CoolData blog

3 October 2017

Our “data-informed decision making” journey

Filed under: Analytics, Business Intelligence, Dalhousie University — Tags: , , — kevinmacdonell @ 6:34 pm


Building a business intelligence and analytics program can take years, and the move toward data-informed decision making is a cultural evolution that might never be complete. In my previous blog post, I talked about what advancement BI looks like in its ideal state (Analytics as an organizing principle). Today I want to talk about the messy reality.


Looking back at our own journey at Dalhousie University, I realize that we didn’t pursue the most direct and well-lit path, but we did learn a lot along the way. Eight years ago or so, we had very limited capability for supporting decisions with data. We still haven’t “arrived” — there is plenty more to do — but our progress is worth looking back on. It’s this progress I’ve been recounting for audiences across the country lately; it seems everyone is attempting to plan their own journey, or at least compare notes.


Here I’ll recount a few of the steps that got us to where we are today, starting with some of the obvious ingredients for a successful BI program — quality data, good software tools, and so on — and then talk about some of the perhaps less obvious influences that were essential for driving us forward.


First of all, DATA: Years ago, the general perception in our office was that our data was in bad shape. Our coverage rate for contact and employment information was believed to be low, and the accuracy of the data was frequently called into question, based largely on errors spotted in lists. But aside from anecdotes we really had no objective idea.


We developed reports to get a handle on coverage rates, as well as the ability to automatically archive these data points to be able to track progress and gaps over time. With our alumni constituency alone growing by several thousand individuals a year, we stepped away from imagining that we should aim to find every lost alum, and instead used a score to prioritize who to trace first. More importantly, the purely clerical “Alumni Records” team was reinvented as the “Constituent Data Integrity” team, tasked with going beyond data entry to developing and acting on data integrity audits, leading a large, cross-functional Data Integrity group to discuss integrity issues, and working much more closely with Prospect Research and Alumni Engagement to provide better support. We have also worked with frontline staff to encourage them to think of Advancement data as something they “own” and will benefit from directly, with a responsibility to feed information and intelligence to records and research staff.


We also made a concerted effort to establish written definitions for fundraising terminology and drafted a standardized set of counting rules, agreed to and approved by our leadership. Embedded in a single, core reporting view from which all reports and analyses are derived, these rules enforce a single version of the truth across all reports and dashboards. This work is not complete, but well advanced, and starting with Development data was a good idea.


A second enabler was the development of a three-year strategic plan for Advancement Services, something we’d never had. The plan charted a way forward for the team and became the foundation for much-needed investments in personnel. Without a doubt, the most important element in a successful BI program is people — hiring well has been the biggest driver of momentum for us — but resources won’t be made available in the absence of a plan and a roadmap for the future. Our plan did not necessarily lay out everything we intended to do with reporting, BI, and analytics — we didn’t know what the ideal team and technology would look like — but we were able to clearly articulate our gaps and what we needed to help us bridge those gaps.


Developing the plan required a commitment to change. This was a big step, because our team had gotten adept at concealing issues. For example, whenever leadership and deans needed an update on fundraising progress against campaign priorities, someone would take the raw data home each night and crunch the data manually in Excel. People were getting the information they wanted, so why change? But in fact we had zero agility, and reporting was never going to be able to grow beyond the basics. The fact that our AVP of Development felt forced to author his own reports should have been a wakeup call.


With qualified people making smart decisions, we have invested considerable time adopting Tableau as a reporting tool to bridge over a years-long period of uncertainty with regards to a centrally-supported BI tool. Over the years we evolved from having senior staff being served with pots of raw data and having to fend for themselves in Excel, to having our standard Development reporting automated in Tableau, with progress being made in reporting for other units. At the same time, we hired a BI Analyst to perform more ad hoc analytical and predictive modelling work. At this time, we are hiring two additional BI analysts, each with more specialized roles.


Greater demand for more sophisticated reports, dashboards, and analyses meant a greater need for complex transformations of our raw transactional data. We therefore put some emphasis on hiring people who knew SQL or could learn it. My colleague Darrell Rhodenizer puts it this way: Being able to use reporting tools such as Tableau Desktop or Cognos Reporting is one thing, but being able to directly speak the language of our database enables us to use all sorts of tricks to better shape our data for the reporting environment. Other departments that have not invested in the ability to look under the hood seem to be at a disadvantage.


