BI dashboards help South Leicestershire College track performance

A college administrator discusses the steps to implementing a BI and dashboard product at her college in central England to help decision making.

When South Leicestershire College in central England recently rolled out a business intelligence solution, goals for its new dashboards included empowering the executive team and faculty heads to give them deeper visibility into performance at the general college of further education. The reality proved to be understandably challenging, but the college is working to build up to 12 dashboards by year end.

The implementation monitors key performance indicators in the student life cycle, including applications, enrolment and learning outcomes. In addition, the dashboards will provide enhanced reporting on the college’s financial position specifically relating to faculty income, expenditure and contribution.

The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) spoke with Suki Rai, head of planning, information and funding at South Leicestershire College, about the choice of Intuitive Dashboards from Intuitive Business Intelligence, along with project challenges and successes. Those challenges include determining what the dashboards will involve, and eventually encouraging users to own the data themselves. Even as she shared details behind the planning and execution, Rai stressed that the dashboard and BI rollout is still in the early stages of what will be a long-term project for the college.


TDWI: Can you tell us about South Leicestershire College?

Suki Rai: We are a general college of further education based in Leicestershire, in the East Midlands. The main campus in South Wigston is a new state-of-the-art facility; we have three other campuses across the city. The college is considered small-to-medium-sized, with about £15 million in income a year.

We serve a range of students, predominately aged 16 to 18, and 19-years-and-older adult learners. Seventy percent of our classes are based on college campuses; however, 30 percent are delivered in the workplace, working with employers and businesses. We also provide higher education training programs. The college’s educational provision is mainly funded through the [British] Education Funding Agency and Skills Funding Agency.

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When did you start using Intuitive Dashboards?

About 15 months ago, we began to look into different products. We had first started to develop our own dashboards internally through our technical people, but then realized we didn’t have the capacity, so we purchased another software product, one that we hadn’t done enough research into. Finally, we purchased Intuitive Dashboards about six months back.

What were the business problems you hoped to address with dashboards?

Governments are making lots of financial cutbacks, and focusing more and more on efficiency and performance management. That was really the driver behind our decision -- we’re having to become smarter at what we do, and having to manage statistics and performance more closely. We didn’t have a tool that would allow us to see data visually, and manage performance effectively.

We wanted a visual dashboard that could help tutors and other senior staff gain easy access to information and actually start using and owning the data. We believe that dashboards can transform and help the decision-making process to be more effective.

Who are other potential users?

Initially the potential users would be governors and managers -- the leadership team -- that needs access to information, along with the executive team. Over a period of time -- I know it’s not going to be overnight -- my vision is letting our customers see the data as well, but that will be 12 to 24 months down the line.

By “customers,” do you mean students?

Yes, students, but also employers, parents, and then business partners, including the funding agencies that provide us with money. However, providing dashboards to this group of stakeholders will have to be agreed to by the executive team and possibly the governors. If it truly works as we want it to, and it is truly effective as a tool, the data should be available to anyone, really, who wants to look up information about the college -- obviously in compliance with the Data Protection Act.

How are users now getting the information that they will get on the dashboards in future?

For example, take unmarked [attendance] registers. Basically, the tutor goes in, the students are there, and the tutor marks an electronic register stating that a student is present or not. At the moment, we’ve got spreadsheets and reports going to tutors saying, “You’ve not marked your register on time today. Can you please get this register marked?” The dashboard is a visual screen instead, presented when a member of the staff logs on. The dashboard will say, “He or she has not marked [the attendance register].”

So as a teacher, I could quickly see how class attendance today compares to previous days or weeks?

Yes. If your group’s attendance on a weekly basis has fallen below 98% or 100%, say, it might be shown as an amber-green warning on the dashboard or red if it’s a continual issue.

How have you decided how many dashboards you need and what each dashboard contains?

First, let me explain that one of the most important factors in setting up dashboards is to understand what you’re measuring. I want to know what we’re measuring before people start using the dashboards, because you have to have a correct and clear infrastructure in place before any data analysis takes place through the use of dashboards. Otherwise, we could find ourselves in a detrimental position if data was providing incorrect information.

At the beginning of the year, we decided at the top level to track 12 key performance indicators. The managers need to collect the information to generate the KPIs. Of course, that wasn’t as easy as, “I want this information.”

One of the steps I’ve had to take before producing the dashboards was to look at different dimensions in the organization where data should be collected. For example, the executive, which is the highest level, wants information from income and expenditure; this would come from accounts. Heads-of-service information would be sourced from our students, so you have to look at enrolment data -- the enrolments generate the income for each student, which then generates an income level for each qualification, which then leads to each faculty, that then escalates up into the income for the college.

You have to draw picture charts, really, to see how that information drives into the measure. It’s been quite difficult at times.

Of course, I’ve looked at how other colleges have set up dashboards -- some start small and take the easier approach around simple things [such as] the number of applicants applying for qualifications, and of those, how many enrol. However, you still have to ask, what’s the purpose of that dashboard and who’s using it for what purpose?

My starting point was to deliver what the executives wanted to use as main indicators. It’s been slightly complicated, but I’m confident in the next four to five weeks that I’ll have some of the [initial] dashboards set. Then we can say, “This is what we’re measuring. These are the transparent measures. Do people agree with them? These three dashboards have been built. What do you think?”

Did you actually draw picture charts that helped you understand the flow of information?

Yes, I did -- storyboards. It’s like deciding on the data architecture model. Where are you pulling the data from? Once you’ve done that and you realize which software it comes from, you’re then deciding what the task is and what it is measuring. You then draw that up into a thumbnail storyboard template.

What if there’s a discrepancy from different sources in the data you’re displaying?

That’s why it’s so important to get the basics down before you launch your dashboards. When you’re developing the dashboards, you realize that the data you have in different systems isn’t as clean as you’d like it to be. You see anomalies, because you’re measuring certain things and opening a can of worms.

When you’ve decided what data you’re going to use, whether it’s from financial software or from HR software, the dashboard tells the story. There shouldn’t be that many differences at that point.

The actual dashboard links to live data; it can be real-time data. For example, if somebody’s enroling downstairs right now and the dashboard is set to refresh the data every 10 minutes, it’ll pick up that new enrolment.

What we didn’t anticipate was how clean your own data has to be. On the other hand, the beauty of it is, if you don’t start the journey, you’re never going to be ready to do true performance management with dashboards anyway. You really need to work with the information. That’s the reality we’ve learned. Information is only as good as it is when it’s entered into the system, and it also depends on how often the user accesses it.

I know you’re just getting started, but how many dashboards do you envision eventually having at South Leicestershire?

At the end of this year, I’d like 12 dashboards set up, with three or four measures within each dashboard.

Longer term, my vision is more general: giving ownership of the data to users. To do that, we need to change the culture here at the college. Users see that there’s a data team that manages the information that they supply us, but really, it’s the college’s information. That’s how we want to change the culture. It’s not ours. It’s yours -- from the college as a whole and seen as one. You, the user, see it on your screen every day. Essentially, we want users to adopt it and manage it to drive the business.

TDWI (The Data Warehousing Institute), in partnership with IRM UK, will present the TDWI BI Symposiumat the Radisson Blu Portman, in London, 10-12 September, 2012. is a media sponsor.

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