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Episode 36

transformed: Data-driven Transformation

In this episode, Cyndi Cain Fitzgerald – Manager of Business Intelligence Analytics at Antioch University – describes the use of an internal data taxonomy standard within Antioch’s Ellucian Colleague implementation to support Antioch’s transformation from campus-centric structure to school-centric structure.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:02)
Welcome to transformed a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new what’s and the new how’s in Higher Ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of Higher Ed while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence culture, strategy and tactics planning, and execution people, process, and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s, what’s required to truly transform. Hello, welcome and thanks for joining us for another episode of transformed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President, and CTO of Higher Digital. And today I am joined by Cyndi Cain Fitzgerald, Manager of Business Intelligence Analytics at Antioch University. Cyndi, welcome to transformed

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (00:53)
Thanks, Joe. I’m really happy to be here today. What would you like to talk about? 

Joe Gottlieb: (00:59)
Well, I want to get into the topic of data driven transformation, cuz I know you’ve done some great work in that area, but before we do tell me a little bit about your story.  I want our listeners to understand, what your journey’s been like and how that’s really set you up to be so focused in this area that you’ve been working in. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (01:19)
Sure. Uh, well, I’ll start with this. I call myself an accidental analyst because once upon a time I was a director of development and I managed a portfolio of about a 100 major donors, as well as doing all the traditional fundraising activities of direct mail and phone banks and plan gifts and special events. But I think, you know, that a good fund raiser is at heart, a good storyteller. So my educational background in communications and storytelling in theater turned out to be an asset. Um, for development, a good fundraiser also knows the value of information and how that translates into successfully connecting the right donor with the right opportunity. Understanding the data needed for running a successful development campaign is how I found myself working as a data management professional. I left my position as the director of development for the San Francisco women’s building. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (02:26)
When I moved from San Francisco to Vermont in 1997 and full-time fundraising jobs were scarce in the state of Vermont, largely due to the high volume of volunteer participation in nonprofits. So I was offered and accepted a job at world learning, managing the database for their development department. And I discovered that I have an aptitude for information management. I was recruited into the it department as an apprentice programmer. I was quickly promoted to a full programming position and then recruited by Antioch to become the business analyst programmer for their new England campus. Um, and when the O um, when the office of institutional effectiveness was founded at Antioch, I was tapped by the chief operations officer to become the senior programmer analyst for I E as you mentioned in my intro, I’m now serving as the university manager for business intelligence analytics, but really all of that experience dating all the way back to fundraising, going all the way back to storytelling in the beginning, all of that really has contributed to the data transformation project that we’re about to discuss. 

Joe Gottlieb: (03:42)
Awesome. I love that backstory and, uh, thanks for sharing it. Okay, so now let’s, let’s dig into a little bit of the context that Antioch. I know that there was really, um, a major catalyst for the work that you’ve been doing in data driven, transition data driven transformation, and it was this transition to schools initiative. So help our listeners understand this very, very large, uh, undertaking at Antioch called the transition to schools initiative. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (04:10)
Sure, sure. Well, first to understand that you need to know a little bit more about Antioch. Um, Antioch was founded way back in 1852, and at one point had campuses literally all around the world where there was an Antioch in Japan. We had Antioch campuses in Hawaii. Currently we have, um, five physical locations and several online and low residency, um, low residency options. But what this founding means is that Antioch has always had a very location based identity associated with our faculty, with our students, right. That also was represented in our organizational structure that was also reflected in our data. So we have shifted and evolved over time as educational institutions do mm-hmm and we are one university we’re not seven or eight different universities, just because we have seven or eight different physical locations or low residency options were one. So in the, in the effort to bring all of that together and really to sort of maximize our resources, our academic resources and expand opportunities for student success and our offerings, the decision was made to restructure from a location based identity to a schools based identity, so that we’re organizing ourselves based on discipline and area of study, rather than the fact that you happen to be in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara LA or new England 

