Data analytics is playing a major role in SMU’s Vision 2025.

Since its inception, Singapore Management University (SMU) has had a vision for differentiated pathways for faculty, staff and students, based on strong linkages with the world of practicing public, private and people sectors.

“SMU is a dynamic city university in the heart of Singapore. We are a specialized university focused on Management, Social Sciences, and Technology — and their intersections,” explained Vennila Vetrivillalan, Assistant Director, Data Analytics at SMU.

SMU’s goal is to transform future leaders through education and research. Established in 2000, the relatively young institution has already been recognized for its high-impact multi-disciplinary research that addresses Asian issues of global relevance, and for its innovations in experiential learning.

With more than 8,000 undergraduates, 1,800 post-graduate students, and 360 full-time faculty members, SMU has unveiled a bold 10-year vision, aiming to become one of the top three universities in Asia recognized for its courses in business and social sciences.

“SMU Vision 2025 has been pivotal to our University’s strategic direction, giving us added impetus to innovate and stay a forerunner in the tertiary education sector and contribute to Singapore and beyond. It aims to develop SMU into a world-class institution, having a credible reputation, top-notch faculty, and attracting the best students globally,” said Vennila.

As part of SMU’s Vision 2025, the strategic framework and building blocks span across 29 key performance areas (KPAs) and 67 key performance indicators (KPIs).

To support this vision, the Data Analytics team at the Office of Integrated Information Technology Services (IITS) worked closely with the Office of the President and senior stakeholders across SMU to design and implement Executive Management Analytics (EMA).

EMA provides analytical data insights for various business entities to track and make informed decisions on their KPAs and KPIs, helping to align their initiatives to the Vision 2025 and objectives.

Three key pillars

“Our strategic and data analytics framework is defined by our three primary goals,” said Vennila.

Pillar 1: Be a game changer. The university wants to create transformative education in specialized disciplines, particularly in the social sciences, that produce future generations of graduates capable of solving complex problems and making a difference to humanity.

Pillar 1: Be a catalyst. SMU aims to be a leader in cutting-edge and large-scale multi-disciplinary research in areas that provides insights and solutions capable of making high-impact contributions to people around the world.

Pillar 1: Be a global exemplar. It intends to become a pre-eminent and esteemed global city university in Asia. 

The goal of the university’s Data Analytics Framework is to measure student, faculty and staff performance, and to establish the educational outcomes needed to build the university of the future.

Said Vennila: “Our IT office needed to build a data-driven journey for SMU to achieve our goals. Of course, this data can be difficult to access and to render actionable if it’s hidden away in Excel spreadsheets, or locked up in siloed platforms like SAP or PeopleSoft. In the early days, we had too much data, and too little to use.” 

This was where Qlik came in. “Qlik provides user-friendly dashboard-based BI tools that make it easy to analyze and visualize complex data sets. It also integrates with major enterprise applications, making it easy to collect and analyze data that was previously only available to specialist users.”

Other advantages include:

  • Qlik is web-based and supports various mobile platforms
  • It isn’t processor-and-memory intensive, and requires minimal hardware to run
  • Setup and license costs are a fraction of a traditional data warehousing system

She continued: “Making all this data readily available and easy to understand helps us understand the leads or lag for the performance indicators identified. Thanks to Qlik, now we can identify any aspect of our educational and business key performance areas on the fly to better meet our targets.”

The three pillars of SMU’s strategic and analytical framework are augmented by these additional building blocks:

  • A strong ensemble of disciplines
  • A portfolio of distinctive programs
  • Deeper engagement across the student and alumni lifecycle

To achieve the desired outcomes in these areas, Vennila’s team has developed 13 dashboards and made them available to all staff.

“Two of these stand out for the impact they have had on best practices: the executive management and alumni analytics dashboards,” she said.  

EMA reveals the big picture

The executive management analytics (EMA) dashboard uses data as a strategic asset. It compiles and displays detailed information about the KPAs and KPIs that comprise the building blocks of Vision 2025.

To give an idea of how this dashboard is used, Vennila used the first pillar of Vision 2025: to be a game changer.

“One of our tracks is student satisfaction. To measure it, we hand out a survey instrument named ‘FACETS’ that allows us to track the overall SMU teaching effectiveness. We have a dashboard named FACETS Analytics, implemented in 2013, for the Centre of Teaching Excellence. This dashboard provides a holistic view of each school’s average score across terms and enables comparison of school average scores for every term, course, feedback question (i.e. performance of each school, based on the feedback given by students) against the overall SMU average. CTE uses the information from FACETS Analytics to identify areas of strengths and possible improvements in the course design and teaching delivery of the faculty. At the school level, the Dean’s Office uses the information from FACETS Analytics as part of its decision-making process for contract renewal, promotion, and tenure. We then summarize from FACETS Analytics some of the KPIs pertaining to teaching effectiveness to visualize in executive management analytics dashboard.”

