Five Things Leaders Should Ask of Their Institutional Data

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A strong data infrastructure and culture are critical to navigating today’s challenges in higher education. Just this year, a number of books have come out offering guidance on how to build data culture and realize the value of analytics in higher education, including Cultivating a Data Culture in Higher Education edited by Powers and Henderson, and The Analytics Revolution in Higher Education, edited by Gagliardi, Parnell, and Carpenter-Hubin. I recommend both of these books for anyone grappling directly with the challenges of aligning data resources with vision and strategy, technology, human analytic capacity.

The Call for Leaders to be Data-Informed

Much of the higher education literature on analytics builds upon and applies the lessons of the longer-established business and management literature that created frameworks of analytics such as the DELTA model of analytic maturity created by Davenport, Harris, and Morrison (2010). Regardless of whether you’re immersed in the business world or higher education, the challenges of creating a strong organizational data culture bear many similarities and common elements of maturity. And, in the long list of what it takes to truly get value from your analytic efforts, leadership always tops the list of essential elements.

Regardless of their specific role, portfolio components, or type of institution, today’s higher education leaders face a lot of pressure to be data-informed. The good news is that leaders are able to empower effective data cultures in a multitude of ways, even if not running IT or institutional research! Leaders in all areas can serve as champions, set expectations, provide resources, create a safe environment for challenging assumptions, support professional development that fosters data literacy and analytical capacity, and model data-informed decision-making for others.

Asking Questions to Nurture a Healthy Data Culture

Whether you’re a CIO, a provost, VP, or AVP, one way you can support a healthy data culture on campus is by asking questions. I’m not just talking about asking the operational, topical, strategic, or policy questions that are standard expectations for any leader’s job. I’m talking about asking questions of the data that you use to support your decisions. By interrogating your data, you can help to identify the opportunities for improvement, whether they are related to technology and infrastructure or people and process. And, in doing so, you can help to set expectations and nurture a healthy data culture. Below are five questions you can ask of your institutional data today:

  1. Are the data timely, accurate/validated, and consistent? These are the fundamentals pointing to basic infrastructure, capacity, process, and governance that will hinder an effective data culture if they’re not attended to and appropriately resourced.
  2. What are the limitations of the data? No data are perfect; they’re often incomplete, ill-defined, sometimes unreliable or inconsistent, perhaps not well operationalized or valid. Of course, some questions will require higher levels of precision than others but, in most cases, some data are better than no data as long as you come to terms with the limitations and take those into account when using those data to inform decisions.
  3. Are the data outcomes-focused and aligned with your strategic and operational needs? As the popular saying goes, we are what we measure. Accountability in today’s higher education environment is increasingly turning from inputs to outcomes, so be sure to ask if your data are keeping pace. As someone who has been providing data to leadership for decades, I can attest that it’s much more effective to design institutional strategies and processes with measurement in mind so that the data being collected are aligned to and able to inform the desired outcomes.
  4. Do your data provide a contextual means of exploration of a broader topic? Reporting is necessary but altogether insufficient for data-informed decision making. And, a single data point is meaningless without a contextual anchor such as comparison over time, across groups, or against a standardized measure or goal. The best presentations of data to inform decision making consider multiple data sources, triangulate to show the facets and dimensions of a topic, speak to institutional environment, and anticipate likely questions.
  5. Can the data open up an opportunity space to change things for the better? Reporting is a look at the past – how are your data helping you to change your future? Do your institutional data predict, forecast, and/or diagnose in order to inform and enable proactive interventions? Are your data being used to inform continuous improvement through assessment/evaluation of your efforts? Part of using data to inform and create opportunities also means deploying it effectively. Data should be pitched at the right level for each audience, in an actionable, accessible, and engaging way – ideally integrated into everyday workflow so that it becomes part of how we work rather than additional work.

The expectation of data-informed decision-making is one of the major shifts in the evolving roles of higher education leaders today. Asking the right questions is one way that every leader can articulate clear expectations for data, providing instruction and guidance for institutional research, analytics, and information technology teams as they work to provide it.

In our webinar, Rob Robinson, myself, and Drs. Thompson and El-Haggan El from Coppin State University, will talk further about “Evolving Institutional Roles and Skills” as part of our series on change management. I hope you can join us in the conversation… and ask us some good questions!


Davenport, Thomas H., Jeanne G. Harris, and Robert Morison. (2010). Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Result. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Gagliardi, Jonathan S., Amelia Parnell, and Julia Carpenter-Hubin (Eds). (2018). The Analytics Revolution in Higher Education: Big Data, Organizational Learning, and Student Success. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Powers, Kristina and Angela A. Henderson (Eds). (2018). Cultivating a Data Culture in Higher Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Dr. Angela Baldasare, Senior Strategic Consultant, Civitas Learning

Angela is an experienced researcher, analyst, and consultant with a demonstrated history of success in data strategy and change management, helping organizations of all kinds effectively use data to inform strategy and achieve measurable outcomes. Angela’s work as a strategic consultant at Civitas Learning is informed most recently by her 8 years at the University of Arizona (UA). From 2014-2018 Angela served as the assistant provost for institutional research, managing the merger of UA’s institutional research and business intelligence units, and leading UA’s use of Civitas Learning products to support student success. From 2010-2014, served UA as the director of assessment and research for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management. Angela earned her PhD in sociology from UA and was an assistant professor at the University of Dayton from 2000-2003.

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