Joe Gottlieb: (05:59)
Makes a lot of sense. So Antioch found itself, um, seeking to make this major transformation. And at the time, um, how urgent and important was this to Antioch I E you know, was this the number one thing or a secondary thing that had to compete for strategic attention in, in it, at the outset? 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (06:27)
Uh, it, it was primary. Um, the, the vice chance of academic affairs really saw this as really, um, synergizing all of our resources for student success across the institution, and his leadership helped this take, uh, precedence overall other projects 

Joe Gottlieb: (06:45)
Got it, which is great to have, right? So now you’re, now you’ve got something where the leadership is aligned behind it. That’s really helpful for major changes. And I understand from our prior conversations, that that was triggering a whole lot of discussion about people and process oriented things, but perhaps not a sufficient amount of diligence and discussion around the data side, um, or the technology side. And so help help me understand a little bit now what you wound up sort of discovering, ruminating about, and then ultimately gathering a group of folks to help solve on the data side. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (07:32)
Sure. Well, if you think about the vice chancellors directed to reorganize ourselves, um, and restructure our academic resources under the concept of a school, rather than a location, it’s a lot of work for faculty. It’s a lot of work for administrators, a HR, and that’s where most of the energy had been focused. Um, at the back end, though, those faculty are going to need reports as are those administrators as our, our accreditors. And so we really needed to make sure that our data underwent the same transformation that our organization was undergoing. And it’s not, uh, uncommon for higher ed executives to have a disconnect between the people processes and the business processes and the underlying data that those processes actually generate. We were lucky to be able to pull together, um, a fantastic group of, um, mid-level administrators that were, um, all subject matters, subject matter experts, um, in their particular fields, finance student accounts, financial aid, the registrar, et cetera. And through our work, we were able to tackle the challenge of making the transformation of the data. And, and it was a pretty big challenge. 

Joe Gottlieb: (09:08)
Yeah, I understand that. In the, before you sort of tackling this, you were able to observe that, um, because of the history of Antioch, the, the department, which was so critical in the way that your systems were implemented, there was a lot of varied use of the, of the, the layer or the level, which is department, the logical, you know, element that was department. And so this was already getting in the way of the way data was flowing and, and information was being consumed and, and, and the school was operating, I imagine. And I know it also became critical to the solution you ultimately came up with. And I also know that you were, um, one of the key assumptions before you started to really get into this with your cross-functional team was the fact that it made a lot of sense, sense to stick with the system that you had in Ellucian colleague and not make that another moving part in this massive transformation. And so let’s why don’t you pick it up from there with a little bit of a description of, of those that pair of things which were so central to the way that you went about solving this? 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (10:23)
Sure. Um, you’re correct. Um, undergoing a transformation like this institutionally organizationally and within our E R P system, um, was not a good time for us to also consider, um, changing to a new E R P system. Plus, uh, Lucy colleague is meeting our needs at this time. Great. Um, but their data architecture that is delivered really drove some of the decisions that we needed to make it drove this process. Here’s what I mean by that. Um, we needed a place to store school if we want to report by school. Well, we need to make sure that that information was stored in our system of record, which is colleague and the only place to store that is in a field called school, which is fantastic. But the only way that you can access that field is through the taxonomic structure that is provided by colleague department is the key to getting to the school content that we needed for our reporting. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (11:29)
And as it turns out in colleague department is the one piece of their taxonomic structure, which includes department division and school. Those are the three layers with the taxonomy of those three layers department is the only piece that is required. And one of the tricky things that happens sometimes when institutions implement an ERP system is that we tend to do it by functional business unit finance always goes first, cuz you can’t do anything unless you have a chart of accounts, right? And then HR follows because you need faculty before you can have students, if there is not thoughtful and pre-planned conversation about setting up departments, when you’re doing that implementation, you end up with the situation that Antioch had, where HR is using a different set of department values than our finance module is using than our student module is using. This happens a lot in higher education where they’re with, with this sort of implementation strategy and where you end up with is, um, you’re essentially using different terms to describe the same thing. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (12:40)
And that can really havoc with regulatory and accreditation reporting. So we knew that we needed to get to school and we knew that department was our way to get to school. And we knew that the way our current departments were set up, we were gonna need to look to strategically realign them so that there was consistency across the functional modules in colleague and also, and this is really important also, so that those values were meaningful, right? Those departments that we were working with were set up a long time ago, right? Many of the people that were involved in setting those departments, haven’t been at Antioch for quite some time, didn’t really carry any meaning. And therefore they weren’t valuable to us in institutional planning and institutional assessment in reporting through this strategic realignment that we’re working on, it will change the values that we’re using will have meaning for us. And that meaning will be consistent, whether you work in HR or the registrar’s office, or you work in our accounts receivable department. 

