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EXCLUSIVE: How and why the TEC reshaped itself with data

19 Jun 18

When the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) decided to reinvent themselves they made the choice to tap into the rich vein that is data analytics.

The organisation wanted to transform its approach from being a funder of tertiary institutions, to an investor in them.

According to TEC chief data officer Jan Sheppard, this meant a big change in perception.

“It meant shifting our focus from outputs, such as course completion and qualification completion, to outcomes, like providing skills that NZ Inc needed and making sure that people were going into employment. Information was the key to succeeding in that transition.”

Data analytics was the key.

“...we couldn't get slowed down by trying to solve every problem before we got started.”

From the very beginning of their journey, the TEC wanted to put data front and centre and so went to market for a data analytics solution to suit.

“We identified what we needed and, because we were starting from zero, it was a steep learning curve for us,” says Sheppard.

“We had a very short window to get ourselves geared up so we had to keep moving forward quite quickly - and that was an advantage because we couldn't get slowed down by trying to solve every problem before we got started. We had to learn as we were going through the process.”

After settling on 4000 licences with Qlik, a self-service data analytics platform provider, the TEC immediately began seeing the benefits.

“...by putting information in front of the right people, different conversations could happen and things would change as a result.”

“There is information in front of decision-makers who, because they have good information rather than data analysts having data, were able to gain insights into what's working well and what's not - facts that were invisible when we were just using data,” Sheppard says.

One of the first problems they tried to solve was the opacity of the information about students moving from secondary to tertiary education and so a prototype application was created.

“We presented the app to a forum which had representatives from each of the subsections of the tertiary system,” Sheppard relates.

“We only got two minutes into the demonstration and a high school principal and chair of a local polytech immediately started talking because they could see things in the data.

“From the beginning, the dream that we had was already being realised - by putting information in front of the right people, different conversations could happen and things would change as a result.”

“...we needed a complete shift so we had a clean sheet of paper and started from scratch.”

The TEC’s success with data analytics did not come without the work.

Sheppard explains how she merged her information and data teams to create something completely new.

“I had 21 direct reports. We changed our way of working, adopted an agile approach, and became more business-focused so that we could understand what was required. We listened a lot to the sector, engaged in ways we'd never engaged before with people outside the building to understand what the immediate needs were and we adopted the 'imagineering' approach.

“Because this is a fundamental change, if we just put incremental steps we would stay where we were and change a colour of something, but we needed a complete shift so we had a clean sheet of paper and started from scratch.

“The drive for informed decision making and evidence-based became part of our DNA right from the start.”

“...it's still a journey of discovery, and quite a delightful one to be honest.”

Sheppard is under no illusions, she knows that in order to continue extracting value from the TEC’s investment into BI there is no finish line to cross.

“We're learning every day - we don't consider that there's an end user for our data so the more we do, the more benefits we find. We've just started with regional development boards which makes good sense.

“We can enable regional development boards and the like to translate conversations about what they need with the tertiary education organisations, and then back to learners so that they... choose the qualifications that will enable them to get jobs.

The TEC has its differences to a business who has a product or service to sell, but the core of what they are doing reflects what BI can offer the private sector.

With the visibility into your business practice that it can offer, you can see which relationships are valuable and where it is worth spending time and resources to make new ones.

“We don't see an end to the conversations that can be enabled by this type of data. There are a lot of relationships out there that we haven't thought of yet that we will be forging in the future but at the moment it's still a journey of discovery, and quite a delightful one to be honest.

“The biggest thing to come out of this is partnerships, relationships and conversations that were never possible before.”

“...be prepared to do a lot of learning.”

After successfully navigating this challenging process, Sheppard has a few words of advice for those who are getting ready to face their own data analytics reinvention - "Just do it!"

"It is a big step and there are lots of reasons not to, for example, data quality often holds organisations back, but data quality improves from using your data and the value from going on this journey for us has been absolutely beyond belief. Don't think you have to plan everything to the nth degree to get started, just get out there, start small, but most importantly, do a lot of listening to find out what your organisation or customers need.

“And be prepared to do a lot of learning.”

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