As a result, our team has taken over from central IT the primary responsibility for modelling our data — that is, assembling our database tables into complex data structures to serve reporting and analysis. This works well for Advancement, which at most universities is far down the list of departments in terms of central IT support, and often has frequently-changing needs as priorities shift and campaigns roll through.


It’s gone beyond just learning SQL. Darrell, as our Associate Director, Advancement Systems & Reporting, has developed a new ETL tool which has accelerated our progress and promises to change the game for years to come. Our unit’s data is extracted nightly from the university’s centrally-managed data warehouse and multiple transformations are applied to it before it is re-stored to the same data warehouse. Under the full control of Advancement, the transformed data is available to all the same users using whatever tool they have. Data model changes are made with agility and with minimal disruption to business.


One final enabler: Outside Advancement, a new attitude to working cooperatively across departments and a new appreciation of data as an institutional asset has led to development of a data governance model and policies for opening up access to data. Before, if data was shared at all, it was done haphazardly and insecurely via Excel files. Today, we have a process for responsible use of data across the institution.


These elements of progress — technology, tools, people, skills — had a combined effect that was more than additive. We achieved an increasing momentum over the years, such that newer staff members struggle to imagine how bad things used to be in “them days.”


These and other factors were important enablers of change. Without some of them, we could not have made the improvements we did. However, they were not sufficient themselves to drive change. I suspect we are too often prone to falsely equate analytics competence with a piece of software, or an employee with a certain title, or a team, when really it’s none of those things. We would not have hired key people, and we would not have sought out and effectively deployed new tools, had there not been forces driving us in that direction.


Internally, we faced increased demand from Advancement leadership for information and insight. The closing of a comprehensive campaign was very revealing of our gaps in reporting and analysis — and the eventual ramp-up to another campaign spurs us to ensure that we are ready.


As well, for some years now a new culture of strategic planning has taken hold, with the development and adoption of an Advancement Balanced Scorecard. This plan for the whole department has had a focusing and integrative effect — everyone sees how functions fit together, and how their own job supports the mission. As great as that is for Development or Marketing or Alumni Engagement, it’s been essential for Operations. We now have a vision for what priorities we will need to support into the future, and a chunk of that support consists of data, information, reporting, dashboards, analyses, and other analytical products — not to mention the development of KPIs directly tied to measuring Advancement’s progress against the goals and objectives of the Balanced Scorecard itself. To date, high-level strategic planning has been the most significant “focusing” factor for our BI work.


You may have noticed that these and other internal drivers of change all come from the top, whereas the “enablers” tended to rely on initiative from lower down in the organization. Again, without both, not much would have happened.


But some drivers of a culture of analytics aren’t coming from the organization itself at all. We’re growing increasingly aware of external drivers. There are some new realities out there, and the organizations that position their data teams to address these new realities will have a better chance of succeeding.


First, alumni and donors have a different relationship with institutions than they once did, and their expectations are different. Alumni populations are growing, the number of donors is decreasing, and traditional engagement methods are less effective. Friend-raising and “one size fits all” approaches to engagement are increasingly seen as unsustainable wastes of resources. University leaders are questioning the very purpose and value of typical alumni relations activities.


According to current wisdom, engaged alumni are seeking meaningful interactions that make a difference, especially interactions with students in the form of advice, mentorship, or career development. If they have anything to do with the institution itself, it’s less about nostalgia for student life than it is being a part of the university’s role in society and community. Barbecues and pub nights hold little appeal for truly engaged alumni who believe in your brand of higher education (or your cause), and believe in the power of your students to change the world for the better. They want to be part of the mission.


Donors, too, are looking for meaningful engagement. Through their giving they want to accomplish things in the world. If they’re giving to your institution, it is because they feel your institution is uniquely qualified to carry out the change they’re seeking. Society’s needs, not the institution’s needs, are of greatest importance to this donor. They are not interested in “giving back.” Instead of giving TO institutions, they give THROUGH institutions.


This is partly borne out in what many of our organizations are seeing happening in our Annual Fund: for years now, donor numbers have been trending down, while average gift size has been going up. Donors are being more strategic with their giving, pooling resources and being more deliberate with their dollars.