Joe Gottlieb: (13:54)
So that required a first of all, an understanding of this problem and its, uh, and, and, and its various forms and, and, and how it was connected to the various people and, and process aspects that we’ve talked about a little bit already. Um, it then also required, uh, a proposed solution for how you would embed this discipline, not just with the way that you were gonna use department to be more meaningful and consistent and standardized, but then in the way that people would see their opportunity to do what they wanted to continue doing to, to flourish as their part of the Antioch experience. Right. So let’s talk a little bit about now how you assembled this solution and how you sold it to the organization. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (14:44)
Sure. Um, well I need to reflect back then the group that I earlier, um, we have, um, a very practical title for our group. We are the technical services working group and, um, we have representation from all functional business units and we have made a commitment to each other and to the, to engage in deep collaboration in this effort, we needed to take over 160 departments and whittle them down so that we had as many as we needed, but as few as possible so that they met the needs of administrative functions for finance and HR, as well as academic administrative functions for our student system. And so we spent a lot of time working out and hashing out the institutional hierarchy model that we felt would meet all of these needs. We put that model together, um, using some of our current data mapping some of our programs to how they would fit underneath this new institutional hierarchy mapping some of our positions to how they would fit into the new institutional hierarchy model that we were proposing. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (16:13)
And then we took the show on the road mm-hmm and we made presentations, uh, between 15 and diff 20 different presentations to colleagues, to faculty, to administrators, to executives. Um, sometimes they were one on one, two on one. Sometimes it was to a very large group of people in all pieces. Our goal was to show them that although we were advocating that we take on a very big project in the end, it was going to make things more efficient, not only for the folks involved in that project, but for the people to whom we were making the presentation, it was gonna make their lives easier and better too. And by showing them how all of this work would ultimately benefit them, we were able to develop allies, um, outside our group and across the institution. 

Joe Gottlieb: (17:08)
And as I understand, they bought it because you’re deep into it now. So, uh that’s OK. Let’s uh, let’s, uh, briefly cover then kinda what you’ve accomplished so far and what lies ahead? 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (17:21)
Sure. Well, I mentioned the design of the institutional hierarchy and we, we spent probably five to six months on that. Um, and then another couple of months, um, sharing that with, um, our colleagues and then another couple of months making minor modifications to that as, uh, little details sort of bubbled up and emerged. We now have what we call the final hierarchy signed off on, which was a very big win for us. Yeah. We are deep in our risk assessment phase and that is important because this data is everywhere in our E R P. I think I mentioned earlier that department is a key piece of information in the colleague data architecture, but I don’t know if I mentioned that it is actually a requirement for operational functionality. You can’t pay anybody in a position unless that position is associated with a department, a student can’t matriculate into a program unless that program is associated with the department. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (18:31)
And every time transactions are, uh, triggered in our, in the calling system department is stamped. There are literally hundreds and thousands of instances with the department shows up across our system. We have to change all of that and we have to change it all at once. There’s no way to gradually phase this in because this is core taxonomic data. So it was really important to us that we invest the right resources in taking a good look at where our risks lie. We did this through a systems approach to begin with thinking that if we aren’t using that functionality and colleague, if we are not storing any data in our fixed assets file, for example, then be fixed assets department doesn’t likely pose a risk for us. However, we did know that courses and academic programs and student programs was likely to close a large risk. So we did a systems level search of any instance of department or division and identified whether or not we had any data in that file. And if we did, how many records had data, right. Once we understood that scope, we were actually able to eliminate quite a few, um, areas of risk from our, from our work. 

