Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’
– Mark Twain, 1906

Earlier this month, at the Evisions Conference in Philadelphia, I gave a presentation entitled, Strategic Waypoints: Monitoring the Mission (you can view the slides here). Mark Twain’s misgivings about the transparency and reliability of “figures” are often applicable when dealing with institutional data. My goal with the talk was to provide some tools for understanding and harnessing your institutional data better, and putting it to work in the service of your strategic plan.

For anyone who missed my presentation (or for those who were there, but are interested in a recap), I thought I’d give you an abbreviated version here. In addition, the slides are at the bottom of this page. Feel free to click through them or download a copy to share.

So to start, here’s a quick explanation of what I mean, when I talk about strategic waypoints. In the real world, waypoints are milestones on a journey that let us know how far we’ve come, as well as reminding us of where we’re headed. In institutional reporting, strategic waypoints are the metrics that tell us whether we’re moving in the direction laid out in our strategic plan.

In order to identify which metrics should serve as our strategic waypoints (also called Key Performance Indicators), we first need to get a handle on our institutional data as a whole.  There are two parts to that equation: external data and internal data.

Getting to know your external data relies on knowing a) who’s looking at your institution, b) where they’re getting their information, and c) what those sources are saying about you. Once you can answer those questions, it gets easier to control the message that’s getting out there.

Your internal data is more a matter of making sense from the chaos. Data is great, but in order for it to be useful, you need to be interpreting it in a deliberate, consistent way. Start by looking at the goals outlined in your strategic plan, and try to identify the metrics that will tell you how well you’re doing in achieving those goals. And make sure you have incontrovertible definitions for every one of those metrics—this is the key to avoiding Twain’s predicament.

If you have a handle on what metrics are important to external sources, and what metrics are important to your institutional strategy, then it’s a matter of building systems that keep you up to date on all of those points. It’s useful to remember that you’re not the first institution in this situation. Look at what data your peers are tracking, and how they’re presenting it. Talk to other institutions about how they keep track of their own strategic waypoints. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Of course, sometimes, the hardest part of harnessing your data can be getting your own institution on board with the idea. The best advice I have for getting the ball rolling is to not go in to the conversation empty-handed. Put together a proposal for what you should be tracking and why. Sketch out or build up some mock-ups of how you’d like to able to interact with that data. (Balsamiq is a great tool for that.) Once you have something on paper, you can use it to start a conversation.

Defining your institution’s strategic waypoints will help you not only take ownership of the information that other people are getting about you, but it will also enable you to track your progress towards the goals laid out in your strategic plan.

Speaking of starting a conversation, I’d love to hear what you think about how we can get better at measuring these things and putting the right strategic waypoints in place. Please join the discussion in the comments section below.

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