A Dynamic Strategic Plan Doubles Down on Data

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Tuesday, April 18, 2023
By Rena Keath, Melissa Beaven
Photo by iStock/nikom1234
A new unit at the University of Kentucky uses data collection and analytics to streamline operations and accelerate progress toward the school’s long-term goals.
  • Without a well-informed strategic plan, supported by effective data management, a business school will find it far more difficult to achieve its established goals.
  • To strengthen its own strategic planning, the Gatton College of Business and Economics created a new unit to collect relevant data, automate processes, make data accessible, and generate reports for rankings and accreditation.
  • By bringing all data management activities under one roof, the new unit helps the school more effectively manage its growth, set priorities, and fulfill its overall mission.


A well-informed strategic plan helps a business school identify risks, discover new opportunities, set priorities to fuel its success, and define where it is headed. But the emphasis is on the phrase “well-informed.” Without the right data to back it up, even the most detailed strategic plan can falter or fail.

With that in mind, the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky in Lexington recently reorganized a college administrative unit to integrate two functions: business process efficiency and automation (formerly housed within the information technology department) and data analytics. The new College Enhancement Unit acts as a “one-stop shop” for all data and information about the college’s finances, processes, and strategic plan, as well as about its students, faculty, and staff.

The College Enhancement team is led by an associate dean who ensures the unit prioritizes projects that impact the college most. Team members possess skill sets in data management, SQL query building, and programming in languages such as JavaScript, PHP, and Python. Overseeing the college’s collection, analysis, reporting, and retention of information, the new unit was created to support assessment, accreditation, compliance, informed decision-making, and efficient processes and procedures.

Through consistent communication, timely responses, and the use of automated systems, the College Enhancement Unit is helping us formalize synergies and opportunities for collaboration that previously had been informal—or that had gone unnoticed altogether. As a result, we have increased the speed, breadth, and cohesion of data analysis across the entire college.

Why Create a Dedicated Unit?

The college’s original intranet was launched in the early 2000s as a collection of standalone web-based applications that were created in-house. Over time, the intranet morphed into a comprehensive interrelated set of applications that users accessed via a permission structure, based on their administrative roles.

But this system offered very little consistency. There was no overarching process for how requests came through the various departmental offices or for how those requests were managed.

Over the years, we began to see a dramatic increase in the demand for all types of data. To better triage the volume of requests, the college created new web-based applications that made business processes more efficient and streamlined. It also centralized and automated data of interest to college decision-makers.

The College Enhancement team has designed automated systems to manage everything from requests for guest parking to the logistics for hosting college visitors to course scheduling.

For example, we automated the way students request “course overrides”—that is, to enroll in courses after being denied enrollment by the university system. Once a student submits an override request, our new system can verify whether the student has necessary prerequisites to be eligible to enroll in the course; if the student is ineligible, the system automatically sends the student an email denying the request. Only if the student is eligible will the request, along with data regarding course capacity, be sent on to departmental staff.

That system transformed an administrative process that was once tedious and time-consuming to one that is quick and efficient, says Stephanie Lynch, director of advising. The change, she says, “has greatly improved our workflow.”

In fact, the process worked so well that other college units began requesting similar automated systems for their own processes. That’s when we realized that the college needed to be more strategic in the way it collected and used its data—we needed to handle all data-related requests under one roof.

One Team, Many Functions

That history described above led to our opening the College Enhancement Unit in mid-2022. Its team now manages a range of new initiatives that cover strategic areas such as the following:

Business process efficiency. Many college processes were once managed by sharing paper or PDF documents. Now, the College Enhancement team has designed automated systems to manage everything from requests for guest parking to the logistics for hosting college visitors. It also has created a course scheduling system that accesses university data on classroom size and availability, allowing multiple administrators to simultaneously coordinate courses and allocate classroom resources.

Whenever someone submits a request in these areas, the system generates an automated email notification to all affected college units. These new systems decrease processing time, increase the accuracy of data collection, and connect workflows directly to university-level data whenever possible.

Financial detail reporting. The university’s financial data reporting system does not provide users with the level of detailed data they need to efficiently manage departmental and administrative budgets. To rectify this, the college created a new internal application/process to help users track expenses and compare each unit’s budget with its actual expenditures. This information, combined with aggregate data from the university, ensures the integrity of the college’s financial health.

