A Healthy Data Culture

Making good use of data in higher education depends on more than introducing a new technology or process. We need to strive to create a healthy data culture on campus.


Learning at Wrigley

As a diehard Chicago Cubs fan, I find it hard to believe anyone understands the importance of a data culture more than Theo Epstein. After overcoming quite the deficit to win the World Series in 2016, Epstein remarked at Yale’s Commencement: “Early in my career, I used to think of players as assets, statistics on a spreadsheet I could use to project future performance and measure precisely how much they would impact our team on the field. I used to think of teams as portfolios, diversified collections of player assets paid to produce up to their projections to ensure the organization’s success. My head had been down. That narrow approach worked for a while, but it certainly had its limits. I grew and my teambuilding philosophy grew as well. The truth—as our team proved in Cleveland—is that a player’s character matters. The heartbeat matters. Fears and aspirations matter. The player’s impact on others matters. The tone he sets matters. The willingness to connect matters.”

Going to the Next Level

While Epstein had started to recognize the spreadsheets of data should only be part of the equation, his view of the data and analytics landscape in professional sports matured during the subsequent season. “Most organizations are operating with basically the same data streams and numbers…you have to look that much deeper to find that proprietary source of information or some data that another team doesn't have. You have to get really creative either whether that's neuro-scouting or some stuff going on in some office somewhere that they protect deeply that top, double-secret confidential info that the team can maybe keep for a competitive advantage for a couple of years before it becomes publicly available… Since everyone has really advanced data, it's really important now to find the right people and the right process to get your manager involved, get your coaching staff involved and ultimately the players because a lot of the information is only as impactful as it can be if it's actually put into play on a nightly basis knowing the team across the field is making adjustments on you… And the last issue is really sort of to go beyond the numbers and remember the game is played by human beings. So if everyone's got the same information you really want to put a premium on a humanistic approach, understanding people, putting them in a position to succeed, supporting them as human beings and individuals, and the chemistry of the group overall.”

So How Does it Translate?

And there it is. A way to think about a healthy data and analytics culture that

  1. recognizes everyone at least thinks about how they could be innovative with data (even if what they are envisioning isn’t truly innovative)
  2. recognizes how essential strong data translators are to successful usage
  3. recognizes how important the human touch is.

Possessing data isn’t enough. It’s everywhere today. But if we are expecting campuses to increase their data literacy capabilities, it is essential that we help pave a path from which they can be successful. Making good use of data in higher education, after all, depends on more than introducing a new technology or process. We need to strive to create a healthy data culture. We need to help campuses push their current comfort levels with data, find individuals on the staff and faculty (maybe even from within the student body) that can assure data is understood by those who use it to improve institutional progress or student success, and remember at the end of the day that every piece of data on a spreadsheet related to higher education likely ties to a student—a living, breathing student.