A few months ago, I authored a blog post titled “Do You Want the Plumbing or the Sink?” The gist of the post was that institutions can leverage data in different ways. In one way, it’s plumbing — it’s the conduit that allows data to flow throughout the institution. Separately, it’s the sink (or the toilet, or the ice maker, or the shower). These are the end user applications of the data. The way that institutions can use data to solve problems.

Over the last month, I’ve transitioned from running a small software company that provided predictive modeling solutions to my new role at Blackboard where I’m helping to define our data/analytics product offerings for our clients. In this transition, the “plumbing vs. sink” analogy has come up multiple times and I wanted to revisit the idea in this post.

I’ve said this many times since I’ve arrived here — analytics is a tool, not a solution. It’s a wonderful, complex, and utilitarian tool, but it’s just a tool. Great plumbing won’t let you clean up after a morning workout. But then again, you can’t install a shower without decent plumbing. The two things (tools and solutions) need to go hand in hand. From where I stand, the most important part of the equation is the academic institution and their needs. I’ve met schools that just wanted the tool. They are chomping at the bit to start defining use cases about what can be done when the data plumbing is in place. They just need an expert to lay the data foundation. Similarly, I’ve met schools that don’t care as much about the plumbing. They are justifiably focused on the end user…the student…the advisor who will use data in some way to help students. In this case, the plumbing is truly a behind-the-scenes utility.

Earlier this year, we hosted our Institutional Performance Conference in Austin, Texas. The conference focused on student success, retention, new models of learning and of course, data. Data was a significant part of the agenda with many sessions touching on both the tool/plumbing and the solution/sink parts of the equation. We presented information about our data warehouse product, Blackboard Analytics, as well as our new retention analytics solution. More importantly, a number of colleges and universities presented on how they are using data to address issues that can be tackled once a solid data foundation is in place.

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