Understanding the ‘Why’ of Data

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Wednesday, April 5, 2023
By Isabelle Fagnot, Benjamin Stévenin
Photo by iStock/Thapana Onphalai
Data management should do more than generate reports for accreditors and regulators. It should turn data into a business school’s most valuable asset.
  • Successful business schools embrace data management as a way to inform their strategic planning, not just produce reports for the purpose of accreditation and governmental compliance.
  • To make data a true asset, business schools must first understand how they can optimize their use of data to drive decision-making and achieve long-term goals.
  • In data-driven academic cultures, leaders take a 360-degree view of the institution, use data strategically, and communicate their data-driven goals with stakeholders.


In the world today, we constantly consume, create, and speak of data. As a result, we are in a state of data overload. In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt put this reality into perspective when he said, “From the dawn of civilization to 2003, five exabytes of data were created. The same amount was created in the last two days.”

But even though we live in a data-driven culture, a recent survey conducted by the global consultancy NewVantage finds that only 26.5 percent of the Fortune 1000 firms responding said that they “have created a data-driven organization.” That said, only 7.8 percent cited technology as their main barrier to becoming data-driven. The vast majority, 92.2 percent, said that the “principal challenge” hindering their data management involved cultural factors, people, and processes. Only 19.3 percent of those organizations say they “have established a data culture.”

The percentage of higher education institutions (HEIs) that have created data-driven cultures is likely even lower, given that they are coping with data silos, unreliable data sets, and poor data quality. But institutions that do not take advantage of their information—or view it as only a means to meet reporting and regulatory requirements—are missing out on the many benefits of being truly data-driven.

With that reality in mind, we need to go back to the essence of data management—which comes down to knowing the “why” of data. In his 2011 book, motivational speaker Simon Sinek defines one’s “why” as the “compelling higher purpose that inspires us and acts as the source of all we do.” How can business schools translate this idea in ways that will help them optimize their data management efforts? And, more important, why does it matter?

Data Management Is About More Than Compliance

In addition to navigating the exponentially increasing amount of information in the world, HEIs must also meet the increasing number of reporting requirements of internal and external regulating bodies. Given that reality, it’s no wonder that business school leaders often view data management first and foremost as the act of producing data reports for the purpose of accreditation or regulatory compliance.

But producing reports is the very last step in the data management process. In fact, if a school has set up its systems effectively, the means to create relevant reports should be easily accessible and available. An accreditation team should be able to complete this step with just a click of a mouse.

There is a big difference between reporting data to meet internal and external requirements and engaging in true data management. Data management requires academic leaders to have a 360-degree view of their institutions and know why they are collecting data in the first place. They must know their institutions inside and out, and they must understand the business that they are in and what they want to achieve.

There is a big difference between reporting data to meet internal and external requirements and engaging in true data management.

They also must know how to use the information they collect so that it guides not only their reporting but also their decision-making. They must understand that reporting is the result of an effective and holistic data management approach, not the end in itself.

The online publication TechTarget defines effective data management as “the process of ingesting, storing, organizing and maintaining the data created and collected by an organization” in ways that “drive operational decision-making and strategic planning.” When institutions adopt and act according to this definition, they will be positioned to take full advantage of data management as a powerful strategic tool. 

Four Reasons Schools Fall Short

We believe there are four main reasons so many HEIs fail to use data management to their greatest advantage:

  • Their data and processes are managed at the department or faculty level, and as a result, kept in disciplinary silos. As a result, the institution has no global vision of what data is available or where to find reliable data.
  • They are hindered by information systems that are too outdated and haphazardly deployed to do the job.
  • They have not dedicated the time and resources required to deliver information to the users that need it.
  • They have not refined or focused the type of data they collect—they might collect too much of the wrong data or not have data available in clean formats.

If HEIs do not address these issues, faculty and staff can become exhausted by the effort of working with inefficient systems. At the same time, academic leaders miss out on a wealth of knowledge that can be used to drive decision-making. That’s why it is imperative for institutions that face any one—or even all—of the above challenges find ways to overcome them.

Having a ‘Why’ Is Critical

When people view data management only in terms of reports, statistics, and key performance indicators (KPIs), they do not know their “why.” They don’t have clear strategic reasons for collecting data, and they have no vision of what data should be and do.

Consider the example of faculty management. Too often, academic leaders believe that the “why” of managing their faculty data stems from the accreditation process. They might say, “We must collect data so that we can produce tables 3 and 8 to meet AACSB’s standards.”

The most successful institutions will use their faculty data management to promote their faculty’s expertise and communicate the importance of faculty’s work to corporate partners and other stakeholders.

But institutions that consider accreditation reporting to be only a starting point toward refining their visions will be successful at establishing appropriate processes and implementing data cultures. They will use their faculty data management to better understand the skills of their professors, promote and showcase their faculty’s expertise, and communicate the importance of faculty’s work to corporate partners and other stakeholders.

These schools will quickly reap the benefits of having robust tracking processes in place, in the form of more connections and partnerships, more impact, and greater visibility. These schools will create a competitive advantage through reliable data management.

Five Steps to Building Data-Driven Cultures

The road to becoming a data-driven business school can be long and bumpy, but schools can start this journey by developing deliberate long-term strategies. We recommend the following five steps:

  • Change your institutional mindset. When determining how and when to use data, shift from a compliant mindset to a strategic mindset.
  • Challenge your culture. Let stakeholders know the value of the data they provide and showcase how the school uses that data.
  • Focus on long-term objectives. Explain the school’s goals and KPIs to all collaborators. Frequently communicate how the data those collaborators collect and work with will help the school meet those targets. In other words, know your “why.”
  • Improve communication by listening. Ask different units within the school how they will use the data collected. Use what you learn to tailor communication with each unit.
  • Build trust. Link the values of the institution to the use of data. By linking data management to mission and values, the school will empower people to perform at their best.

Regardless of their size, location, strengths, or mission, business schools must act now to take full control of their data and stay competitive in a crowded market for business education. In an increasingly data-driven world, becoming a data-driven business school matters.

The authors would like to thank participants in the Women in Business Education’s Data Wonks community of practice, whose responses and questions informed this article’s discussion.

Isabelle Fagnot
Associate Dean for Quality and Accreditation and Professor of Management of Information Systems, KEDGE Business School
Benjamin Stévenin
CEO, ACADEM by RimaOne
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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