Joe Gottlieb: (19:55)
And therefore for the scope of the implementation, you were able to better understand, uh, where it was gonna be super active and what would be involved there, whereas it would, you know, in other areas where it wouldn’t need to be active. And I always find that with estimating work, just like in anything else, um, the deeper, your understanding, the more precise your estimate can be. And that usually means the more realistic a lowest available, uh, uh, estimate can be. Whereas if you’re hurrying and you don’t have thorough understanding, um, you have to pat it because you have unknowns, right? And so I imagine this aided you in, in narrowing the problem as well as you could. Did you find that to be true? 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (20:43)
Absolutely. Absolutely. And it also helped us identify any additional resources outside of our team that needed to be brought in. Initially our team only had it representation from the functional analyst perspective. So we had an analyst that works, analyst programmers are what we have at Antioch. And we had the analyst programmer that works with our student system and the analyst programmer that works with our HR system, but we didn’t necessarily have our overall programming team involved. Right. It, we understood at that point that it was important to bring in a member of our programming developers team, into the technical services, working group as a core part of the risk assessment. And that person was actually critical to us. Being able to compile a list of the areas where risk assessment needed to occur, it could begin with, and then helping us sort of setting them up and knocking ’em down, right. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (21:47)
Identifying where we had to take a look and then helping us cross them off as quickly as possible. And to be honest, it’s exactly what we thought. . I mean, if you had asked everybody for a gut level listing, we kind of knew that these were the files and areas where we were going to have the biggest risk, but because we took a systems level approach, we could say that with confidence rather than, um, than an I think. So we’re so deep into risk assessment right now, but we’ve completed the assessment for the colleague system itself. And right now we’ve moved on to assessing the risk across other platforms. I mean, today, Joe, uh, there’s not an educational institution. I know that uses a single platform, right? We all have academic technology platforms that we use. Some of us have three or four. We sometimes have a different platform that we use for our alumni and advancement work. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (22:41)
Most of us have some sort of operational data store or data lake or data warehouse there’s reporting their data integrations maybe with our recruitment and marketing software, all of that needed to be looked up payment systems, you know? Yeah, exactly. Payment systems. And really, again, we’re only talking about changing the value in this field. So our risk assessment, wasn’t asking the question is the field dev department used in this report or is the field department used as part of this, this business process? The question was, does the process of report do something particular because of the value stored in that field? Yep. That’s what we needed to know. Um, and I think on top of everything else, sort of a hidden benefit from this is that we all have a greater understanding of some of the, the nooks and crannies where customizations and, um, and these risks might exist, whether or not they were related specifically to this data transformation project. Um, the documentation being developed through our work is going to serve us well far into the future. 