For this function, we use our Financial Reporting and Numbers System (FRANsys), which streamlines the reporting of expenses by end users and the editing of expenses by the business office staff. It also provides responsible units with real-time pictures of charged expenses. Specifically, FRANsys includes the following functions:

  • An end-user expense reporting form.
  • A budgeting tool that allows users to allocate their funds to separate subcategories.
  • A reporting tool that provides close to real-time data comparing budgets to actual expenditures.
  • A permission structure that determines who owns particular budgets and who is allowed to report expenditures and view reports related to those budgets.
  • A travel preapproval function (within FRANsys) where faculty and staff submit travel requests, along with relevant expenses, to their directors and department chairs for approval.
  • An email notification system that sends confirmation emails to those who submit expenses and that informs budget owners of travel requests and expenses charged to their accounts.

Task management system. This system, which works within the college intranet, allows users to create entries for all current and planned projects. The system can assign project due dates to multiple individuals, add subtasks, create timelines, and mark steps as completed. Staff can then use this information to gauge progress, identify areas of overlap, and create synergies whenever possible. The system also provides cyclical reminders for recurring projects and processes, such as annual faculty reviews, accreditation and ranking surveys, and teacher course evaluations.

Documentation retention portal. This internal portal houses documents that must be maintained over time, such as course evaluations, course syllabi, program and curricular modification documents, faculty curricula vitae, and business school rankings information. This information is easily accessible. For instance, faculty can use it to see how curricular changes might impact courses in other disciplines or to identify international course equivalencies. Department chairs can access course evaluations while conducting annual faculty performance reviews.

Data analytics reporting. Our new unit creates custom reports (using Tableau Desktop) to analyze and present university data stored in platforms such as HANA and Digital Measures. Those reports are organized and housed in the university’s Tableau Server, where users can generate self-service data visualization reports beyond what is provided by the university. This means that business officers can readily generate financial reports, and academic program directors and department chairs can access reports related to admissions, enrollments, course capacities and enrollments, and degrees conferred. Administrators can look at historical student enrollment patterns to predict the impact that curricular changes might have after implementation.

Users can create different data dashboards for different rankings and accreditors, allowing for richer data mining and easier modifications to meet different reporting guidelines.

All reports are available on the Tableau server, most often as aggregate data. However, student-level data is available upon request when appropriate, strictly following federal guidelines set out by the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Strategic planning portal. The college’s strategic plan has been entered into a custom system that organizes data by goal, theme, tactic or action, and unit responsibility. This system provides all responsible units with links specific to their assigned tactics or actions, and it regularly sends automated email communications to responsible units asking for progress updates. These updates are entered into the system, which allows the college to gather comprehensive reporting by unit or goal area.

Surveying and reporting. Prompted by AACSB’s recommendation, the college surveys undergraduate alumni five years postgraduation and manages undergraduate students’ postgraduation employment or continuing education plans. Combined with information related to enrollment and matriculation, this data helps the college recognize patterns and indicators of success. For instance, using this data, administrators most recently confirmed that internship and study-abroad opportunities were markers of successful employment.

The college also uses this system to respond to surveys and create reports related to the rankings and accreditation. While rankings organizations and accreditors require similar data sets, each has its own timeframes and data submission requirements. The new system allows users to create different data dashboards for each purpose, allowing for more efficient processes, richer data mining, and easier modifications to meet different reporting guidelines.

Fulfilling a Vital Mission

Before the College Enhancement Unit was in place, only small portions of two full-time positions were dedicated to the effort. But today, these functions are run by four full-time staff members. These include the new unit’s director, as well as staff assigned to the areas of data analytics and visualization, intranet and business process automation, and assessment and compliance. They are supported by several part-time graduate and undergraduate assistants.

So far, the College Enhancement Unit is fulfilling its mission to help the college manage its growth and make faster progress toward its five-year goals. For instance, since fall 2019, our enrollments have increased by 22 percent, and we predict an additional 8 percent increase for fall 2023. The Enhancement team is helping the college manage this growth by feeding data into a predictive enrollment model, managed by the dean.

Using this model, department chairs can better allocate limited classroom space and determine how many sections to offer to accommodate more incoming students. The school can plan for additional adjunct faculty hires and schedule classes several semesters ahead.

The unit “allows us to practice what we preach using state-of-the-art analytics to inform decision-making,” says Simon Sheather, dean of Gatton College, as well as its Truist Endowed Chair in Data Analytics. He is advocating for further elevating the unit, so that its team can do even more to support the college’s operations management and strategic planning.

As we continue to refine and expand the College Enhancement Unit, its overall goals will remain the same: to gather information vital to our college’s success and to make that information easily accessible to faculty, students, and staff. By adopting such a deliberate and unified approach to data management, our college has been able to streamline its processes, engage in more informed decision-making, and significantly accelerate progress toward its established goals.

Rena Keath
Director of College Enhancement, Gatton College of Business and Economics, University of Kentucky
Melissa Beaven
Business Intelligence and Process Specialist, Gatton College of Business and Economics, University of Kentucky
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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