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Why is good information so hard to find in an educational institution?

I have been involved in developing student information software, customization, consulting, training and mentoring in small to medium sized schools and colleges for over 30 years.  Here are some basic observations on information gathering and dissemination based on my experiences.

The Problem

The technology in educational institutions is generally quite good, but the information available through the student information systems (ERP) is not always on par with the technological capabilities.  There are many reasons for this information gap.

We often hear from presidents and high-level executives that they cannot obtain meaningful or consistent information.  Our company has received a number of RFI or RFPs where the central theme is a variety of information islands with minimal communication between them. This is typically despite the fact that the data has been appropriately captured on their software systems. There can be a presumption that once expensive technology and ERP systems have been installed, cohesive and meaningful data will automatically follow.  As business requirements are fluid, information gathering needs to be closely monitored to ensure that it reflects changes due to shifts in organizational practices and changing regulatory requirements.

As there are many levels of data, it is important for requests to be quite specific.  For example, you might ask the question “how many students were enrolled for fall 2013”.  You would get a different answer if withdrawals were included or not.  It might seem obvious not to include withdrawals, but they are generally included when analyzing data for financial aid and other purposes.  So it is very important to ask the question in a way that will not create the possibility of multiple “correct” answers; otherwise a tolerance for reasonable variations must be expected.

The Reasons

Yearly ongoing ERP budgets should average a minimum of at least 1.5% – 2% of the annual operating budget of the institution.  A school with a 50m annual budget would thus ideally have a budget of about 750k-1M strictly for ERP support and no other IT related items.  This would include internal salaries, vendor software upgrades, support and training. The initial capital outlay for the ERP software would be a separate budget item.

Technology infrastructure at a school is typically a strategic top down approach.

  • Networking
  • Security
  • Wiring/Wireless
  • Hardware
  • Operating Systems
  • Software
  • Access for students, faculty, administrators for email, texting, LMS.

This is in direct contrast to information creation which is typically a bottom up approach.  Often a strategic plan is not in place for providing information, but rather data is analyzed after the fact and attempts are made to correct the process for gathering the information.  An executive might say “I need a report that gives me a breakdown of students by criteria A, B, and C”.  In some cases, the information for the report criteria is not in the system or is only available in a way that is difficult to collate.

In essence, the reporting requirement was an afterthought, rather than a requirement that was clearly outlined when the system was configured.  It would be analogous to asking for an old building to be networked for fiber optic capability after it had already been trenched and wired for telephones.  It can be done, but requires a lot of redundant and unnecessary labor.

While information is critical to the mission of an institution, the reality is that it is not considered part of the mission itself.  Persons responsible for the information typically report to a technology person.  This can be inappropriate for a variety of reasons including:

  • The technology director’s expertise is in managing technology, not information.  They are not the same!
  • Technology is a tool for gathering and providing information.
  • Information itself is an entirely different entity.
  • Having the information personnel report to a technology person without the right skill set is somewhat analogous to the CFO reporting to the facilities department because they use office space.  Stated another way, an IT and an IS professional are as different as a CFO and a Human Resources Director.

The Solution

Organizational changes may be needed so that the information systems director is aligned with the mission of the organization.  If information is a paramount concern, then the information director might report directly to the president rather than the CFO or IT director.  Times have changed, and a case can easily be made that while information itself is not part of the mission, the institution can falter due to inaccurate or unavailable information.  This is especially true with new regulations that surround financial aid availability and is even more significant in the for-profit sector.

The skill set of an information person should include:

  • Advocacy for process, software utilization, and resolution.
  • Consensus building so that data decisions are made cohesively for the entire institution.
  • Superior interpersonal skills that help to promote departmental confidence with the system.
  • Excellent verbal and communications skills.
  • Analytical skills.
  • Management skills that include minimizing the emotional reaction to change and encouraging cross department cooperation.
  • Executive authority that allows the ability to challenge managers to create new processes.

This person will not come cheaply and an appropriate budget must be maintained for this position. It can be risky to hire someone with a skill set involving phones, wires, computers, or networks. They can easily be drawn into the demands of students, faculty, and administrators for improved networking, email capability, and bandwidth.   Although that role is also important, the informational role should definitely be separate and well defined.

Finally, the institution must look at the organizational chart and place the information person on at least the same level as the technology person if the desire is to have information on par with the technological capabilities. With the increased demand and complexity of data, the smooth flow of information throughout the institution can empower management, increase departmental efficiency and identify opportunities that contribute to the success of the school.

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