All this data from the underlying respective detailed dashboard is summarized and loaded into the EMA dashboard on a quarterly basis. Everyone in the senior management team, including the President, Provost, and Head of Departments, can drill up and down as they visualize the data set. Information can then be shared top-down as necessary to middle managers, and ground-level personnel.

“The data set is so detailed, and the visualization capabilities of Qlik are so powerful, that our senior executive team can track everything on a periodic basis,” said Vennila. Much attention was also given to the dashboard user experience, so users can easily access any information they want from the summary KPI layer to the underlying drill-down layer.

Tackling alumni relations with data analytics

The alumni association of any university is vital in helping to build an international reputation. To cultivate lifelong engagement and affiliation with alumni, the university’s office of alumni relations faced some difficulty figuring out what kind of events attracted them: Should events be organized by age group? Did alumni with undergraduate degrees have the same interests as those who went on to postgraduate studies? 

“Alumni relations tried to identify the effectiveness of our marketing and communications channels. Mostly, they were monitoring downloads and Google Analytics pertaining to the alumni relations website. They knew they had membership and mentorship programs, but who was joining? Who wanted to become a member? Who applied to become a mentor or a mentee? What was the percentage of graduate students versus post-graduate students?”

Vennila believes one of the best things SMU did was to apply a Lean Six Sigma approach to the dashboard. “We wanted to identify the key metric and the process improvement that may be required in the various alumni engagement cycle. We did an input-output process map and collected three months’ worth of data to find the pain points in our alumni relations department.”

The team followed up with a failure mode effects analysis (FMEA), a common Lean Six Sigma tool, and concluded that two factors were hampering the efforts of alumni relations:

  1. They didn’t have a standard template
  2. They lacked appropriate metadata definitions

As a result, the alumni relations team was swamped with data requests from multiple departments. When they gathered or collated data, they were downloading them repeatedly from the alumni website and from other sources within SMU. When they submit data for analysis, they were not sure if they had collated and forwarded the correct information as it was extracted from different sources at various time periods.

“So we built a new standard template and gave alumni staff access to Qlik.” Said Vennila. “We confirmed the segmented dashboard requirements and reduced the data layers to a half dozen key areas that are needed to generate recurring reports. We were also able to summarize from Alumni Analytics, some of the KPIs pertaining to Alumni engagement to visualize in the executive management analytics dashboard.” 

“After we were done, SMU’s business process improvement team analyzed our alumni dashboard and determined it would save 400 man-hours of labor a year.”

Looking back, looking ahead

Looking back, Vennila mused: “We started using Qlik five years ago with a single proof of concept dashboard in the admissions department. Now, we’re up to 13 dashboards and nearly 75% of our 500 staff members are using Qlik for their data requirements.”

Back then, one of the biggest barriers was lack of BI awareness. “Everyone was using data from their respective source systems, but few of our staff members understood the need for business intelligence and analytical reporting.”

When Data Analytics team members visited various departments to train staff in Qlik, they didn’t just show them how to use the software. “We also taught them what business intelligence and operational reports were, what to put in, and what to leave out. We had to do this with department heads as well as their teams. We created design workshops, and helped senior managers identify KPIs and set up workflows. It was complex to begin with, but now people are telling us that these dashboards have made their lives so much easier.”

“These early adopters helped spread the word throughout the university. We identified evangelists in every department. They helped their colleagues take ownership of the data, adopt the right strategy and methodology, set up templates, and implement security governance. By giving staff the confidence to use the tools the right way, we increased adoption rates and generated excitement about Qlik and BI.”

The next challenge for the data analytics team is moving into predictive and advanced analytics. Said Vennila: “We’re aiming to dive deeper into student analytics to be able to predict the admissions priority and predicted GPA to better guide students on their academic choices.”

The data can be used to see whether SMU can predict if a student might have better chances of success in a different field of study. For example, professors may be able to guide a student who is underachieving in business to tremendous success in law.

“One of our researchers is working on ways to use text mining for the course feedback received in FACETS Analytics to understand further on the comments section captured in the survey so as to better understand student sentiments. We also want to mine the data generated by our library system. Who is borrowing what, and when? Is there a correlation between student success and the number of loans or hours spent in the library? Which of the library entrances are students using, and when are they using them? We can better allocate material and human resources by drilling down and asking questions such as these.”