The University of St Thomas has taught business to students for almost as long as the institution has existed; its Commercial Studies course was first offered in 1895. Today, the university’s Opus College of Business maintains its history of excellence as one of the foremost business schools in Minnesota, well regarded for its innovative MBA programs and home to more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate scholars at two main campuses.
In fulfilling its mission of providing an outstanding liberal arts education and developing highly principled global business leaders, the Opus College of Business sought accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a distinction held by only five percent of global business schools.
To achieve this prestigious status, the college had to satisfy an exhaustive set of over 23 different criteria, including the strategic management of resources, commitment to continued improvement and achievement, and student-staff interaction.
Meeting AACSB requirements
A significant element in aligning the college with the standards for AACSB accreditation involved guaranteeing that a requisite proportion of classes would be taught by leading professors with specific academic and professional qualifications.
Universities employ both full-time and adjunct professors in order to bring both academic and professional qualifications into the classroom, and to maintain an economic balance to their compensation cost structure.
The sheer number of students to cater for, coupled with the wide range of different degree programs and courses available, and the need to determine the availability of full and part-time staff across two main campuses, all contributed to a logistically complex and problematic scheduling procedure before the start of each semester.
As John McCall, Associate Dean and Chief Financial Officer, Opus College of Business, explains, “We strive to provide our students with an outstanding education. Our AACSB accreditation is testimony to the quality of the educational experience at the College, and we strictly adhere to those standards. One particular requirement concerns the number of academically-qualified professors who teach here, a standard that adds complexity to our scheduling process.”
In the past, this process would typically take as long as two months: the scheduling team needed to decide which courses to run at which campus, what days and times of the week they should be scheduled, and which professors would be necessary to teach them.
“With over 700 different course sections, it was a very complicated and difficult procedure to coordinate the schedules across both our St Paul and downtown Minneapolis campuses,” states McCall.
Going back to the beginning
Part of the difficulty was that the process was highly sequential: first the team would decide on how many course sections to run (based on predicted student numbers), then the courses would be scheduled and staff would be allocated, and finally the AACSB calculations would be performed. If the proposed scenario did not meet the requirements, the whole process would potentially have to start again from scratch, and it often took several iterations to reach an acceptable solution.
“This was incredibly time-inefficient. We were running multiple, complex scenarios and if we discovered at the end that they didn’t meet the AACSB criteria – for instance, in terms of the number of academically-qualified professors – we would have to begin the whole process again.”
In business terms – and in the context of current higher education in general – it was no longer viable to run classes that only a handful of students would attend.
“There is a serious financial consideration involved in running courses, so we need to minimize any unnecessary duplication of course sections,” McCall reveals. “We have to ensure that the right number of students attend a class for it to remain economically viable. With IBM’s solution we are now better placed to be able to make the right strategic business decisions with regard to the classes we offer.”
Finding the right partner
Searching for a solution that could bring effective, efficient scheduling, Opus College of Business turned to eCapital Advisors, an IBM Business Partner and a long-time collaborator with the school.
Jim O’Connor, Business Intelligence Architect, remembers, “We imagined that an application might exist out there somewhere that could help us eliminate some of the manual processes involved in scheduling – but we found that what we were trying to achieve would actually be quite ground-breaking. By working with eCapital and leveraging IBM Cognos TM1 software, we were able to develop an innovative solution.”
Running multiple scenarios
IBM Cognos TM1 is a complete enterprise planning solution that typically helps businesses develop reliable, customized budgets and forecasts – but the college was attracted by its potential as a very powerful real-time scenario planning solution.
By collecting and assimilating data from the college’s existing databases – through integration with Oracle, DigitalMeasures and SunGard Banner Student – Cognos TM1 helps the scheduling team create multiple scheduling scenarios, automatically calculate the AACSB requirements, make adjustments, and quickly create new iterations.
“The scenario-builder capacity of TM1 was very attractive to us because it allows you to quickly go through multiple iterations depending on different variables,” says O’Connor. “But overall, it was the competitive pricing, great functionality and its compatibility with our existing systems that convinced us. TM1 integrates well with our Banner Student application, which is absolutely ideal; it sources and analyzes data from there – and our other existing platforms – and uses this historic data to construct the forecasts.”
O’Connor reflects on the project, “We were confident that eCapital would meet our needs, and it has certainly been helpful having a reliable business partner. eCapital has been flexible and accommodating from the proof of concept through to implementation. We certainly picked the right people to work with.”
The solution is also enabling the college to gain a more comprehensive idea of why students choose course sections – illuminating the significance of factors such as the time, place and location of classes.
“It’s still in the early stages,” says O’Connor. “But we’re confident this will work. There’s a very real opportunity here to increase the proportion of students in each course section by 10 to 20 percent, and this will significantly bene t the school from a financial standpoint by helping us eliminate under-attended or duplicate courses.”
Delivering business efficiencies in a higher education institution
Opus College of Business used TM1 to schedule its course offerings for the first time this academic year 2011-12.
“It proved useful as a common platform for people to work on,” says John McCall. “We now have the opportunity to run scenarios three to four months in advance of the formal planning process, enabling us to understand any possible faculty issues well in advance.”
IBM’s solution has enabled the college to deliver a high-e ciency, low- cost, business-critical process that makes for a vast improvement on the old manual spreadsheet-based process.
“Of course, it will also help us to keep on-track with our AACSB accreditation requirements because we can see on a real-time basis how each department is performing,” explains O’Connor. “Essentially, it will help us to make better business decisions. For me, that is what IT – at its most effective – is all about.”