Last week, I wrote about our plans at Westminster College to embark on a SOA project as a part of our overall business process improvement efforts. Those two ideas form a cohesive whole that can improve every part of the business, increasing efficiency and driving customer service improvements. Another item that we’re rolling into this effort is business intelligence. Specifically, as a part of our overall plan, we’re considering implementing sophisticated dashboards, a subset of the business intelligence spectrum, as a part of our overall business process improvement project.

Colleges and universities, at their core, are really businesses. We even have our own vertical when we talk to vendors! Now, to be sure, there are a lot of college faculty and staff out there that cringe when they hear business terms applied to their institutions, but, in reality, even the most altruistic non-profit college has to make money in order to remain viable. Like any business in any vertical, colleges have a common set of metrics around which they base their successes or failures. These metrics, our key performance indicators, help us stay on course, but make adjustments when necessary to make sure we’re successful. Westminster, like most small private colleges, is very tuition-driven. We don’t have a multi-billion dollar endowment upon which we can draw, so tuition dollars are very important. In fact, for every college in the news with an enviable endowment, there are dozens or hundreds just like Westminster that are successful, but not mega-rich. Among our important financial metrics:

  • Net tuition revenue – after scholarships are awarded, what is the revenue left over?
  • Tuition discount rate – on average, how much are we discounting the tuition?
  • Budget – how are we performing against budget?
  • Fundraising – how are we performing on fundraising goals?
  • Student retention rate – at what rate are students voting with their wallets and sticking around because they’re getting what they want from Westminster?

Our business processes, both directly and indirectly, impact all of these metrics. One of the primary benefits of an education at a small, private college is the degree of personal attention received by each student. One goal of a business process improvement project would be to help drive the unnecessary interactions out of the equation so that faculty, staff, and students can focus more on the positive, formative interactions. This whole process begins right at the inquiry stage-the point in time at which a student expresses potential interest in the college. We can loosely link some of these metrics to our processes.

Certainly, business processes aren’t all about money and “the business” at a place like Westminster; we actually do care about the people in our small community! The processes are about people in a place like Westminster-in particular, our students. If, for example, we begin to see the student retention metric begin to move in the wrong direction, that change should prompt someone to investigate. Now, it’s possible that a movement is simply circumstance with no correctable reason behind it; for example, some students do get homesick, so they leave. However, without a good way to monitor these kinds of statistics, we don’t have the opportunity to proactively study our processes to make sure that they’re performing is such a way as to have a positive impact.

Dashboarding is one very small part of business intelligence, and it’s where we’ll start. By itself, dashboarding can be a direct business process improvement as people get a deeper look into what makes their areas operate. Right now, we have relatively manual ways to determine things like retention risk, but many of our metrics are very backwards looking. We wait until the year is over and then look back and see how we did. We need to be able to understand progress in time to be able to turn on a dime if necessary to correct small problems before they become larger ones.

Of course, this project, as well as all others, is not a short-term endeavor. In order to build a reasonable business process improvement/service-oriented architecture/dashboarding framework, there must be a very deep understanding of how everything works and how it all fits together.

I’ll continue to write about our efforts at Westminster and report back once we’ve begun to identify an actual plan for moving forward. We are very much still at the investigative stage, but will move forward rapidly, I anticipate.