Knowledge Center: Article

Technology Officers

How the chief data officer brings higher education into the 21st century


Chief Data Officer and education

Higher-education institutions are drowning in data. Technology has created significant challenges for many institutions, even as it has enabled the collection and storage of immense amounts of data. These institutions need to decide how to organize their data and create processes for making inferences from data, as well as how to take action to foster continuous improvement. Data has the power to truly transform an institution, but data for its own sake can hinder growth and innovation for faculty and staff, and have a negative impact on students. The chief data officer (CDO) is a newer role that has emerged within the past few years across multiple industries. The CDO should lead strategic data and analytics activities to alleviate the increased data requests and support institutional transformation and innovation.

Currently, few colleges and universities have a designated CDO role. Data sits in many departments and is seldom shared in a centralized repository. A wide range of university departments—including offices of institutional effectiveness, research, development and advancement, business intelligence, finance administration, admissions, and academics—all face a myriad of requests and mandates for collecting and reporting data. A major priority in closing the data loop is the ability to consolidate information holistically to analyze trends and patterns in the data and to make informed decisions.

The role of the CDO is not only to be responsible for data collection or analytics but also for making sense of the data and assisting in the strategy around decision making and action.

This can be a huge undertaking considering the volume of data collected at higher-education institutions. The key, however, is determining what data to examine; when to analyze it; when to take data-based action; and who to involve in the decision-making process to make the most significant impact.

While I’m reluctant to recommend adding yet another administrative role to the senior-executive team, this role, if structured correctly, can have a significant impact on the student experience, operational efficiency, and ultimately financial growth. At many institutions, information is complex and comes from multiple siloed sources. Designating accountability to one individual can eliminate this issue and allow for analysis across the entire business to identify new opportunities or challenges. Adding this role should expedite the collection of data and greater automation of reporting so that the burden is removed from the wide number of individuals that may be involved across the institution.

I’ve talked with many faculty and staff members who are engaged in data collection but have no idea why, other than for compliance reasons or because higher-ups said it needed to get done. The CDO can articulate not just the strategy, but also the specifics around why, what, and how the data is analyzed to ensure greater transparency and institutional meaning behind the data. I know of few institutions that offer data and analytics training, let alone knowledge development around how to use the data to close the continuous-improvement loop.

Ultimately, there are two major problems with data that a CDO can help mitigate. First, the data is only as good as the information input into the system: bad data is useless or harmful to an institution and can lead it to make a bad decision, or none at all. The CDO needs to be responsible for quality assurance of data and the process of data collection, analytics, and decision making. Second, data is historical. While it can be used to predict trends and patterns, it cannot change what has happened in the past. Proactive practices around data use, driven by the CDO, can reduce the time to action in correcting unsatisfactory results.

The impact of a CDO can elevate the importance of data to the top level of an organization. Any organizations contemplating a CDO role should consider their openness to transformation. This role is not required to aggregate data systems, improve regulatory reporting, or put basic best practices in place. However, if an organization truly wants to use data to improve outcomes, deliver a higher-quality student experience, and take action based on data, then a chief data officer might be the right role to facilitate transformative change supported by data and analytics.

About the author:

Sally Beatty is an alumna of Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office.

This commentary is adapted from an article originally published in The EvoLLLution magazine. For more, click here.

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