I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Will Miller, Executive Director of Institutional Analytics, Effectiveness, and Strategic Planning at Jacksonville University, about utilizing data, analytics, and visualization in organizations today. Read more below.


Leah: Hi Will! Thanks for joining me today. I’m excited to chat with you about how you utilize data in your role. First, can you introduce yourself to everyone and tell us a little bit about your everyday work?

Will: My background is actually in Urban Studies & Public Affairs; my real interest in data came from spending time in graduate school and after working in political polling. That eventually expanded into doing survey work for the State Department in Pakistan and Central Asia. When I had an opportunity to move from faculty into higher education administration, I jumped at the chance. College campuses are treasure troves of data from all areas. Whether we are working out predictive models for student success for applicants or working to determine the potential donor power of individual alums, we are able to collate data from a variety of sources to inform modeling: admissions, academic performance, engagement, affinity, financial, and non-cognitive factors all play a role. Prior to joining my current campus, I worked with over 1400 campuses as a higher education strategy consultant. And one thing became abundantly clear to me about all colleges and universities: we are great at collecting data, but we are pretty awful at drawing connections between data points to gain holistic insights on student or institutional performance. I spend my days working with faculty, students, and administrators to determine how we can best utilize data to improve efficiencies, efficacy, and effectiveness at all levels. It’s a job based on two key criteria: being able to have meaningful relationships with campus community members who have different goals and views and an ability to translate what data is telling us to their needs. Ultimately, I spend my time encouraging everyone to ask my office provocative questions and consider courageous answers.

Leah: I like how you paint a picture of how data can help organizations discover new possibilities, but I have to imagine one post-discovery struggle is persuasion. How do you think data and visualization offer unique advantages to leaders today who need to lead their organization through change?

Will: Data and related visualizations have to drive change in an organization if the organization hopes to reach optimal performance. Without data driving decisions, we fall into a trap many organizations have experienced historically where individual assumptions drive decision-making, regardless of whatever bias has impacted that assumption. Use a higher education example: assume I teach a course on College Algebra, and I fail a majority of athletes that take the course. I then decide athletes are not academically prepared to be enrolled at our College. If I push this point to administrators, and there’s no data to show if I am really right or wrong, we may alter our admission strategy based on the beliefs of one loud faculty member. This leads to flawed decision-making. This is also why data transparency is so important. Everyone in the organization needs to be able to see the data we are basing decisions on—and they need to feel empowered to suggest patterns and trends they feel are present. When data is only publicly used when convenient, it can create a sense of distrust of decision-making, processes and, even more importantly, can weaponize data in the eyes of many employees.

Leah: You bring up a good point. Decisions are made by people across organizations every day. It is one thing for leaders to make data-driven decisions, but should employees across organizations be prepared and encouraged to use data? If so, how can leaders prepare them to do so?

Will: Employees should absolutely be prepared and encouraged to use data. If we preach transparency and access to information then we should be ready to help employees successfully use data to help move the organization forward. We can’t, however, expect them to be ready to do this on their own on day one. Instead, it’s essential to create training programs that help employees become aware of the data available to them, what it means, and how we—as an organization—envision them using it. Data should be empowering our employees and allow them to feel comfortable asking provocative questions and considering courageous answers. With so much about data being centered on interpretation, it does us little good to rely on just one or two individuals to conduct every analysis or attempt to explain what they show.

I have to agree. Education is needed to bring people across an organization up to speed on data utilization and to get them involved in meaning-making. One last question. What do you think is up next for big data, data analytics, and viz? What should organizations be looking forward to?

Will: At the end of the day, the sheer volume and diversity of data available to us are going to continue to grow exponentially. It is essential organizations be ready to handle this growing potential, refine questions to make use of it, and place individuals in roles to work with it. Given the amount of specialized training occurring around data science, it will be more important than ever for organizations to have data translators—individuals who can serve as a liaison between data experts and subject matter experts. It’s increasingly likely that your employees working in data science will not be experts in your field yet be highly proficient at helping you make use of your data. Lastly, organizations have to be ready to move entirely away from making decisions based on unsupported assumptions and instead focus on undertaking valid and reliable predictive—and even prescriptive—analyses that can drive themselves forward in ways not previously imagined.


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