College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

Step Aside, Spreadsheets: UMDashboards to Revolutionize how UMD Sees its Financial Big Picture

Screenshot of Dashboards Main Menu

“Imagine running your family’s budget without knowing your salary,” remarked a university dean recently, referencing the trouble he has accessing critical budget numbers for his school. While a self-professed exaggeration, it exemplifies a universal frustration held by deans and department heads across campus:  the time and effort required to connect money coming in, how it’s being used and where it’s needed is excessive and complicated—and often has already changed by the time it’s compiled.

Now, a new series of dashboards developed jointly by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) and the A. James Clark School of Engineering (ENGR) will allow administrators and financial personnel campus-wide to place data sets previously stored in isolation side-by-side, transforming the way they see financial and operational information. Piloted over the past year at both schools, a preliminary set of UMDashboards has launched now out of the Office of the Provost.

“There’s got to be a better way”

The dashboard movement began last summer when Dan Ramia, Assistant Dean of Finance and Management for AGNR, began investigating a new, more engaging alternative to the spreadsheets he found himself continuously generating for his dean, Dr. Craig Beyrouty. Time-consuming to create, mind-numbing to read and outdated as soon as they are printed, spreadsheets are also typically representative of one point of view—the author—leaving the reader the challenge of interpretation.  

“Reports are static, and we are engineered to be a living organization. If my dean wants to know current budget information, there is no way to access it quickly.” said Ramia. “I knew there had to be a better way.”

Dashboards offer visual displays of the data and information needed to meet goals and objectives, consolidated on a single screen. A major component of any dashboard is to be able to trend data over time, allowing administrators to see how they’re doing not just on that day, but historically. Users see their information as it happens, can drill down for more detailed information or analysis and do all of this very quickly, eliminating the need to run multiple reports and reducing human error. While financial dashboards have grown an impressive client base among the private sector over the past several years, they are fairly new for the University of Maryland, and a rarity for higher education.

A short trial of a software called iDashboards proved to be a game-changing tool for Ramia’s college. His dean loved the visual engagement and data representation. Soon after, he contacted Maureen Meyer, Assistant Dean of Finance at the Clark School, who he recalled lamenting the lack of business tools to do her work affectively. Within months, they were working together to create a series of dashboards that will revolutionize day-to-day business at the university.

Transforming how UMD does business

The new iDashboards collaboration will provide deans, department heads, financial personnel and university stakeholders an engaging and flexible way to compare a variety of information—from budgets and payroll to cash flow and expenses—side-by-side and in near- real-time. Administrators will be able to leverage this new perspective to inform decision making, quantify and track departmental goals and identify problems before they take root.

“The No. 1 question from a dean or department head is, ‘how much money do we have, and what is the source of funds?’” said Meyer. “The dashboards help address those questions, as well as quickly identify how funds are being expended and how we plan and project for the future. It has changed the way we do business.”

From a discipline standpoint, AGNR and ENGR couldn’t be more different; engineering is very research heavy and must track trends, faculty totals, grant funds and awards, while AGNR is steeped in community engagement, with extensions throughout the state and applied research. Yet from a business and operation standpoint, they have the same objectives. They are also two of the larger colleges on campus, providing fertile ground for building and testing different dashboards and helped utilize existing relationships to access the existing data sources critical to the project.

“Going into this was about creating a positive user experience,” said Meyer. “We had a very clear vision of what this could provide our community, and how it could enhance their work. That idea really guided the process.”

Working together has been a rewarding, collaborative venture; each have created dashboards that have opened opportunities the other hadn’t considered.

“It is always a pleasure to work with colleagues across campus but building something that will truly transform people’s day-to-day work—and doing it together—has been an incredibly rewarding experience,” said Ramia. “We often get stuck in disciplinary vacuums, but together, we can do great things.”

What is a Dashboard? UMDashboards at-a-glance

UMDashboards can provide greater clarity and spark informed conversations about money, goals and future growth. Here’s what the new UMDashboards can do for you:

  • Place financial, operational and budgeting data in one place, allowing users to review it side by side or easily toggle back and forth
  • Display data from a college level all the way down to individual expenses
  • Refresh daily and show information in near-real time
  • Incorporate new data and match existing data with a couple of clicks
  • Present information trends in visually engaging, highly descriptive charts
  • Standardize business tools to increase accuracy and efficiency
    • Show progress on strategic initiatives

Powerful tool will help guide UMD’s budget remodel

The introduction of UMDashboards to the campus administrative landscape comes at a good time, with the announcement of the university’s budget re-model through the Administrative Modernization Program. These new dashboards are critical business tools to help guide departments through the new process. An added bonus is how dashboards will streamline the day-to-day business on campus; marrying datasets in one place will compliment and reduce the dependency on the numerous shadow systems and simplify the onboarding process for new employees.

“Institutional knowledge is really difficult to replace unless you have systems and processes in place,” said David Kenny, Assistant Director of Business Analytics, who has worked jointly with Ramia and Meyer over the past year to design, construct and maintain the suite of UMDashboards. 

As the dashboards become available to departments under the Provost, Ramia sees them as a great equalizer, allowing all schools the ability to manage and grow their departments regardless of their size, resources or ability.

“Information that is visually engaging is a game changer,” explains Ramia. “These dashboards will help balance the playing field in business conversations at all levels.”

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