Jul 22

Numbers are Ok; Relationships Between Numbers are Golden!

During the convening, Dr. Tia Brown McNair posed an all-encompassing guiding question in her presentation for designing purposeful pathways that has stuck with me:

How can campus educators design innovative curricular pathways that provide students with intentionally designed learning experiences to prepare them for career success?

Now, you have a great understanding of your “why” and have clearly defined “what” problem you are looking to solve, its time to dig into the “how.” Data analysis is critical for answering “how” questions and making decisions to solve for the challenges of three distinct audiences: students, university staff, and recruiters. Analyzing and leveraging data can often be overwhelming to inform your future direction. The beauty of data is that it’s supposed to make you feel more in control, and allow you to have a better grasp of what’s happening. It’s not as complicated as it may seem if you focus on collecting the right data for the story you want to tell.

Building a Data Collection Engine

Let’s revisit one of my favorite companies, Netflix, which is probably responsible for my 10 lbs of weight gain over the years with perfectly curated content that has made me victim to binging from time to to time. They came to life because Blockbuster incorrectly defined the problem their customers experienced. As Blockbuster continued to lose loyal customers, Netflix was there to happily take them on.

Initially, Netflix marketed their services through emails, referral programs, and ads on websites like Facebook. As each of these channels increased its subscribers, the company asked everyone that signed up which movies they wanted to see. With each request for rentals, Netflix captured demand data for various titles.

The Netflix team saw unimaginable retention numbers (aka: engagement) as they optimized each strategy and corresponding tactic to increase market share (the goal). The experiments they tried were never viewed as a failure because it always produced data for the next iteration, or version of its service, to move them closer to the goal.

When a subscriber watched a rented movie, Netflix asked for ratings and stored it in its archive. The company used the data to identify patterns to better understand what its subscribers liked, what they didn’t, what they would watch next, and so forth. As they collected and validated data, they were developing matching technology to offer subscribers personalized recommendations.

This focus on data led the company to broaden their online streaming content as cable customers cancelled their services and exclusively started using Netflix for television and film entertainment. In order for this trend to continue, they ventured into original content, producing House of Cards with major Hollywood stars. With over 40 original series, Netflix has become known as a destination for premium content and now is stealing Emmys from the traditional incumbents on major networks.

The Connection to your Career Pathways Implementation Plan

While movies are a source of entertainment, and careers are a source of livelihood, they share more in common than what meets the eye. While developing algorithms for matching jobs to your students may not be in your wheelhouse (it happens to be ours), your university is an access point for premium content just like Netflix.

To successfully engage students and employers, a high-touch experience around premium content should be offered to create a similar binge effect. The goal should be to answer Dr. McNair’s question at every step in the escalator of understanding for everyone who plays a role in designing career pathways with a special focus on your students who ultimately need to realize the benefits of engaging with you.

Dr. Samaad Wes Keys presented a great framework for collecting key data elements of career pathways in his presentation to look beyond compliance reporting. Dr. Keys identified five areas where your university should be collecting data. When merged together, the information gathered can help determine future direction. Being data informed about your educational practices vs. being data driven to meet compliance standards is what all educators are challenged with in order give students the best chance of succeeding.

Begin identifying key questions that get at what you want to learn from data. For example, one of the five areas that Dr. Keys suggested is to look into industry sectors to target your curriculum around the demand for talent in your region. Questions such as these posed in the presentation will make it more clear where to start collecting data.

  • Which existing or emerging industries are important to the economic future of your region?
  • What are the projected demand for labor in these sectors?
  • To what extent do jobs in demand pay livable wages?
  • What barriers do residents of your region face to securing in-demand jobs and advancing? What education programs currently exist in your region?
  • How well are they meeting the demand?


Data analysis has three easy steps.

  1. List
  2. Sort & Cluster
  3. Track


Listing involves preparing and collecting raw excel spreadsheets. Copying data from various sources, focusing on the number of columns vs. the number of rows or the numbers in the cells.

This shouldn’t be limited to quantitative data. List trends in qualitative data from your market research, interviews and experiments you captured from your audience. Create word clouds with the keywords from the responses to begin visualization.


Sort & Cluster

Sorting and clustering involves finding attributes to show and tell from the information collected. Look at sorting by frequency or percentages across ratings or performance over time.

Start to get a feel of data that is strong, neutral and weak. Use conditional formatting to visualize the story through trends. The “vision” function of the brain naturally processes color. This works very nicely when looking at competency scores across your students to determine where your curriculum could be enhanced.



Now you get to craft the story. Data is about relationships. Look at percentages and averages to determine the validity and strength of the relationships. Determine if what you are looking at is “precise,” “accurate,” or both. Precise data notes that the data collection processes were objective and presents true results. Accurate data notes that there are strong relationships between data points.

Also, fundamental ingredients of relationships are time and situations. If you take a specific data point today and capture it again a month from now, you have started “benchmarking.” Or, if you capture a data point in your career center and capture it again when students are in class or when employers are on the road headed to your university, you will start to better understand shifts in the data.


Finally, after this process is complete, dig deeper and ask more questions to constantly learn from your data to drive new innovation.

Two Key Insights for University Leaders

Data validates next steps and decisions

Netflix completely revolutionized television and ushered in a wave of competitors like Hulu, Amazon Prime, and others. While they may have had ideas on what these initiatives should be, they never would have been able to get the green light to move forward and commit resources to them without the data to back it up. Data that tells a story.

A lot of money is at stake, not to mention the future of tens of thousands of students, when it comes to #UNCFCPI. Running with ideas and creating experiments where the data outcomes are recorded is crucial. The ideas to validate that your students are engaged and succeeding will not only help to secure the implementation grant, but will eventually provide clear ROI.

Data always changes. Keep an eye on it to continue to inform your roadmap.

Like everything else in life, change is the only constant. Whether the change is positive or negative, the patterns inform strategy, tactics and metrics you use to track progress. Your implementation plan will serve as the foundation for the changes that need to take place in career services, curriculum, and university culture. Plan for the unexpected, because it is pretty much guaranteed.

For example, if you notice that on campus interviews are declining, see if there are skills being asked for in the jobs they applied to that are not being covered by your curriculum. Analyze, through mock interview prep, if your students have the ability to articulate and connect the learning outcomes of coursework to the competencies employers seek. I suggest setting up calendar meetings with your team to run reports and analyze the data weekly, monthly, and on a semester basis. This way you and your colleagues won’t be surprised by big increases (or dips) in the numbers.  While positive surprises may seem like a great thing, it communicates that something is not fully understood, and represents a potential opportunity for innovation.   

Get Started. See What Happens.

What you can do today is look at data to determine the most lucrative job market for your students based on your location, or where your students typically seek opportunities. This will give you a sense of the workforce demand which is a great data to start aligning your curriculum and extra-curricular efforts. From there you can assess the types of industries or functions with the most opportunities available, and the skills they are looking for. More importantly, you can predict which majors/students will have a tougher time, and plan to allocate your resources accordingly.

One recommendation for everyone on your implementation team is to always be curious to learn more about the data that you have access to. There is an abundance of insights ready to be captured and validated through experiments, which will produce more data. Seize the opportunity to ask the right questions at this stage to align thinking around the plan and the solutions to execute the plan. Your plan can change the course of your university via the UNCF grant. Let’s make the numbers make sense going forward.

Let us know if you would like clean data from the sources that Dr. Keys mentioned. We can send a customized report to your team for your region.

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