These global shifts are not new, but I don’t think their real impact on the sector has yet been fully realized. Certainly for many of us, our strategies are not keeping pace. Analytics is going to be increasingly important for responding to these global shifts. A few examples follow …


In order to move from one-size-fits-all messages and programs, and evolve toward more targeted, relevant opportunities to engage, we need to understand how engaged each individual is right now. So we, along with many other institutions, have developed a means to measure alumni engagement. Every alumnus and alumna has a score that reflects where on the engagement spectrum they are, just as we know where on the donor spectrum they are. With those two pieces of information we can invest more time and money developing opportunities aimed at the upper niche of engaged individuals where it will have the most impact. (See: Why we measure engagement.) We need to engage with them on their own level, not ours, via relevant events and volunteerism. What information, programs, and services do they need, and which connect with their interests and talents?


In place of “one size fits all,” engaged alumni need more fulfilling experiences such as guest lecturing, student recruiting, and mentorship, career development and networking for students and new grads. Engagement measurement, then, is really a tool that enables alumni relations to better align itself with the mission of Advancement and the university.


Second, we aspire to understand our constituents not just based on their degree or by how much they’ve given, but through their interests and values — data we are just starting to bring together from a variety of sources in order to inform more intelligent segmentation of alumni and donors.


Third, we are doing what we can to measure impact of programming and events. We might report that we had 100 events that attracted 10,000 attendees, but why stop there? We should also be able to say we moved 2,000 people, say, to the next level of engagement, or that this or that event inspired 50 people to give. According to research conducted by the Education Advisory Board, a consulting firm, alumni relations does the poorest job of any office on campus in providing hard data on its real contribution to the university’s mission. Too many offices are stuck on tracking activities instead of results and outcomes.


Wonderful as these examples sound, and as far as we’ve come, we haven’t done everything right. There are areas where I wish we had made more progress, and things I discovered along the way that I wish I’d thought of earlier.


We’ve never had a long-range plan for the BI/analytics team. Yes, BI was a component of our three-year strategic plan and we have yearly operational plans, but there was no overarching vision of what the team would finally look like, along the lines of the three-tiered structure I outlined in my previous post. Our growth has been organic, addressing the gaps as we saw them from year to year. Perhaps that’s the right way to grow, especially as employees themselves grow and discover new strengths, but I think in a perfect world we might have had an idea of what the ideal future state would look like.


More fundamentally, a major all-at-once investment in rapid growth absolutely requires a plan. The way we did it, each new person who came on had to be somewhat self-sufficient in provisioning themselves with data to analyze, being responsible for transforming it and so on. That’s not the way it is now – as we evolve, positions are becoming more specialized.


Second, in hindsight I would have given more thought to how data-informed decisions are made. I mentioned earlier that the Balanced Scorecard exercise for Advancement has provided a main focus for BI, but I can see that it’s not enough. There has to be a framework for prioritizing and directing data-informed decision making below the level addressed by the Scorecard. (I wrote about this in my previous post.) I could have spent some time earlier on thinking about the structure and processes to make that happen.


A third thing I wish we had devoted more brainpower to was tackling self-serve list generation. Automation of the generation of lists of contact information for event invitations, solicitations, and so on is surprisingly challenging for a whole host of reasons, and this has prevented us from putting that ability into the hands of users. Had we cracked that nut early on in the journey, we would have freed resources for more interesting work. And more generally, “self-serve” is a cultural shift which takes a lot of time, training, and reinforcement. Even if we had developed a good tool for users to pull their own ready-to-use lists, it would have taken a long time to get people to use it (regardless of what they might say about the idea of it). If you’re considering a big push for self-serve, I would warn you that the payoff will come years, not months, from now.


Data-informed decision making in general is a cultural shift; it’s not just a series of technical problems to be solved. Nothing will happen without the technology, to be sure, but the technology enables — it does not drive. You can invest heavily in a BI team and software and still not achieve a state of making decisions informed by data.


When I talk about how poorly we did some years ago, that’s not intended as a critique of the people doing the work at that time. Everyone always did the best they could with what they had to work with. In the same way, when I speak with folks from other universities who are struggling with how to make progress in this area, it’s not a lack of will or even skill that I detect: It’s more a lack of clarity about the way forward. It’s rarely obvious how to pull the pieces and people together, but with progress comes momentum. I wish you luck on your own journey!



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