Enabling flexible, rapid analysis at the University of Birmingham


The University of Birmingham is a university in the UK, focused on encouraging “bold, independent thinking” from students.

In the past, the business intelligence team at the University of Birmingham struggled with inflexible reports, making it difficult to incorporate feedback from colleagues. Compiling information for their research excellence framework—a crucial dataset for operations—used to take up to 20 people to analyze the data in Excel, produce statistics, and share the data with managers.

Today, the university uses Tableau Desktop & Server to compile, visualize, and share important information across teams. The research excellence framework that used to take 20 people, now takes an hour. And they hope to make data even more accessible. The business intelligence team is working on a university key performance indicators dashboard built on Tableau Server, allowing more people to engage with reports on a daily basis.


Tableau: How does your team use Tableau?
Rob Andrew, Head of Business Intelligence: One of the ways that we now use Tableau is, assuming that we've got the right data source and we've got the right data, we're able to produce visualizations very quickly from that or be able to make visualizations that can be adapted very quickly based on our user feedback.

Tableau: What was the situation before Tableau?
Rob: So in the past, we might take quite a lot of time to build reports and then publish those reports. And if you got feedback, it's probably quite difficult to go and change it because it had been built in such a specific way that they actually became quite inflexible.

Tableau: And how has that changed?
Rob: Whereas with Tableau now, we find that we can produce a visualization and adapt it very quickly and also the ability for us to be able to produce those visualizations in the first place is much more rapid. And it also means that we can change the way that sometimes we go about a process.

Tableau: Do you have an example of a time where you sped up the process because of Tableau?
Rob: So, one example that we found recently was we were getting some information about the research excellence framework for 2014, which is a key piece of information for universities. We got the results in December.

So five years ago when we did that same exercise, we had a batch of 20 people geared up to be able to use Excel, to be able to download the data, to produce some initial statistics, and then went around the university with Excel spreadsheets trying to inform our managers about what was going on.

And then we got the situation where actually as a result of the initial analysis that we provided, there was some request to get some additional measures and metrics produced in time for the next data results coming out.

Now, if this had been five years ago, we'd have been not in a position to be able to produce that additional analysis. Whereas this time, by creating some extra calculations overnight, we're then able to load the data within an hour, the next day, and also produce the analysis straight away without the 20 people required to do that process.

Tableau: What did that experience show you?
Rob: So, for us, it was a real demonstration about the fact that the software tool allowed us to start doing rapid analysis in a way that we hadn't been able to do before.

With Tableau, we find that there's more opportunities to actually explore data and present it in different ways. And so we can take the feedback as to what are the important issues around the data set or a business area and then try and reflect that data back.

"When people engage with the data...they'll start using it."

Tableau: What were you using before Tableau?
Rob: We've used a number of different tools. So that's ranged from Access, Excel, et cetera. And IBM Business Objects, and in the last few years, we came across Tableau. And the thing that we particularly like about Tableau is the fact that it engaged users because of its visualizations.

And we do think it's a tool that we would like to work with because it actually gets people to start looking at reports and engaging with them rather than just maybe just glancing over them, not really taking in the content.

Tableau: Can you share a little bit about how you implemented Tableau at the university?
Rob: We've implemented Tableau over the last three or four years now to be across the university. So we've got a Tableau Server implementation. We've got access to professional services staff and also to our academic community staff, so that's heads of schools right down to professional services staff.

Tableau: Are you seeing more people interact with data now that you have Tableau?
Rob: People are engaging with those reports more than they would have done. And we are getting feedback from that as well. And, recently, we've been developing a university key performance indicators dashboard, and that's been going through our council for approval and executive board for approval.

And I think people have come back and said this looks really good and they like the visualization. And they're very pleased about the output that's been produced. And I think that's an example of people then starting to engage with the data and appreciate what it looks like and then they'll start using it.

So I think there's a growing appreciation of what the visualizations can do. And I think we ourselves are learning how to best use Tableau in a way to actually increase that user engagement. And so what we're doing is we're trying to set up our own user community to make sure that people adopt best practice, they get enthused like we are about using the product.

Tableau: How has Tableau changed the way that you approach data?
Rob: With the Tableau software, we find that there's more opportunities to actually explore data and present it in different ways. And so we can take the feedback as to what are the important issues around the data set or a business area and then try and reflect that data back.

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