Many years ago I worked in retail and the company I worked for watched in amazement as our main competitor started a loyalty card scheme - “why on earth do they want to collect what each person buys each time they shop?”, they asked. Seems obvious now, but back then the amount of data was so huge, all they could do was store it because they couldn’t use it. And there was the vision, they knew things would change, technology would adapt, collect that data as early as they could and the future would open possibilities beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It paid off. That data store, now anonymised, is a treasure trove of information, and the tools to analyse and search are now available.

When I later joined the Education sector I was pleased to see the level of data capture taking place, but at the same time amazed at the lack of vision in using that data.

People kept telling me “we collect this because we have to”, “our funding depends on it”, “we have all these statutory returns to complete”, “it takes weeks to get a report written”.

Frustrated is a word I use lightly to describe my feelings at that time. I had come from a world where data was power, data had to be available now, the purpose of its collection was well understood, extraction and reporting was routine and easy to achieve.

Let’s step back; all companies and organisations have a need to collect some data for statutory purposes. We all must report back some data to someone. In Education, it’s a beast, so much data must be collected from our students just to start an enrolment.

I once looked at how we could tie all contact with a student together. From an initial enquiry through to the student moving on to a university degree, with a few FE courses in the middle and maybe a sprinkling of evening classes for good measure.

Going back to my retail background - I worked (for many years) around the area of a store where you look to pick up an item from the shelf through to leaving the store with said item in your bag.

First you look at the price on the shelf, let’s say that’s a prospectus in Education, or simply a flyer. Next, you pick up the product, you decide to select this item. In Education you enquire, maybe by phone, in person, letter, etc. Next, you head to the checkout and we scan your items - Enrolment. Finally, you pay and leave - Qualification.

Now I used to get into trouble with this type of comparison, “these are human beings, not packets of pasta”, “we teach students, not pots of money”, “you can’t barcode a student”. But bear with me here. Is Education not an industry that takes a raw material, adds value by changing and enhancing it, and earns money for the process involved?

Knowing that a person responded to an advert we placed on the side of a bus is important - it means it worked. How well it worked and whether it justified the costs involved we gauge when we know the final count of responses.

Knowing there is a growing interest in a certain area of provision is important. Let’s say we ran two ads on the buses, one for electrical courses and the other for plumbing. Clearly, if we get twice as many calls for the plumbing course we need to question what future there is for electrical this year.

Knowing how many enquiries turned into applications is important, a small number could mean we got the idea of the course right, but the detail wasn’t what people expected.

And of course, it goes without saying - how many applications turned into enrolments is important.

So, here’s what I did, not saying this is the only way, it’s just the one I came up with:

When a student enquired, we logged that in a central system, this was attached to our Student Records System so we could identify if the enquirer had contacted/used us before (that process is worthy of a blog all on its own). We also asked, “where did you hear about this?”, and recorded the answer in a way we could later amalgamate, e.g. side of a bus, flyer through the door, etc.

Then we would send out a pack with information, the covering letter had a barcode on it, our identifier for the person (student reference for those we already knew, new reference for those we didn’t).

We would ask them to bring the letter if they visited for an open day/evening, for example.

Here’s the cool part. When we had an open day/evening, each station the student could visit had a barcode scanner. They would come in - “Welcome” (scan), “I am the Programme Manager for Basket Weaving with Loom Bands” (scan), “I am a lecturer on the Modern Ceramics course” (scan) - you get the idea.

Of course, some people just turn up for the open day/evening, no problem - “Welcome, here’s a letter (with barcode) containing some information you may need, please take this with you as you walk around, can I just take some basic details from you?”

Time passes, student applies, enrols and completes.

We analyse the data.

Bus side advertising for Modern Materials courses generated many enquiries, open evening was an enormous success, 90% of enquirers attended, 60% visited both course areas, from start to end we converted 80% of enquiries into enrolments. (These figures are made up by the way, although based on real events.)

Hopefully now you see the power of your data. Yes, the argument is that we must collect certain pieces of information at certain points in the process, but how you tie it together and how you use it are your choices to make.

Each of us in our role will have diverse needs for the data we hold, so we find ways to open that data to the masses and a new world appears. We get so hung-up on access to personal information - take my example above, we don’t need to know the identities of these people, just numbers, trends and amalgamations.