I had the honour last week of being invited to present a workshop at the annual conference of the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA) at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. It was a great event. And I met some fantastic people. But it was the amount I learned in two short days that astounded me.
Let’s start with my workshop. Phil McNaull, Director of Finance at the University of Edinburgh, and I introduced delegates to Integrated Reporting and discussed how universities (and, indeed, all organisations) can use the ideas behind Integrated Reporting to tell better stories about what they do.
In our presentation, we identified the main elements of a great story and related them to the organisational context. (Check out my slides here.) And we challenged participants to develop their own stories about the places where they work. It was a little left-field, I’ll admit, but I was amazed how the audience just seemed to ‘get it’ straight away.
I’ve long been convinced that telling stories is hard-wired into us, so I guess this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But it was thrilling to see how such a simple change in mindset engaged with and enthused our audience. I hope they enjoyed the session as much as I did. (By the way, if you’d like to talk more about telling your organisation’s stories, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.)
Another topic that came as a bit of a surprise to me was the idea of learning analytics. The notion here is that universities can use data that they hold about their students to help to improve retention (whether students complete their studies) and attainment (how well they do). This includes data about the students themselves, but also about the extent to which they engage with academics, lectures, tutorials, learning resources, etc.
I’ve been interested in data analytics for quite a while, so I was interested to learn about the projects that a number of universities are working on in this area. Part of me thinks that this sort of thing shouldn’t really be necessary, if students have conscientious and caring tutors who actually pay attention to who is turning up and whether they seem to be engaging with the studies, but as study pathways get more complicated – especially those delivered online – then I guess that anything that aims to help students do well should be encouraged. As long as it doesn’t become a substitute for human interaction.
The thing that really made the conference for me, though, was a practical demonstration by Luke Stoughton from The Information Lab. Very much the geek’s geek (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that), Luke gave a rather excellent introduction to Tableau, a software application that I’ve heard of and messed around with, but for some reason never really got into.
Tableau is all about visualising data in a meaningful way. If you’re into your data and haven’t yet used Tableau, you’ll absolutely love it. And if all you’ve ever done is create some pie charts in PowerPoint, you may well wet yourself. Because Tableau is, quite simply, amazing. (Disclaimer: Other data visualisation software may be available.)
It’s not just about presenting complex data in a pretty way. It’s about presenting data visually so that you can actually understand what it is telling you. It’s about spotting patterns, trends and outliers that would remain hidden from you if you just had tables of figures. It’s about moving from information to insight, and from insight to intelligence. And I love it.
Much could be said, to be honest, about the entire conference. (And I’m not just saying this because I’d like to be invited again.) It was a truly fantastic event. With some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. And a truly outstanding learning experience. Thank you, HESPA, for allowing me to be a part of it.