Andrew Drinkwater

I used to dread the phone call…

I’d look at the call display and see… it was a director from the finance function and he wanted to know why the numbers changed.

Looking back, this was a very reasonable question. But it sure was hard to answer!

At the time, we didn’t have the tools necessary to help illustrate the changes . I often felt that the only credible answer I could give was “the wind changed”; an ode to the butterfly effect.

Though it took me a while, I did learn to work collaboratively with the finance directors at the university.

I discovered that often the challenge was not with the idea that the numbers had changed, but in the need to be able to explain why the numbers had changed. That was the very thing I also wanted to be able to explain!

Working collaboratively together, we were able to better identify the drivers of change.

As our enrolment forecasting tools were still being actively developed, the changes were often a result of making tweaks to the model while trying to improve it.

Changes were also caused by the usual suspects: student enrolment or behaviour changes as time marched on, programs changed their intakes, government priorities shifted, and so on.

Having learned some of these patterns, I was able to improve the outputs of our model to contain human-readable explanations wherever possible when we could identify why numbers had changed. This helped both our finance team and the Institutional Research team stay on the same page.

To this end, here are a few tips from my experience working with finance professionals:

  • Delta’s matter in a big way, but why matters more; be able to explain why the numbers have changed from now to then.
  • Even though your preferences may be visualizations, accountants often work with spreadsheets. Build both and meet them where they are. Make it possible to download to an Excel spreadsheet. Ensure those downloads have some kind of code to trace back to which version of your forecast they came from. Thanks to Amanda Fluharty for this tip!
  • Build models that work nicely with fiscal years. While enrolments are often on a term basis, and don’t always line up nicely with fiscal years, doing your best to convert to fiscal quarters will make your financial teams’ life easier.
  • Collaborate. You can learn an awful lot from working with your finance teams. In a way, it’s like paired analysis (check out our post on paired analysis here), but with a twist. You may well both be tool experts and subject matter experts, but the lens you work with is different. Together, you can both see new sides to the data and ultimately be able to help your institution be able to make better decisions.