The University of Toronto hopes to become more efficient in providing funds to cash-strapped graduate students through a Cognos business intelligence project.

Ottawa, Ont.-headquartered business intelligence (BI) software developer

Cognos Inc. said the university will use its PowerPlay solution to ensure that graduate students are receiving appropriate levels of funding.

U of T guarantees its graduate students a funding package while they’re attending school, said associate director of administrative management systems at University of Toronto, Cathy Eberts. To ensure the system doesn’t skip over students in need or is abused, it collects information about other income sources and the program of study. Prior to creating a PowerPlay cube which allows the university to pool information from its financial, human resource and student information systems, employees had to rely on a paper trail to figure out where to allocate money and in what amount.

The old system was time-consuming, Eberts said, because of the nature of what goes on at universities.

“”What time periods are you looking at (also matters),”” she said. “”Are you looking at the fiscal year, the academic year or the calendar year? All those types of things make it quite complex.””

The university has been using Cognos BI solutions for about six years, Eberts said, slowly introducing the tools to different departments and increasing the scope of the data they manage. She describes the introduction of BI to such work as fundraising campaigns and allocating research grants and contracts as a slow “”evolution.””

The newest cube was created over the last year and a half.

“”And each year we make improvements to that (cube), we add more sessions to it or we add more dimensions to it,”” Eberts said. “”We find more problems with it as you find holes in the data or income sources that you didn’t realize, or people refine the criteria of this.””

IDC Canada analyst Warren Shiau said he is impressed with the way Cognos has not only stayed afloat but also flourished in a relatively competitive market. BI solution vendors not only have to compete with each other but also with enterprise software vendors like PeopleSoft who are building more and more business intelligence, or knowledge management tools into their ERP solutions. Cognos has to also outbid education-specific solutions like those of Toronto, Ont.-based Hummingbird Communications Ltd.

“”I don’t know that education is one of their prime areas of vertical focus, however, I think that the contract is an indicator that they will enjoy more success there,”” he added.

Even if they outmaneuver their competition, Cognos may still have to struggle with users who prefer not to go the self-serve route. Eberts said that the Cognos tools are primarily being used by power users within the university and although they are pleased to have the ability to manipulate data for different analyses their numbers are limited.

It takes an analytical type of person to use these kinds of tools, she said. The university has realized that they’re not for everybody. She identified the PowerPlay cubes as suited especially for a specialized audience.

“”I think there is a group of people out there who are just predisposed to list reports and they like to see things in a list, that’s the way they understand them,”” Eberts said. “”And if they want to see it in a different way they want you to do the list in a different way. They don’t want to do that list.””

Nonetheless the university is quite pleased with the accuracy of information and the increased efficiency that has arrived with easier access to info from across different departments. Eberts said the university is now considering rolling Cognos BI solutions to is facilities and services units. Although nothing has been formalized yet, she said U of T is considering doing things like labour analysis.

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