Good business intelligence to support evidenced-based decision-making is widely used in the private sector – and something we're seeing more and more of in UK education.
Business intelligence should be an essential element of making evidence-based decisions in the higher education (HE) sector. Whether the goal is income generation, rationalising courses, or improving student satisfaction or retention, it can support your organisation to become smarter, more competitive and efficient.
Government’s recent report From Bricks to Clicks even says that for UK HE to retain its competitive advantage:
“the sector needs to adapt to the realities and challenges of the 21st century – in particular, the increasing importance of data and analytics.”
To help you and your university grab hold of opportunities we want to explain what business intelligence is, and how you can use it.
Explaining business intelligence
Business intelligence identifies widely felt problem spaces facing institutional staff and wider stakeholders, locates data sources likely to assist with insights, cleanses and links the data before producing visualisations and dashboards. The latter are provided to staff and students and allow them to explore the problem spaces, providing new data derived knowledge with a high degree of dependability. Value, savings and efficiencies occur through the application of the new insights gained.
Say I’m a research planner. When influencing research policies, I want to assess individual cost centres' relative research strengths against national/mission group norms; so that I can help support the financial sustainability of the institution.
A dashboard that answers a range of questions around the research profile of individual universities highlighting potential vulnerabilities/strengths addresses my problem space. You can see a proof of concept dashboard produced by Jisc below that does just this, drawing on key information sets and other Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data sources.
Making the most
Opportunities abound – but what needs to happen so that our sector can exploit business intelligence? Firstly, we need to understand: why the wide variation in business intelligence capability in HE in the first place? Some universities have little access to good business intelligence at all while those with capability are often duplicating effort. Is there a need for a coordinated, centralised contribution? And what should that look like?
If you want to get to the heart of a problem you need to talk to the people who are coming up against these issues every day. So that’s what we did. With our colleagues on the business intelligence project, we spoke to members across a variety of job roles who are each involved in accessing, compiling, collating, analysing and presenting information.
They have shared a number of issues that regularly hinder their progress, as well as their ‘wishlist’ for what they’d like from a coordinated, centralised contribution to business intelligence activity.
Business intelligence wishlist
Everyone we spoke to saw the value of business intelligence, but time came up as an issue again and again. There was frustration about each organisation wasting time wrangling with data in siloes - they might even be working on exactly the same dashboard. Being able to access centralised dashboards, rather than create their own, would save a significant amount of staff time, and with it costs.
Getting access to all the different information an HE professional needs is only half the battle. The data also needs to come in a format that is relevant and can be easily analysed. For example, one participant mentioned how much their university would find it useful to be able to use postcode mapping to understand the geographical origins of their students, and make comparisons between the make-up of the organisation's student population against national datasets on deprivation – thereby supporting the agenda to widen participation.
Networking and knowledge sharing
Yes, higher education is an increasingly competitive market, but that doesn’t mean that organisations want to operate in isolation and keep information to themselves. There’s appetite to share ideas, best practice and expertise – in fact, this was seen as invaluable for broadening knowledge, and making sure business intelligence benefits all.
Opportunity to experiment
Working in a busy and high-pressured environment as many HE professionals do, does not always provide the space to work on areas that might be useful but are outside of immediate priorities. Having a core business intelligence service that does a lot of the grunt work would free people up to experiment and be more innovative.
A sector-wide view
In all areas the people we consulted with talked of the value of seeing the bigger picture. Not only knowing what their neighbour down the road is doing and how they compare, but how the UK is faring on the larger scale. A centralised sector-wide service will be key for achieving this.
Working towards a solution
These issues and potential benefits mean business intelligence will continue to be a hotly-debated area. That’s why we’ve joined forces with HESA to develop tools, services and advice to support a wide range of staff in making sound business decisions.
UK HE organisations are already able to make use of HESA’s Heidi Plus, a replacement to Heidi (the Higher Education Information Database for Institutions), which is designed to save universities time and money by making it easier for decision makers to directly access the information they need.
Together we are now working on an exciting new national business intelligence experimentation project – Heidi Lab – which aims to refresh and complement Heidi Plus content with insights from a wider range of alternative data sources. This will include HESA collections linked to other educational, demographic, employability, economic and geospatial data sets.