New Tools for an Old University

Oxford University senior data analyst Andy Cotgreave said, “Tableau is a tool that generates a passion unlike any other tool I've ever used.”

"We can just sit down with each other at the desk, drag and drop the stuff around the application and explore things together."

Tableau: Tell us why you started using Tableau. How did you know you were on the right path? Andy: I work in the student data team, and about three years ago, we were getting increasing demand for data.  We had a new student system that had been implemented at great cost.  Getting data out was a bit of an afterthought. It was a struggle to get the data out, and it was a struggle to aggregate the data into any kind of report.

We were using Excel, which is a fine tool, but we were getting more and more demands for division level reporting and analysis.  It was taking about a month to do each report.  Then another report would be needed, and we had to do the same work all over again.  We were getting swamped by these demands and doing repetitive work. We had to look for a different tool.

So, we were Googling around.  I discovered Tableau.  We discovered a few other things, but I downloaded the free trial of Tableau.  Within an afternoon, I'd picked it up, dragged it in, and connected it to the same data that we were using to build the report.  Within an afternoon, I'd done what had been one or two weeks work. And instantly we could see that work. I only needed to do it once. When the data set changed, and I could just refresh.  I went straight to the managers going, “look at this, look at this, look at this!”

It took us a few months. We're a slow, steady university. We don't throw the cash away very quickly and committees had to make some decisions, but we went for a couple licenses in January 2007, and we saw instant gains.

    Tableau: What kind of instant gains? Andy: One instant gain from my team's perspective was saving months of work because my team no longer had to get stuck in the quagmire that is creating reports in Excel.  So that was an instant hit.

Traditionally at the University of Oxford, people wanted tables of data. And that's great, we can do that in Tableau, we can give them the tables. But once we've been able to create the tables so quickly, we can then start aggregating the data and highlighting the particular aspects of the data that they need to be focusing on. 

So it was that ability for us to save so much time, and that was like celebration in itself. But then to send information out to divisions and departments, and say, ”yeah, well you've had the table of data about performance and gender, but look, this chart shows you it's one particular program you need to be focusing on.”  That information was hidden previously.

    Tableau: How has Tableau use grown within the university? Andy: It's totally expanded.  We've now got 25 Professional licenses across the university.  We had the first licenses in the student administration team.  We were shipping reports out or publishing package workbooks to divisions, departments, and administrative staff and colleges. People started to see these things and think, “that's pretty cool.”  A couple of divisions bought their own licenses as a result, so they could do their own analysis.

Then, our Finance department started seeing what we've been doing.  They were in a similar situation where their finance system did not enable them to do any kind of information aggregation easily.  So they jumped on board.

Now there are also people in Procurement, and I’m going to be talking to our Alumni team soon because it would be good for their reporting.  We’re in a situation where 7-8 years ago, we had no student system and really hopeless, old IT systems.  We've implemented a lot of IT systems.  Now that’s matured enough and the data is going in with good enough quality.  So departments all around the university are beginning to go, “okay, we need to leverage this data and get the benefit out from this data from the business point of view, the university point of view.”

In the student administration area, we started it off, we pioneered it, and then other people have seen these things; and our internal customers rave about it, and it seems everybody wants to be in on it.

    Tableau: So what’s the total number of Tableau users at Oxford? Andy: The Tableau community is a really vibrant place.  Tableau has its own forum and that's a great place.  People go to ask a question and there's bunch of core people answering questions—not just Tableau staff. It’s real users that are answering the questions.  So that's building into a great sort of resource that could go along with the knowledge base on the website.

LinkedIn has also been a good area for people for discussing Tableau.  There are some great areas on LinkedIn.  We’ve used it to recruit staff.  It's been a great way because we needed some reporting help, extra consultants. 

In 2008, I organized a Tableau user group in the UK.  And it turns out Tableau hadn't done any users groups at that stage. I did it because I'm a passionate fan of the software.  It seemed to me, we were making great gains with the software and there were a lot of little people in the UK enjoying the software, and so why not get these people together?

Tableau is a tool that generates a passion unlike any other tool I've ever used.  We just put out the email inviting people to come to Oxford, and 40 people showed up.  We had a really good day.  Pat Hanrahan was over, so he did a keynote speech. We got some great customer stories.  We went out to the pub afterwards, and did some really great networking. It was an amazing day. I felt really proud that I'd done it, and we're doing another one in a few weeks time.  That kind of thing just helps build the momentum, and keeps everyone motivated. Everyone learns from it.

    Tableau: What was it like for new users learning Tableau at Oxford? Andy: I was the first guy to get involved with the software. I'm a power user of Excel, so it was kind of second nature for me.  I got really excited very quickly.  Different members of the team, not quite power users of Excel, also got up to speed really fast with Tableau.

We shared the information across the team. We can just sit down with each other at the desk, drag and drop the stuff around the application and explore things together. That's a great way of learning.  We don't have much money to send people on lots of training courses. That would be my traditional way to get people ramped up on using Tableau, but fortunately Tableau provides hours and hours of free training. We were like, “just spend the day at home—watch these videos, play around, download the sample workbooks.” That's how they've learned.

We have an internal user group as well.  Every two weeks our team gets together and we bring each other’s problems to the meeting room and try to solve them as a group. That helps everybody.

    Tableau: Can you talk a little more about your experience with the online training? Andy: There's this whole raft of training.  It's easy to find different types of training. You can sit down and watch a two-hour session about beginning Tableau. If you have the time to do that, you get an introduction right across the whole application.  Then you've got the beginners, the intermediate, and the Jedi versions of that. 

On top of that, there are whole pages of specific topics that you can search for.  If you want to know about calculated fields you can go and find the calculated fields training and that might only be half an hour or 20 minutes.

We're all under pressure to do things quickly, but we've found that those 20 minutes or those two hours reap benefits down stream.

    Tableau: Do you have any recommendations for other institutions who might be considering Tableau or trying to roll it out? Andy: The first thing would be to download the free trial, even if you're just thinking about it.  It costs you nothing and that was the bingo moment for us. Can you do in a day what used to take a week?  That's why we went forward.

The free training, as I said, is just a huge resource.  And my final recommendation, from the personal perspective, is that it’s fun.  You don't know what the end picture is going to be when you're building a visualization, so you can just play around.  You start off with a vague question, and unlike other applications, you don't need to have an end result in mind. You just keep going until you get to the answer.  My recommendation is just dive in because it's going to cost you nothing to start, and you'll see great benefits, I'm sure.

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