Five Things Every Board Member Needs to Know about Data

By Danielle Yardy, PhD, Amazon Web Services, an AGB Sponsor September 27, 2022 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Conversations around digital transformation are rippling through higher education, from analysts and observers to frontline staff. In Jeff Selingo’s latest white paper on the topic, he notes that “COVID-19 only upped the pressure for digital transformation” and “turning data into wisdom” will be a core competency of institutions that are able to adapt and thrive in the new normal. But what does it mean to take on the challenge of data-driven innovation? And how should boards hold their institutions accountable to growth in this essential capability? Building alignment around an institution-wide approach is a critical first step, which starts with a shared understanding of how a comprehensive data strategy underpins the industry-wide mission, from improving student outcomes to addressing the affordability crisis.

Truth #1: Data capabilities are mission-critical.
In today’s colleges and universities, technology is a crucial part of enabling campus strategies. As paper-based administrative processes and student interactions become a thing of the past, the lifeblood of our institutional operations and innovation flows through digital data.

Data insight and actionability—whether for campus leaders looking to monitor institutional progress toward strategic plan goals, advisors working directly with at-risk students, or fundraisers competing in an increasingly competitive giving ecosystem—are vital to success. Only when institutions accept this new reality can they make substantial progress toward data and analytics activation.

Truth #2: Integrating data for analytics isn’t easy.
Despite the growing need for data-informed innovation, many institutions continue to struggle to develop a clear view into their data. In part, that’s because each of the hundreds of applications that campuses use to manage their operations weren’t designed to communicate, so data sit siloed among disparate systems. These include centralized, aging systems such as the student information system and distributed, cloud-based technologies such as customer relationship management systems, learning management systems, and digitized building access systems.

With each IT system’s data collected and stored in discrete locations and proprietary formats, with different types of accessibility, creating data views that make sense of complex campus questions such as how to allocate resources can take weeks or even months of staff time. Recognizing this complexity—and creating a plan to address it at scale—should be a top priority for every institution.

Truth #3: Siloed projects will continue to exacerbate data issues.
For many institutions, strategic plans cascade into hundreds of discrete annual projects that activate data to drive new experiences and innovation on campus—with student affairs teams rolling out personalized chatbots, retention teams developing early alert systems, and athletics departments leveraging data to drive coaching engagements. Although each project moves the institution forward, stewards of the institution must acknowledge that these approaches to innovation will magnify the analytics challenge if they create new, inaccessible silos of information.

As AGB consultant Carol Cartwright recently pointed out, boards must focus generally on the big picture and take the long view of their institutions’ success. With this mandate, data is necessarily a “higher altitude” issue and an asset that boards have a fiduciary duty to preserve and enhance for the sustainability of the institution, and for future generations. Encouraging institutional leaders to invest in developing and scaling institution-wide data capabilities will lead to better adaptability and organizational agility concerning future challenges and opportunities.

Truth #4: Data strategy won’t be solved with IT alone.
When universities and colleges begin to lay out their enterprise approach to data strategy, fingers often point first to the campus technology teams. But although IT staff can translate business needs into technological capabilities and build pipelines to aggregate data from disparate systems, they rely heavily on their colleagues to define outcomes, identify data sources, and support governance efforts.

With data threaded through every campus process—from student registration to strategic planning—frontline staff, institutional leaders, and boards must come together to make a commitment to collaboration with their time, resources, and implementation plans.

Truth #5: Cloud data strategies reduce risk and accelerate progress.
Although campuses have made analytics progress with data warehousing solutions, many now find that the volume and velocity of campus data are outpacing their ability to scale and fund these solutions. Procuring new hardware is costly, and implementations are much slower than the flow of data demands.

By moving data infrastructure into the cloud, higher education teams, such as California State University’s Office of the Chancellor, have seen as much as 60 percent reductions in data management costs. But more importantly, they’re able to leverage new capabilities such as artificial intelligence and machine learning more quickly and experimentally—without signing years-long contracts with solutions that may or may not be a good fit for the institution.

To learn more about how higher education is using data to accelerate digital transformation, download the new eBook The Data-Informed Institution, written by Mark Schwartz, enterprise strategist, author, and former chief information officer of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is working with colleges and universities across the globe to help them accelerate innovation by developing sturdy data foundations. Explore the Higher Education Resources page to see how AWS is working with institutions to modernize and secure their technology infrastructure, enrich the student experience, turn data into wisdom, and empower and accelerate research.

Danielle Yardy, PhD, is the lead of data and analytics business development and strategy for higher education at Amazon Web Services, an AGB event sponsor.

With Thanks to AGB Sponsor: Amazon Web Services