Building the University of the Future Through Data Analytics
The goal of higher education isn’t to change the future—it’s to foster those who will. Since its inception, Singapore Management University (SMU) has had a vision for a differentiated pathway for our faculty, staff, and students, based on strong linkages with the world of practising public, private, and people sectors. SMU is a dynamic city university in the heart of Singapore. We are a specialized university focused on Management, Social Sciences, and Technology—and their intersections.
SMU’s goal is to transform future leaders through education and research. With over 8,000 undergraduates, 1,800 post-grad students, and 360 full-time faculty members, we are preparing the next generation of change makers.
SMU is a relatively young institution of higher learning. Established in 2000, SMU is recognized for its high-impact multi-disciplinary research that addresses Asian issues of global relevance, and for its innovations in experiential learning.
SMU has unveiled a bold 10-year vision, aiming to become one of the top three universities in Asia recognized for its courses in business and social sciences. SMU Vision 2025 has been pivotal to our University’s strategic direction, giving us added impetus to innovate and stay a forerunner in the tertiary education sector and contribute to Singapore and beyond. It aims to develop SMU into a world-class institution, having a credible reputation, top-notch faculty, and attracting the best students globally.
As part of Vision 2025, the strategic framework and building blocks span across 29 key performance areas (KPAs) and 67 key performance indicators (KPIs). To support Vision 2025, and adopt a data driven-approach, the Data Analytics team at the Office of Integrated Information Technology Services (IITS) worked closely with the Office of President and senior stakeholders across SMU to design and implement Executive Management Analytics (EMA). The EMA provides analytical data insights for various business entities to track and make informed decisions on their KPAs and KPIs, helping to align their initiatives to the Vision 2025 and objectives.
This roadmap is more than a statement of our educational philosophy. SMU Vision 2025 is a data-driven journey that uses Key Performance Areas (KPAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to map out our future.
Built on a Strong Foundation
Our strategic and data analytics framework is defined by our three primary goals. Let’s take a deeper dive into our overarching initiatives.
The first of our pillars is to be a game changer. We want to create transformative education of specialized social sciences disciplines that produces future generations of graduates capable of solving complex problems and making a difference to humanity.
The second pillar is to be a catalyst. SMU strives to be a leader in cutting-edge and large-scale multi-disciplinary research in key areas of excellence that provides insights and solutions capable of making high-impact contributions to people and countries around the world.
Finally, our last pillar is to be a global exemplar. We want to be a pre-eminent and esteemed global city university in Asia.
SMU Vision 2025 is more than a commitment to excellence. It is the deliberate application of Data Analytics Framework so as to obtain greater insights on the journey envisaged. Our goal is to measure student, faculty, and staff performance, and to establish the educational outcomes needed to build the university of the future. Our IT office needed to build a data-driven journey for SMU to achieve our goals. Of course, this data can be difficult to access and to render actionable if it’s hidden away in Excel spreadsheets, or locked up in siloed platforms like SAP or PeopleSoft. In the early days, we had too much data, and too little to use.
This is where Qlik comes in. Qlik provides user-friendly dashboard-based BI tools that make it easy to analyze and visualize complex data sets. It also integrates with major enterprise applications, making it easy to collect and analyze data that was previously only available to specialist users.
Qlik is web-based and supports various mobile platforms. It isn’t processor-and-memory intensive, and requires minimal hardware to run. Qlik is also cost-effective. The setup and license costs are a fraction of a traditional data warehousing system.
Making all this data readily available and easy to understand helps us understand the leads or lag for the performance indicators identified. Thanks to Qlik, now we can identify any aspect of our educational and business key performance areas on the fly to better meet our targets.
The three pillars of our strategic and analytical framework are the core of SMU Vision 2025. They are augmented by four more building blocks that complete the picture. These are a strong ensemble of disciplines, a portfolio of distinctive programs, and deeper engagement across the student and alumni lifecycle.
To achieve the desired outcomes in these seven areas, we have developed thirteen dashboards and made them available to our staff. Two of these stand out for the impact they have had on best practices: the executive management and alumni analytics dashboards. Let’s take a closer look.
Executive Management Analytics Reveal the Big Picture
The executive management analytics dashboard uses data as a strategic asset. It compiles and displays detailed information about the KPAs and KPIs that comprise the seven building blocks of Vision 2025.
To give you an idea of how we’re using this dashboard, let’s explore the first pillar—or building block—of Vision 2025: to be a game changer. One of our tracks is student satisfaction. To measure it, we hand out survey instrument named “FACETS” that allow us to track the overall SMU teaching effectiveness.
We have a dashboard named FACETS Analytics, implemented in 2013, for Centre of Teaching and Excellence. This dashboard provides a holistic view of each school’s average score across terms and enables comparison of school average scores for every term, course, feedback question (i.e. performance of each school, based on the feedback given by students) against the overall SMU average. CTE uses the information from FACETS Analytics to identify areas of strengths and possible improvements in the course design and teaching delivery of the faculty. At the school level, the Dean’s Office uses the information from FACETS Analytics as part of its decision-making process for contract renewal, promotion, and tenure. We then summarize from FACETS Analytics some of the KPIs pertaining to teaching effectiveness to visualize in executive management analytics dashboard.
