Why Business Intelligence is a useful tool for education

Robert Dagge, Managing Director at Dynistics, discusses how education institutions can use data insights to get ahead of the game

For schools, colleges and universities, using today’s Business Intelligence (BI) tools can be a bit like trying to drink from a fire hydrant – too much information, from all directions, with no control. Far too often the data they set out to find and monitor gets lost in the melee.

And then there’s the promise of the art of the possible where you can build just about any report given enough time and an army of experts on hand to help. By the time you get to measuring what you set out to measure, it could all just be yesterday’s information. And the more data, the worse it gets. Each attempt to achieve insight takes longer, and the potential benefits appear even further away. 

What’s needed now is a rethink on BI to turn it into a tool that can achieve results and make positive changes. But no education facility is unique, just different, and the use of pre-defined charts that are industry-honed by experts can deliver those desired insights within hours, rather than days, weeks or months.

Drowning in data

Schools, colleges, universities and other education institutions are awash with data – and with funding tight, they are under ever-increasing pressure to leverage that data to drive advantages across numerous areas. Yet while the pundits tout the amazing potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to transform data into unimaginable benefits, the sad reality in most cases is just 5-10% of this data is used in any way at all, let alone effectively. Given the maturity of the BI marketplace and toolsets, why are so many institutions in the education sector still reliant on Excel? Why are they still lacking any real-time access to data that delivers actionable insight? Why, essentially, is BI still failing to deliver?

In many ways it is the sheer scale of the opportunity that is BI’s Achilles heel. There is just so much data and so many options for capturing, analysing and presenting that data, so many ways to use data to drive operations that data fatigue and paralysis become the dominant responses to any BI initiative. The art of the possible may be incredibly compelling, but once a school or college starts to fall down the possibilities rabbit hole it can be incredibly tough to emerge. The result? Months have been spent with expensive consultants. Nothing has been achieved. The data is still underused, and they failed to attain the insight required to drive performance – whether it’s student retention, attendance, satisfaction or results. It doesn’t have to be this way.  

Lost goals

BI’s simple and compelling visualisation tools too often mask the essential complexity of knowing how to use data to achieve objectives. BI tools are incredibly powerful. But the bigger the promise, the longer the process; implementation can take weeks, months or even years and getting users up to speed can take just as long. 

The key is to get started; to step away from the extraordinary possibilities and focus on the immediate.

It is not the data or the BI tools that are the problem. It is the difficulty education institutions have in understanding how a data-driven establishment could operate and making that a reality without being led astray by the sheer breadth and depth of data opportunities. The two issues together can become a toxic combination because they can never achieve the quick wins required to prove the value of BI or reinforce the correct data culture and attitude amongst staff. 

A different approach is now essential. The data deluge is only going to increase and the establishments unable to turn this to their advantage are going to drown at the data fire hydrant. What is required is an effective hose – a way to harness specific data sets quickly that are totally relevant to the institution’s need.

Fast and focused

The key is to get started; to step away from the extraordinary possibilities and focus on the immediate. A college or school can implement an attendance dashboard within hours – providing the essential view of student attendance and work appraisal that can provide an early warning of potential drop-out. Rather than waiting for termly or year-end reports, leveraging real-time information, a red flag on the dashboard can prompt tutors or course leaders to intervene and understand why that student is struggling. In addition to helping colleges proactively address student safeguarding issues, this insight supports the Project 42 issue, minimising the loss of funding that results from students leaving before 42 days have passed – and reducing financial losses. 

Given the huge financial pressures now endemic within education, the ability to proactively address funding in this way will deliver an immediate benefit. Indeed, one college used data from its attendance dashboard to undertake the early intervention with students that prevented 86 learners from dropping out. A win for both college and students; and a platform upon which to build further issue-specific dashboards.


Done well, BI is transformative – from the Headteacher who reported to Dynistics that they have reduced their reporting time by 40%, releasing 100 days a year to spend making great decisions rather than searching for information, to the college that has used real-time insight to improve exam results and Ofsted ratings. The key is to start small. There is no need to boil the ocean: the education institutions that use BI to make smart decisions take bite sized pieces, they keep it simple and focused to deliver immediate benefit and, critically, demonstrate the value of data driven decision.

Of course, BI still offers the art of the possible – there is always the option to expand and explore, to customise and be creative. But that should not be the starting point. Expertly crafted dashboards provide schools, colleges and universities with the chance to get immediately up and running with relevant insight, and priorities to achieve instant wins and create the foundation for data-driven decisions.