4 Ways Better Data Management Will Transform Higher Education

December 16, 2019 Emily Rust

Colleges and universities are hotbeds of innovation, and many states in the U.S. view these educational institutions as critical to their economic development. Regardless, they often lag behind similarly-sized organizations when it comes to certain internal tech operations. 

Case in point: data management — or lack thereof. 

Colleges and universities often run highly decentralized data infrastructures. Because of the massive scale of operations, various departments run mostly independently, often adopting ad hoc systems for organizing and leveraging their own data for their own uses. With no integration among these patchwork systems, departments end up forming very different ideas of how their data can and should be used. This often leads to siloing and, at worst, individual departments might even purposefully withhold data that other departments could use.

The primary casualty here is student experience. A student might have to contact multiple offices running different systems to fulfill a single request — think a class change or credit transfer. During these interactions, there's a risk that key information is lost. 

Male and female higher ed students at a college campus

In a larger sense, the institutions also harm themselves through poor data management. Without the right information delivered to the right people, it's much more difficult for faculty and administrators to drive the innovations that make our colleges and universities so valuable. 

Building a Data-Connected Campus 

At Appirio, we work with several higher education clients. We start each of these partnerships by finding out what they want to get out of their data and then working backward. Our approach varies depending on the technology stack and the environment, but a primary goal is to organize data from different systems so that faculty and staff have a consolidated view of each student.

Salesforce offers several useful possibilities to pull this data together and build full student profiles. We build off of the Education Data Architecture model to link a student’s academic programs, relationships, advisors, and courses, and we create ways for students and administrators to interact directly through the platform's Community Cloud

When student data is assembled in one place, colleges and universities can truly derive value from it. Advisors can use the data on hand to make communication with students more engaging and effective. Admissions officers can use marketing automation tools to create customer journeys for prospective students. Machine learning tools (such as Einstein Predictions or the Salesforce Advisor Link package) can even help identify at-risk students and address those risk factors. 

With so many opportunities available to an educational institution, they can achieve a clear, unified view of student data and trends. Getting there, however, can take a bit of work. To create a better student experience, colleges and universities must approach data alignment with a more holistic outlook. Here are four steps that can help with this process:

1. Get middleware

Middleware is a platform by which multiple systems can communicate with one another. In higher education, it can unite disparate data systems that departments have in place. By pulling data into one database and organizing it around each student, middleware can enable new opportunities for engagement, such as Salesforce communities, to be built on that data foundation. 
 
We used MuleSoft, a Salesforce-affiliated middleware, to organize Georgetown University's IT operations in the beginning stages of a larger tech enablement project. Properly implementing the middleware was an essential first step in creating a centralized data source that led to better user experiences to students, alumni, and faculty. No matter which devices they used interchangeably, they had a seamless and consistent experience.

2. Use real data quickly

Hypothetical discussions are great for the classroom. To implement real data solutions, however, you obviously need to be working with real data. When you’re implementing a new data management structure, test data can often result in red herrings and wasted time since it won’t provide an accurate example of the varied data sets typically at work in your infrastructure. It’s better to work with the real thing early, even if you have to make adjustments along the way. 

In higher education, bringing together a whole spectrum of data systems can be complicated, especially when unifying different systems that might have been around for a while. Integrating production data as soon as possible will help you avoid having an incomplete view of the diverse data sources within your infrastructure. 

3. Visualize the applications involved 

Another key element of managing this complexity? Mapping out all the components. Integrating a set of totally different and unaligned data systems requires clarity and transparency, even on seemingly trivial details.

A robust system context diagram can be incredibly useful when shifting to a new data management approach. The number and type of applications affect the level of testing needed, so all stakeholders will need to know every system that touches the data from end to end, not just the primary ones.

4. Track progress with a problem-solving framework

Moving to a new data management system isn’t a one-step process. Problems need to be defined at the beginning, and progress should be tracked at every step. We use a simple question framework to ensure consistency in how we work through challenges in an integration: 

  • What's the problem we're trying to solve? 
  • How do we solve it? 
  • What results will the solution deliver? 

Establishing consistency in how you address problems will not only help you find better solutions, but will also help you track measurable improvements you've made over time. 

At the end of the day, data integration is an obvious benefit for colleges and universities. There’s no reason to keep a student’s course enrollments and finances in separate systems. By bringing data together, colleges and universities can streamline their operations, discover new efficiencies, and offer a better student experience. 
 
Want to learn more about how Appirio is helping colleges and universities (and other institutions) better harness their data? Get in touch with us on our website or reach out on social media.

About the Author

Emily Rust

Emily Rust is the Global Delivery Director at Appirio. She has over 10 years of experience in global Salesforce program design and delivery execution with a strong focus in higher education.

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