IR

By Zhao Yang, Financial Planning Manager, University Budget Office, Old Dominion University 

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. All content is used with the permission of the author.

This article originally appeared in the OCAIR Newsletter (June 2014, Vol. 18), which can be found at This version of the article varies slightly from the original based on grammatical edits and changes made by the author prior to publishing in eAIR.


During the industrial revolution, the progression of occupation was measured by the level of machinery use. Craftsmen were replaced by massive industrial production lines. With the invention of the computer, the new wave of advancement of occupations has been underway. For most data processing occupations, the measure for the progression is the level of less human-interaction and more automation.

IR, as a data processing and analytical occupation, is still at the craftsman level, or the machine-aided hand-production stage, if we compare it to the history of industrial revolution. There are many intensive manual coding procedures and shadow databases for ad-hoc requests and surveys, as well as hard coding for individual records. In addition, industrial (software) standards and documentation procedures are inadequate, which affects the data quality and efficiency. IR jobs are indispensable because IT professionals usually do not possess the intimate knowledge of underlying relationships and practical definitions of data and databases, some data may even reside under different external systems, in order to respond to the various federal and state reports, surveys and internal queries. IR professionals often rely on their access to all data hosted by various systems to fulfill their duties. On the other hand, it is not practical or economical to outsource those jobs as the above mentioned requests are year-round and usually the requests are time- and/or content-sensitive.

Will this craftsman-level operation change with rapid technology advancement in the information industry? Or is there a need for such a change?

The Need for Integrated Industrial Modules for IR Reporting and Analysis

Stephen J. Toope, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia said in January 2014, “If universities cease to be highly differentiated, specific places with distinctive personalities, we will undermine the intellectual diversity needed to produce the catalysis that ignites new ideas, new discoveries and healthy social, cultural and economic innovation.” 1 Indeed, educational diversity is necessary to preserve creativity diversity. We must keep the characteristics of individual institutions to avoid each university resembling a Macdonald or Holiday Inn franchise.

On the other hand, in economic terms, customization or individualization means labor intensive and higher cost. In the past thirty years, college tuition and fees have increased twelve-fold, four times faster than consumer price index and doubled the increase of medical expenses, according to Bloomberg 2. In order to reduce the skyrocketing cost of higher education while maintaining faculty and teaching quality, the service side of higher education has to be contained. This means the business side of higher education needs to rely more on standardized/industrialized platforms for cost-cutting and process efficiency. On most campuses, large IT systems, such as student records management and student-learning systems, have been using commercial systems rather than self-developed ones. This trend will continue, and will cover all areas of campus administrative operation, including IR reporting and analytics.

The need for a standardized/industrial module for IR also comes from the trend that technology improvement creates a self-reinforcing cycle where all stakeholders are impacted. In this cycle, more data are created and become available because of technology advancement, including widespread use of internet, wireless communications and smartphone; more decision makers are data-oriented and data-driven because of accountability and peer pressures.  More standard dashboards and dynamic business reports are becoming routine, while old-fashioned reports are being abandoned. Within this self-reinforcing cycle, every decision maker needs data analytics and so craftsmen will either be isolated and forgotten, or they will have to face the challenge and transition away from the craftsman level to the next (industrial) level.

There are already discussions about unit-record reporting for IPEDS, and a multi-state level alliance for collecting post-graduation salary data used for accountability together with graduation rates. In many institutions, data on admission, enrollment, retention, and student payment information have to be monitored weekly or even daily for actions or planning purposes. All these projects can only be handled with various standardized/industrial modules for data merging, data integration and analysis, and data presentations to keep up with the pace of information needs. In summary, in an era of “Big Data,” institutional researchers will be comparable to modern farmers – equipped with a combine harvester, a crop sprayer, and a driverless tractor. The times of plow, horse, and man-power should be soon “gone with the wind.”

Integrated Industrial Modules: Possibility from the Popularity of Vendor-based Software Applications 

There is a trend that the higher education IT market is getting more concentrated. According to Wikipedia, Ellucian, the new company that combines SunGard and Datatel, has 2,300 colleges and universities, foundations, and state systems as its global client community. It has completed more than 150 acquisitions over the past 20 years. Similarly, Blackboard Inc., a leading learning management system, after many acquisitions, has been gaining its clients from 1,500 in 2001 to over 37,000 institutions in 2013. Once these companies secure the market in one area of their core business, they begin to improve their profitability with add-on products and cross-selling. In addition to its core module on the student information system, Ellucian has more than two dozen modules covering many administrative areas from finance, financial aid, retention, human resources, travelling management to enterprise data management. At the same time, Blackboard acquired the iStrategy firm in 2010 to obtain a share of business intelligence market. It will not be long before institutional reporting will be modularized.

How the addition of one more dimension can change the perspective?

With the institutional reporting being automated in the future, what would the IR professionals’ routine day look like? The answer would be: doing more analytics with dimensions and more background data structure building.

We can use the history of cinematography development as an example: starting from black and white, silent movie to 3D IMAX.  With each step, a new dimension added, such as mono sound, color, stereo sound, and 3D, it has brought a thrilling effect to the audience, if we consider sound, color, and screen size as the added dimensions.

In many AIR forum presentations, studies on student success mainly focus on academic factors and non-cognitive factors.  Adding student finance data into the pictures, we may see how late payments, returned checks, payment collections, and veteran benefits, may interact with their academic success, and learn how low-ability students may create challenges to the institutions both academically and financially. Once we include financial aid data into our studies, we may see how attrition is connected to the tuition payment collections or to the exhaustion of the financial aid. In other worlds, adding each data dimension increases our analytical power exponentially. At many universities, administrators and advisors know that the abovementioned factors will impact student performance and retention, and they would like to utilize ranking models to monitor and help students in need to improve student success. Ideally, those who have the expertise in understanding and analyzing data in different areas should come from IR. However, most modeling work has to be outsourced, since IR practitioners are not typically familiar with institution’s data in finance and/or financial aid.

