• Featured
  • 10.13.20

IR’s Role in Promoting a Data-Driven Culture

  • by Sonia Schaible Brandon, University of Northern Colorado
Whether beginning a new position or continuing in an established one, data and information expectations for Institutional Research (IR) offices continue to expand at an accelerated pace. Open source availability of tools such as R and Jupyter, languages such as Python, and machine learning techniques allow unprecedented access to sophisticated and powerful analyses. These systems allow for more efficient transformation of data into information at a rapid pace. As such, institutions that embrace these new capabilities do develop and support a data culture and at a competitive advantage in that the information produced can provide actionable insights leading to powerful interventions and predictive abilities. In an environment where the recent high school graduate, incoming student population is declining in many locations, data and information become even more critical (Grawe, 2018). On top of that, COVID-19 has introduced unprecedented challenges to higher education, creating a climate in which data and decisions can literally determine the life and death of an institution. 

So how does an institution build or improve a data-driven culture? First, it is critical that executives in the c-suite (including presidents, chancellors, and board members) embrace the value and importance of data. For some institutions, these leaders are already on board and invested in the use of data and information. Others, however, may see data as a means to an end, merely a mechanism to accept payments, disburse checks, and assign students to classrooms. Without care and curation, institutions may end up with inaccurate data, producing outputs that can’t be replicated, often leading executives to distrust any information an institutional researcher might provide.  

If leadership does not directly support a data-driven environment, an IR office can gain ground by carefully selecting key indicators and information that executives might find useful. Part of the duty of a researcher or analyst is to tell leadership what they see in the data and what they need to know. Solidifying definitions and standardizing reports can alleviate some of the distrust that can come when using data that has not been properly curated. Providing these data and information often begins to open the door to the support that an IR office needs to move towards a data-driven culture. 

The next step in building this culture is to gain buy-in from the campus community, including faculty. Depending on where an institution is on the spectrum between a vertical organization (top-down) and a horizontal organization (shared governance), there are slight nuances as to how an IR office might do this. Although the orders come from the top in a vertical organization, it is still important to communicate with the end-users. IR offices should act as a liaison between these constituencies and be the voice of the campus community. In a horizontal organization that incorporates many voices in decision making, an IR office should push best practices, explaining and showing how data which is not cared for can damage the informational value. In either case, it is incumbent upon IR offices to understand the environment and steer the discussion when necessary. Regardless of what type of organization the institution is, communication and transparency are key.  

Once it is established that data and information are assets, a stakeholder group consisting of leaders and key campus community from across the institution should be regularly convened to establish and evaluate data governance plans and policy. The value of a stakeholder group is increased buy-in for maintaining accurate data in support of producing more credible information. 

Pursuing a data-driven culture is something that all IR offices should do. As accreditors and assessment officers know, institutions should always strive for continuous improvement. An institution may go into a data-driven initiative in an environment where data has historically only been used for administrative purposes. Another may have an established data governance process with solid data warehouses and even the nirvana of a data lake. Regardless of where an institution is on the journey to a strong data culture, there is always room for improvement, always a need for transparency and accountability, and always a need to review. Although organizations will differ in where they are on the path to a data-informed decision culture, a data-driven culture is not out of reach. The IR office should be the data champion that communicates the value of data and information for increasing institutional effectiveness and student success.  


Grawe, N. (2018). Demographics and the demand for higher education. Johns Hopkins University.