Data-driven decision making is all the rage, but despite our best intentions, many of us still struggle to turn numbers into meaningful, actionable insights.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Ken Reaves, director of research and strategic projects at Southeastern University. Ken has more than 15 years of experience in the field of institutional research, and he was eager to share his insights on how schools can make their data more compelling and actionable. Here are a couple of key takeaways from our discussion.

Collaboration is key

Stronger decision-making starts with a solid partnership between your school’s marketing, enrollment and institutional research teams. “There has to be an openness, obviously from [all] sides, to be able to work together,” says Ken.

Over the years, Southeastern’s enrollment, marketing and institutional research teams have learned to work in close cooperation with one another, to the mutual advantage of all departments. Ken says the school’s marketing and enrollment teams provide crucial context for the data he collects: “Sometimes, I need the voice of enrollment management to speak to what I’m seeing. I might need help in clarifying coding, where students were mistakenly coded as transfers when they should be first-time freshmen, or things like that.”

Conversely, Ken’s team supplies information that gives the university’s marketing and enrollment departments a clearer view into things like their competition and target audiences, so that they can make better-informed decisions about where to direct their efforts.

“On the data level, there’s a lot of different ways that we can work together,” Ken says. “They inform what I do, and I inform what they do. If we partner, then it’s a better perspective.”

Making the data digestible

Ken recognizes that numbers, on their own, often feel more overwhelming than actionable to institutional partners outside his research team. To avoid “data dumping” on Southeastern’s enrollment marketers, Ken seeks out opportunities to translate his findings into story-driven narratives that bring the numbers down to earth.

Infographics are one format Ken favors, both for their brevity and visual appeal. “Oftentimes there’s a lot of story there to tell,” he says. “But most of the time, we’re not writing War and Peace—we’re writing small, informative pieces of information. That’s at least what we should be doing.”

On the digital frontier, Ken has found success using the Shorthand web page builder to create and share multimedia stories with stakeholders. “You can go in and use their building blocks to build whatever it is you want to communicate, he says. “And the nice thing is about theirs is it’s automatically formatted—you can format it for a mobile device, a tablet or a website.”

Get the rest of the story

Data can’t solve every problem, but it’s definitely a great place to start. During our conversation, Ken shared some additional anecdotes and tons more practical advice, including his recommended strategies for nurturing a data-driven culture in the higher-ed space. You can check out the complete interview here.