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  • 12.07.23

All I Want for Christmas Is a DMS

  • by Andrew L. Luna, Executive Director, Decision Support and Institutional Research, Austin Peay State University


During the beginning of September when I was a child, I could count on two things with certainty. First was the start of the new school year. Second was the arrival of the much-anticipated Sears and Roebuck’s annual Christmas Wish Book catalog. Once mom brought it in from the mailbox, I couldn’t wait to flip though the pages while starting my early Santa list.

The Wish Book started in 1933, and up until the 1990s was a welcomed staple to most American households. As a kid, it was fun for me to glance at dozens of pages filled with every toy imaginable. While I always had my mind focused on a specific toy, it was fascinating looking at each toy and picturing how many hours of fun could be had with all.

One year I was very interested in Major Matt Mason. It was during the time of the Apollo missions, and those astronautical action figures were all I could think about. I spent hours playing with the figures, the crawler, and the three-tiered space station. Every time I looked in the Wish Book, I saw more and more pieces that I desperately thought I needed to add to my collection. However, mom, dad, and Santa managed to keep my collection at a reasonable size.

Knowing I would not get everything I wanted, I created something better out of discarded cardboard boxes or a few scrap pieces of wood. In other words, while the Wish Book enticed me to dream and fantasize about everything new, it was my imagination and creativity that caused a simple toy, box, or plank of wood to incarnate into something special.

I am much older now, and the beloved Wish Book is only a shadow in my memory. However, I am still intrigued at how, even as adults, we gravitate toward the new, the shiny, and the improved. Take data systems for example. Like kids flipping through a Christmas catalog, we become captivated by what the new software can do.

Our eyes behold and glisten at myriad colorful lines, graphs, and boxes. Our jaws drop as 3-D images float across our screens, followed by dashboards that look more like fighter jet cockpits than simple enrollment reports. We get weak-kneed thinking about all of the possibilities our new toys can afford us. As new analytics spit out with rapid precision, we soon envy our neighbors who already have what we want, and we anticipate how much better life could be if we had them also. Nope, things haven’t changed much since our Wish Book days. Except our new toys have become far more expensive.

As the prudence of not getting everything I wanted from the Wish Book led me to use my imagination and ingenuity to maximize what I already had, shouldn’t we as data analysts utilize our education, experience, and creativity to produce the analytics we need rather than rely on the new-fangled gadget to do all of our work for us?

Now, I’m not knocking the new software. It can do amazing things while saving time and scarce resources. However, like with a new toy advertised during Saturday morning cartoons, there is the hype cycle to consider. Specifically, the new toy comes out and everyone is excited about it. The advertisement shows that the toy does some amazing things. Then, we buy the toy and soon become a little disillusioned as to what it can actually do. However, we take the toy and utilize it with our other toys, and it becomes affixed to our toy arsenal. Accessories of the new toy emerge, and we attenuate its use. When we reach a plateau of where we have maximized the utility and enjoyment of the toy, a new toy is suddenly introduced to start the cycle again.

I remember the first real bike I got for Christmas came with training wheels. I also remember how I quickly removed those and modified the bike to do everything I needed it to do until I literally outgrew it. Seems to me there is a lesson here concerning our data systems. While admiring the new gadgets is always fun, we should always get the most out of what we already have. In doing so, we also exercise our creativity and intellect.

We should strive to customize and modify what we have to make it do what we want. That’s where the real fun and challenge comes. And as we wiz up to our administrators’ offices with our new reports, we can say…"Look, Provost, no hands!”

LunaAndrew L. Luna, Ph.D is Executive Director of Decision Support and Institutional Research at Austin Peay State University and is also a speaker.




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