Best Practices

5 Steps for Confident Decision Making

July 2, 2020
3 min read

For the better part of the last decade, I spent a large portion of my daily life making big and sometimes weighty decisions about the strategic direction of the university for which I worked. I spent several years as the Dean of my former university’s online campus and was responsible for managing a multi-million-dollar budget, growing enrollment, administering the LMS and related online pedagogy, as well as leading a team of staff and fully online faculty. Later, I accepted the position of AVP and leader of the entire Strategic Enrollment Management division at a point when enrollments at our main campus had been declining year over year. In that role, I was responsible for the staff in Admissions, Retention & Advising, Financial Aid, Partnerships & Outreach, Online Education, as well as a few marketing, IT, and admin support staff.

If you’ve ever been in a role where you are responsible for the well-being of a team of hard-working people, and if you possess the understanding that the decisions you make have the potential to impact hundreds of people in the short term and can make or break the upcoming fiscal budget and impact the university in the long term, then you and I can certainly relate. We both understand the pressure that comes with making solid decisions that you can stand up for when justifying your actions to your president and governance board. We both understand that feeling of gnawing anxiety that lingers at all hours of the day or night whether at work or at home, in a meeting, or even occasionally at 3AM. However, as time and experience shaped my approach to decision making over the years, I learned to feel more confident in my choices because I learned to efficiently use data to inform my strategic and operational directions.

I’m not here to tell you that data is the only thing you need or even that it’s the most important thing, but if you don’t have access to clear clean data, it is hard to understand the current state of things as well as historical trends. Of course, before you can even get to that point of declaring you’d like access to some data—maybe about the budget, maybe about the enrollment funnel, or maybe you’d like some data that everyone on your team can see and understand—before you even go there, you need to have some data governance in place and the whole executive team on board.

At Millennium, I get to work with many different colleges and universities across the US and Canada, and I am here to tell you that every school is in some phase of their own data journey. Some institutions have a data governance task force with comprehensive strategic plans and a team of IR and IT professionals at the ready to track progress to goals and deliver benchmark data at a moment’s notice. Others—and these are by far the majority—are in the earlier stages. They know they’d like access to data but many don’t know where to look other than Institutional Research or IPEDS, and often there is a process that involves submitting a ticket to request that data. Then in a few days (or weeks) when that data arrives, the requester realizes it’s not exactly what they were looking for and they needed a slightly different report. Some universities have excellent financial data but very little regarding the enrollment funnel. Others have a slick CRM with all sorts of reports, but little understanding of fiscal impact or how faculty workload is allocated across the institution.

A recent article from Educause showcases a list of the top ten issues higher ed IT teams will face in the coming years, and access to enrollment, retention, completion, and financial data all make the list.

1. Gather your data governance team and keep it small.

I recommend limiting this team to no more than 6 people, each with decision-making power for their area or division. Teams that are successful usually include representation from Budget/Finance, SEM, Student Affairs, Academics, Institutional Research, and Information Technology.

2. Define your goals.

This might be easy or it might be the biggest mountain to climb. For some this will be straightforward because you have already defined 4-5 goals for accreditation or they exist in your institution’s strategic plan. If you don’t have this step accomplished, check out this recent Inside Higher Ed article for some perspective on getting started.

3. Define your data.

Defining your data is a healthy exercise in which all diligent data governance teams should participate before trying to figure out what data is required for tracking goals and making decisions. And if you are scratching your head right now wondering what I mean by “define your data,” it just means that ensuring that your whole data governance team calls various things by the same names. For example, the SEM VP might use the term “enrolled” to describe all students eligible to enroll, but the VPFA might use “enrolled” to describe all students currently registered. There is a big gap between those two definitions, so it is well worth it to define those terms up front.

4. Prioritize.

There is nothing quite like an inbox full of well-meaning emails all asking for funds for new initiatives on top of a calendar full of meetings that will generate a to-do list a mile long. So how do you decide which ones to invest in, which to delegate, and which to pass by? Prioritize! I know this sounds simplistic, but the best way to handle this step is to make a list. I use OneNote with checkable boxes—and then drag and drop to prioritize. I recommend putting a couple of easy items at the top to check off right away—it will help you feel motivated and like you can actually get through your priorities in an organized, manageable way.

5. Determine the best way to obtain and view data.

And decide on this as a group! I’ve met those who prefer all sorts of colorful graphs and charts, some who just want a paper report with the basics, and others who want data table access to run their own reports. This is the step that Millennium’s product is designed for—we can customize reports and dashboards to meet your needs through your ERP system. Click here to sign up for a demo.

At the end of the day, we are all in the same metaphorical boat—working to scale or grow our enrollment, collaborating between the various departmental divisions at our institutions, and striving to make decisions that allow for a good night’s sleep and confidence in the direction we are headed. At Millennium, we can help you to find the data you need and display it in a way that is easy to understand and share.

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