All this data from the underlying respective detailed dashboard is summarized and loaded into the executive management dashboard on a quarterly basis. Everyone in our senior management team, including the President, Provost, and Head of Departments, can drill up and down as they visualize the data set. We were provided a huge amount of support from our senior management team. Information can then be shared from the top-down as necessary to middle managers, and ground-level personnel.
The data set is so detailed, and the visualization capabilities of Qlik are so powerful, that our senior executive team can track everything on a periodic basis. The UX of the dashboard was given the utmost importance. We deviated from the traditional approach and created a menu-style interface with radio buttons, arrows, and pulldowns to make it easier to navigate. Now, users can easily access any information they want from the summary KPI layer to the underlying drill-down layer.
Tackling Alumni Relations with Data Analytics
Another track under Vision 2025 is alumni engagement. We wanted to cultivate lifelong engagement and affiliation with alumni. The alumni association of any university is vital in helping to build an international reputation. Our office of alumni relations had difficulty figuring out what kind of events attracted alumni. Should they organize such events by age group? Did alumni with undergraduate degrees have the same interests as those who went on to postgraduate studies?
Alumni relations tried to identify the effectiveness of our marketing and communications channels. Mostly, they were monitoring downloads and Google Analytics pertaining to the alumni relations website. They knew they had membership and mentorship programs, but who was joining? Who wanted to become a member? Who applied to become a mentor or a mentee? What was the percentage of graduate students versus post-graduate students? Garnering these insights would help us foster a culture of excellence, not just in the existing community, but beyond the community.
The best thing we did was to apply a Lean Six Sigma approach to this dashboard. We wanted to identify the key metric and the process improvement that may be required in the various alumni engagement cycle. We did an input-output process map and collected three months’ worth of data to find the pain points in our alumni relations department.
We followed up with a failure mode effects analysis (FMEA), a common lean Six Sigma tool. We concluded that two factors were hampering the efforts of our alumni relations team. The first of these was that they didn’t have a standard template, the second was that they lacked appropriate metadata definitions. As a result, they were swamped with data requests from multiple departments. When they gathered or collated data, they were downloading them repeatedly from the alumni website and from other source systems within the SMU system.
When they did submit data for analysis, our alumni relations team wasn’t even sure if they had collated and forwarded the correct information as it was extracted from different sources at various time periods. So we built a new standard template and gave Alumni staff access to Qlik. We confirmed the segmented dashboard requirements and reduced the data layers to a half dozen key areas that are needed to generate recurring reports. We were also able to summarize from Alumni Analytics, some of the KPIs pertaining to Alumni engagement to visualize in the executive management analytics dashboard.
After we were done, SMU’s business process improvement team analyzed our alumni dashboard and determined it would save 400 man-hours of labor a year. That’s the equivalent of two-and-a-half months. They certified this result, so we know the precise ROI of the effort we put into building this valuable tool.
The First Five Years
We started using Qlik five years ago with a single proof of concept dashboard in the admissions department. Now, we’re up to 13 dashboards and nearly 75% of our 500 staff members are using Qlik for their data requirements. One of our biggest barriers was lack of BI awareness. Everyone was using data from their respective source systems, but few of our staff members understood the need for business intelligence and analytical reporting.
When Data Analytics team members visited various departments to train staff in Qlik, we didn’t just show people how to use the software. We also taught them what business intelligence and operational reports were, what to put in, and what to leave out. We had to do this with department heads as well as their teams. We created design workshops, and helped senior managers identify KPIs and set up workflows. It was complex to begin with, but now people are telling us that these dashboards have made their lives so much easier.
These early adopters helped spread the word throughout the university. We identified evangelists in every department. They helped their colleagues take ownership of the data, adopt the right strategy and methodology, set up templates, and implement security governance. By giving staff the confidence to use the tools the right way, we increased adoption rates and generated excitement about Qlik and BI.
The Years to Come
Our next challenge is to progress into predictive and advanced analytics. We’re aiming to dive deeper into student analytics to be able to predict the admissions priority and predicted GPA to better guide students on their academic choices. We wanted to use the data we have to see whether we can predict if a student might have better chances of success in a different field of study. For example, she might be able to guide a student who is underachieving in business to tremendous success in law.
One of our researchers is working on ways to use text mining for the course feedback received in FACETS Analytics to understand further on the comments section captured in the survey so as to better understand student sentiments. We also want to mine the data generated by our library system. Who is borrowing what, and when? Is there a correlation between student success and the number of loans or hours spent in the library? Which of the library entrances are students using, and when are they using them? We can better allocate material and human resources by drilling down and asking questions such as these.
In the end, it’s about changing the world. SMU is providing quality education and cutting-edge research opportunities to the next generation of leaders and change makers. We are transforming young people into local heroes and global citizens by instilling a lifelong desire to learn and to serve the community.
At Singapore Management University, we are building the higher learning institution of tomorrow. Qlik is helping us harness the data that will make our vision a reality.