Why every school needs a data dashboard
Rather than rely on their instincts alone, schools can benefit hugely from being able to visualise performance, writes Nathalie Sinyard
What is an admissions dashboard? In today’s data-driven environment, dashboards receive a lot of attention. But some readers may not be clear on what they are, what their purpose is, and if they are really necessary.
The term originates from cars and, in many ways, the use is the same. The main purpose of a dashboard is at-a-glance data visualisation. There are so many things that can impact on a school’s performance and a dashboard summarises these with easy-to- understand, real-time information.
In the car, you can immediately see how fast you are travelling, how much fuel you have in the tank and if you need to “Check Engine” when something needs immediate attention. In much the same way, the function of a dashboard is to aggregate and extract value from all the data you collect, letting you know exactly where your attention should be focused right now.
Compared to admissions spreadsheets, it simplifies data into more manageable chunks of visual information that allow you to see what you are doing right and where you need to take some action. When utilised properly, dashboards can be used to help you make informed decisions that dramatically impact school performance, and crucially to communicate this information to other staff and board members in a way that is both easy to understand and impactful.
While there are infinite ways to customise a dashboard and make it your own, all dashboards fall into one of three categories:
• Operational dashboard – the most common type, with metrics updating in real-time showing data related to daily operations. The main purpose is to provide a comprehensive snapshot of performance.
• Analytical dashboard – uses data from the past to identify trends to influence future decision-making.
• Strategic dashboard – tracks performance in relation to your key performance indicators, to better align actions with strategy. If you are looking for a dashboard to share with your whole school leadership team, creating a strategic dashboard is a wise investment of time.
Benefits and uses of dashboards
A dashboard has many functions, which all have their own utility, but the top three benefits of any dashboard are:
• Data transparency – data is any school’s most important asset when it comes to making improvements, saving costs, planning and marketing. Its use will be limited if understanding or accessing it is problematic. A well-designed dashboard provides on-demand access to all of your most important metrics. Better still, it reduces the amount of time it takes to compile reports – time you can spend on other activities that require a human touch, such as school tours and telephone calls.
• Better decision-making – dashboards provide an unbiased view of performance, so are ideal for decision making and opening dialogues with others in school.
• Accountability – while it’s always nice to see where things are going right, you also need to see and understand what is going wrong. Dashboards can pinpoint where your trouble areas are and arm you with the information you need to improve.
Do I really need a dashboard?
Almost every school can benefit from having a dashboard that reflects their objectives, and certainly if you are experiencing any of the following issues, it may be time to try one out:
• You feel that your school can improve but would like guidance or validation on how and where to start.
• You’re monitoring and tracking data but are unsure what to do with the information or how to make sense of it.
• Your current activities aren’t giving you the results you need and could be trailing behind the competition.
• You’re struggling to see all of your data from multiple sources in one location.
• The leadership team requires analysis and strategic guidance from the admissions team.
What to include and how to use it
The more data available, the more challenging it can be to find meaning in it. In spreadsheet form, information can be tedious, patterns get hidden in the rows and columns, and often relevance is lost without cross-referencing the results against other data sources. If you decide you would like to try a dashboard system for your school, it makes sense to start with the questions you have about your data and then build a dashboard around those. However, the suggestions below may help get you started:
• Enrolment trends – can you tell whether your enquiries, applications or starts are increasing or decreasing. By comparing year-on-year and quarte-over- quarter statistics, admissions teams can monitor their progress and whether they’ve hit previous benchmarks.
• Marketing source trends – what marketing sources are driving leads, applications and starts? By understanding marketing sources, schools can start to understand what efforts are generating interest in the school.
• Admissions pipeline – what does your pipeline look like for prospective students? By understanding the stages that prospective students are in, admissions teams can start to identify bottlenecks and reprioritise resources to help move students through the funnel more efficiently.
• Yield rate – what is your yield rate by marketing channel? Marketing channels can generate a wide range of results. Some channels deliver higher quality enquiries, others deliver higher quantities. By looking at yield rate by channel, schools can adjust their marketing investments to maximise their return.
• Admissions efficiency – how long is it taking your admissions team to contact prospective students? By measuring this variable, schools can assess the relationship of response time to application volume, acceptance rate and likelihood of enrolment. This metric is often overlooked but can be a critical factor.
The importance of inputs
Of course, the dashboard is an output created by the inputting of data. In this sense, a dashboard is only as effective as the data used to generate it. Schools have many opportunities to collect the information needed at enquiry, application and enrolment stage, but it is essential that this is done in a timely and efficient manner, so that the dashboard always reflects the current landscape, not the situation a month ago. Your existing school management information system should have the facility to capture source of enquiry and track an applicant throughout their interaction with the school. If you are unsure of how to go about this, or suspect it is not being done in the most effective way, arranging a short training session will reap great rewards.
There are a number of online resources such as the Tes.com and gov.uk sites, and often the school’s current information system provider will provide free follow-up training. Collecting data, however, is only half the battle. Schools must also decide how to manage it, and investing in a data management system is a wise move. Lengthy spreadsheets are no longer adequate as schools need consistent records instantly accessible by anyone who needs the information. There are many different data systems available, and a decision about which one is best suited for your school requires careful analysis of your specific needs.
Begin by asking who needs to access the data, how can we ensure it is being recorded accurately and consistently, and what information do we need to capture to make critical decisions, both day-to-day and looking at the bigger strategic picture? Some schools may also consider appointing a data manager. The essential role of a data manager is to keep track of and analyse all the data schools are generating, presenting it in a format that is comprehensible and actionable. They are also responsible for “cleaning” the data and removing any errors or inconsistencies before they are fed into the system.
Your data manager is a key player in school growth and performance. When schools have a data manager on staff, it does free up a significant amount of time for other tasks, and provides confidence in the data behind your decisions.
Too often admissions professionals are left with gaps in data meaning that genuine insights into student recruitment gets replaced by anecdote and intuition. Intelligent use of dashboards can guide decision-making with real-time facts, enabling the school to act based on evidence. By making a practice of reviewing dashboards, you can verify your assumptions with data and will quickly notice when changes occur, allowing you to be nimbler in your approach. There is no shortage of data today but finding meaning in it can be tough. Identifying key questions and creating dashboards to answer those questions makes data-driven decisions easier for you and your management team; and provides a valuable tool for your whole school.
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