A world full of digital trace and lack of analytics

How many pre-registration records are created in Ellucian for a student with registrations for four courses? It could be several hundred – due to changing minds, class time conflict, class and lab match conflict, class capacity, etc. Can this information be used for planning purposes in the area of class scheduling, classroom planning, or curriculum design? That will be a task with more than millions of records. Analytics with millions of records is routine work for Blackboard log tuition payment data, and campus wireless log data. Should the advisor talk to a male student who has too much download internet flow, less Blackboard log time, and perhaps playing too much video games? Can analytics catch this phenomenon at the early stage?

We are now living in a digital age where everyone is digitally identified (as DNA and smartphone) instead of facially. The most recent mystery with Malaysia Airline MH370 was digitally traced to the Indian Ocean where it went missing, though there was not a single shred of physical evidence, thanks to the marvelous job by the British engineers. In this age, there will be more data available on campus and more integrated software for automation. This gives the opportunity for IR practitioners to become data architects and data investigators.

Can IR be evolved into the best jobs in the next ten years?

Every year, there are new job titles being added in higher education. For example, the title of Business Intelligence Analyst was not heard of in higher education five years ago. It is often said that 60% of the best jobs in the next ten years haven’t been invented yet. If this is true, then conversely, many current jobs will become obsolete in the next ten to twenty years.

What direction will IR go? Will IR finally evolve into one of the best jobs or will it become obsolete? As mentioned earlier, with the self-reinforcing cycle created by the technology advancement, the IR practitioners may be isolated if they can’t provide enough information on time. The exodus from the current craftsman level is to join this cycle of technology advancement and change ourselves.

At this turning point of the technology development, the future of IR is at the hands of all institutional research practitioners collectively. The message for or IR Professionals: Change, Analyze or Perish!


The author would like to thank Dr. Bai Kang and Dr. Meihua Zhai for their comments and suggetions.


Universities in an Era of ‘Non-Lieux’, Stephen J. Toope, President and Vice Chancellor, The University of British Columbia,

Cost of College Degree in U.S. Soars 12 Fold: Chart of the Day, Michelle Jamrisko and Ilan Kolet, m/news/2012-08-15/cost-of-college-degree-in-u-s-soars-12-fold-chart-of-the-day.html

What are your thoughts on technology and the future of IR? Share your comments below.



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Total Comments: 2
Bamby posted on 9/11/2014 5:24 PM
This was a highly informative, well-written article and your warning of “Change, Analyze or Perish! “ is well heeded.
Technology is a wonder but your analogy of craftsmen who were replaced by massive industrial production lines and computers, which involve less human-interaction and more automation falls short of what I have come to know about the IR profession.
While I appreciate the big data approach to analysis, there is much to be said about knowing the overarching picture of higher education and thoroughly knowing one’s institution. We may be counting heads but these heads collectively belong to students who have particular characteristics unique to the university based upon mission and vision. Our student body is a product of our admissions policies and the retention of students to degree completion. Our outcomes are products of the types of students enrolled, our Carnegie Classification, our selectivity, our location, our budgets dedicated to support students, our endowments to finance scholarships and a host of other factors. All of this can be put in a database but interpreting the picture painted by these data can only be done by an inquiring intelligent mind. Translating the data for decision-makers in terms of mission and vision of the institution is an art and a skill that goes beyond automation and big data.
Our institution employs IT professionals with expertise in programming, building and maintaining large data sets. Our Business Intelligence Analysts are working hard at designing dashboards and monitoring the flow of data. While they know how to build a dashboard, their biggest challenge is deciding what to provide on the dashboards. Establishing a relationship with these professionals and explaining IR needs can be a challenge that is well worth the effort. Most IR folk will never become data architects but we have always been “data investigators”. Perhaps few of our Business Intelligence Analysts will ever become IR professionals.
As IR professionals, we are often asked by our presidents, boards and legislators to “tell our story”. Automation and numerical data cannot do this alone. Dashboards do not tell a story- they display data. In my opinion, we need to be so much more than data architects and data crunchers. Those of us who know our institutions well, understand the Higher Ed environment in general and can tell our story in a meaningful way will never be obsolete. In my opinion, IR Director or Analyst will always be a “best job” regardless of advancing technology and our IT professionals will always be greatly appreciated for their highly-refined expertise.
So, to answer your questions: "Will this craftsman-level operation change with rapid technology advancement in the information industry? Or is there a need for such a change?" My answer is that we need craftsman who can work with those who have high level of expertise in technology advancement in the information industry. And, yes, we all need to change in order to accommodate the tsunami of information we are being buried in.
Henry posted on 9/15/2014 11:48 PM
This is a very well-written article with many original thoughts. Kudos!

I agree with the author that current institutional research by and large lives in the data reporting world -- dominated by mundane, routine, and highly automatable tasks. The future of IR, IE, BI, and Big Data Analytics in higher education rests in pushing the analytics ladder higher from reporting, ad hoc queries, and static analysis to dynamic queries linking multiple data sources and variables, moving up the analytic hierachy to predictive modeling, scenario analysis, and strategic decision support. This change will take time and requires corresponding changes in institutional leadership's acceptance of data-based decision making process. This is both a technological shift as well as a cultural transformation. Of course, this requires that we, as IR practitioners, to upgrade our skill sets to stay relevant.