Streamlining Data Requests

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This month’s question is answered by ​Jerry Oman, Institutional Analytics and Strategic Effectiveness, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily of AIR. Subscribers are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article.

Dear Jerry: Our IR office is swamped with custom data requests every semester. How can we streamline our system so that we can focus on higher value-added analyses for the university and reduce time spent on custom projects?  

Jerry Oman.jpgManaging the constant stream of incoming data requests is one of the top challenges I’ve experienced working in IR and it isn’t uncommon based on my conversations with other IR professionals. Here are a few ways to mitigate those circumstances.

Proactively Make Information Available

When I started my career in IR, self-service intelligence reporting platforms were increasing in popularity and gaining traction. We believed they would be a major part of the solution in streamlining and reducing the volume of custom requests.

One of the challenges we faced with self-service reporting was making sure that the information in them was clear. Not clearing indicating data definitions and descriptions can cause confusion that leads towards distrust of data. It’s also important to select only essential data variables to present and publish. Too much data can overwhelm users and cause them to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Providing background information or prefacing reports with context and limitations can be helpful in this regard.

We initially used Microsoft SharePoint to provide interactive PowerPivot reports in our self-service reporting efforts. We’ve since transitioned to the more visually driven Microsoft Power BI application. While some institutions may lack the capacity to invest the time and resources into a self-service intelligence reporting service, simpler approaches to sharing data and reports via an intranet or restricted network folder remain viable options. In fact, we continue to make use of different reporting formats depending on what best meets the needs of our patrons.

Handle Unexpected Results

While self-service reporting has met many of our expectations and has been key in creating a more data literate and data-driven culture at our university, there have been some unexpected results. The biggest surprise was that it didn’t necessarily reduce the volume of requests. While it did reduce the number of basic questions, we found that as user knowledge of available data and information increased, more requests became more detailed and nuanced. For example, questions such as “How many students by gender are declared to our programs?” became “How do male and female students declared to a program compare when factoring in those with a cumulative GPA <3.0 and course completion below <85%?”

We also saw increases in requests for “mashed-up” reporting or reporting that required combining multiple data sources (e.g.  “I’ve got an Excel file of data and I want to see how it relates to what’s here”.) These types of requests aren’t practical to include in our standard self-service reporting. The lesson was that when new reporting tools are released, you should be prepared for the possibility that additional or more detailed information requests could follow. 

Perhaps an even greater lesson was that even though we can’t incorporate all requests into our standard self-service reporting, it doesn’t mean they should be discouraged. An alternative way of viewing requests is that they can be positive indicators of an emerging culture of inquiry and evidence on your campus.  That said there needs to be a balance in how you manage “interesting-to-know” requests and the essential information needed to inform strategic efforts. 

Implement Data Request Processes

Finding that balance starts with a process and asking good questions. Even in one-person IR offices, a well thought out data request process can pay huge dividends in streamlining your system and optimizing efficiency and effectiveness. Whether required through a form or even gathered over the phone, getting a thorough understanding of what and why someone is making a request is essential. Screening requests thoughtfully allows IR offices to manage expectations and prioritize requests that support the institution’s most vital goals. Questions we typically ask to support this process include:

  • Purpose of the request

  • Specific description of the data needed

  • Time period

  • How they plan to use and share the results

  • Is it a one-time request or will it be recurring

  • Priority and date needed

Document Processes

Documenting custom report criteria and processes ensure that you and others use the same consistent approach, avoid knowledge “silos” and most importantly are able to create reproducible results. No one ever wants to be in a position of starting over from scratch when the person handling custom requests leaves their position. There are a variety of tools and applications that can assist with documentation and may include things as simple as keeping requests segmented by the requestor in a one accessible network location.

Minimize Role Confusion

An underrated aspect of managing data requests is minimizing the role confusion that can exist about who on your campus provides different types of data and information. For example, while our IR office typically answers questions about the percentage or counts of students declared to programs, our Registrar’s office is responsible for providing student level lists with contact information for those programs. On some unfortunate occasions, the same request is made to multiple offices (without the others knowledge) because it is unclear who should be the appropriate responder. The confusion around these roles not only wastes time and lowers productivity but creates frustration for everyone involved.

Clarifying what type of information can be provided (e.g. public, non-public, non-releasable, etc.), who on your campus can provide it and the procedures required to request the information by posting a policy on your website and/or link within your email signature is one strategy to minimize confusion.

Another strategy is to proactively meet with campus stakeholders regarding data decisions, needs, reporting formats, timelines, and other details. Not only can it minimize confusion but it also contributes to building healthy relationships between your office and those you serve.



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