Joe Gottlieb: (24:00)
I imagine so. And, and I know that, uh, you’re you’re, as you already mentioned, this will require a flash cut over all at once cause of the central nature of this particular field. And you’re looking to do that by the end of the county year, which means, you know, what lies next is finishing up the risk assessment. Um, I know you’re already building out some of this in your development instance and testing and writing, uh, tests for it. Um, and, and so you’ll, you’ll implement and cut it over. So that’s exciting. Um, I now want to just give you a chance to, I articulate, you know, what are you most proud of when you think back on this project so far? 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (24:45)
That’s a real gift. Thank you. I’m gonna take just a minute to think. Well, actually, I don’t need to think that part about this because I can say top one of my favorite things. And one of the things that I am very proud of is the depth of collaboration that has been present, present in our, um, meetings of the technical services working group. Um, our work together has really strengthened our collaboration in other areas. In addition to this project, we work to educate each other. We have learned to assume the best of each other. We have learned how to dialogue across and through difference and come to agreement. Um, always with the goal of what serves the institution, always wearing our institutional hat rather than our departmental hat. And that doesn’t happen all that off. And I’m really, really proud of that. You should. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (25:51)
And I’m very grateful part of it. It is we, I get to meet for an hour and a half each week with these folks. And although the work that we’re doing is we’re definitely down in salt minds in, in, in the work that we’re doing, I’m doing with people that, um, I trust and respect and learn from, and that, and that. Awesome. And that’s a blessing. Yeah. Um, I, I think I’m also proud of our systemic approach to the risk assessment. Initially, the biggest resistance to this came from our it department, not surprisingly our location based identity was embedded in everything that we do. It was stamped in all of our data and it also led to the need for a great deal of customization, not only of our colleague product, but of many of the products that use our colleague, um, that use our colleague data. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (26:42)
So it was really concerned about risk. And when I brought to them the concept of doing sort of a systems level approach as a first pass of risk assessment, I could see that that was something that, that, that our tech guys could really sink their teeth into. They could get it, they can understand, they don’t necessarily understand data management. That’s not part of their normal realm, right? So the need to make all of these changes to the data, they didn’t quite get that, but they could understand that if we took a systemic approach to risk assessment, that was something that they could really wrap their heads around. And I think it has helped us move through this risk assessment phase faster than otherwise. So I’m proud of that. And I think I’m really proud of how far we’ve come in the time allowed because all of us have full-time jobs. none of us are assigned to this project. Um, all of all this project, um, falls under the other duties as assigned categories for all of us. Right. Um, so I’m really proud of the amount of work we’ve been able to produce and how far we’ve come. And I’m really proud of what I know this will provide for Amio in the long run, the efficiencies that will come from it. 

Joe Gottlieb: (28:10)
That’s super exciting. Um, all right. So bring us home here. What, what three takeaways would you provide our listeners that are, that are thinking about this topic of data driven transformation and, and those peop some people might be a little surprised when they hear what we really meant by data driven transformation. In this case, it was really confronting the taxonomic structure of your systems and the way that you were representing the institution as an important detail element that you had to get right, to make this all work. And so break it down for us three takeaways. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (28:48)
Okay. So what I realized is that organizational change management is really a critical component to any project, right? Whether it is data driven or not. So we, you could have seen our work as a data project that really only affected the folks that are directly involved, but the connection to the rest of the institution is integral and managing that part of the organizational change may be the most challenging of it. All, not the technical aspects. We can, we can figure out how to handle that, but managing that through the rest of the institution may be, may be the most challenging. So if you’re tackling a project of this size, make sure that you look into how you wanna handle the organizational change management that will come from it and plan that ahead of time. Uh, we didn’t, , we’re planning our sort of, uh, we’re we’re building that plane as we’re flying it. Hey, 

Joe Gottlieb: (29:54)
Find it. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (29:55)
Yeah, exactly. Um, the other thing that I would say is don’t underestimate the resources that are necessary to success. Um, you don’t wanna overestimate them. You don’t wanna pad them as you said earlier. Um, but sometimes I think we’ll underestimate resources because we think that’s a good sell. Right? You can sell it that way. That’s 

Joe Gottlieb: (30:22)
Short lived. Yeah. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (30:24)
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Short lived win. So make sure that you take a good look at the resources that, right. You’re not, you may not know everything, but take a good look at the resources. And when you do that, you also have to factor who those people are and what they already have on their plate. Yeah. Right. Okay. And then last thing is sort of, uh, uh, a mantra that we use within our technical services, working group, educate, communicate, collaborate, ladders repeats. 

Joe Gottlieb: (31:03)
Well, I love that, that final one, great mantra. It’s so applicable to really just about everything you might do that involves multiple people and, you know, and that, doesn’t just it as simple as a solo endeavor. Um, and I, I agree with you, it ends up being the harder part of all this, but if you can pull together a team and a structure that is able to give each other that time and that, um, respect, uh, you learn a lot, you create trust and, uh, and that becomes a real weapon for, for progress. So Sidney, this has been really enjoyable. Appreciate you sharing all these perspectives, uh, with us today. 

Cyndi Cain, Fitzgerald: (31:42)
Thank you, Joe. I enjoyed myself very much. 

Joe Gottlieb: (31:47)
Excellent. And thanks to our guest for joining us as well. We hope you have a great day and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.


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As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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