Earlier this year one of our projects went from soft-launch mode to officially "live" mode: The CASE Benchmarking Toolkit, a system we designed and implemented for CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. CASE represents over 2000 institutions of higher education worldwide with over 75,000 members.
The Toolkit enables the CASE research division and interested communities of practice1 to build quantitative benchmarking surveys, collect data, generate reports (text and graphical) and design summary dashboards through an easy-to-use interface. We wanted to share a little bit about what it does, why this is great for the alumni relations and advancement profession and why we as Adobe fans are so proud to have built it.
The origins of this project start back in 2005 with our friends at PCUAD. We implemented a surveying and benchmarking system for them that reduced the amount of time required to collect, output and analyze the data gathered from thirty higher education institutions. The "Alumni Relations Assessment and Measurement Program" (ARAMP) was the first attempt by any community of practice organization to quantitatively measure the performance of an alumni relations operation. It was an overnight success and continues to be used by PCUAD. About a year later we replaced the HTML UI with a Flex-based UI for use by the North East Alumni Relations group (NEAR).
Word got out pretty fast that PCUAD had not only created a great survey to 'measure' Alumni Relations but also the software to back it up. PCUAD was all too happy to help us get connected with the team at CASE to see if we could push this forward as a global benchmarking system. Once the decision was made to move ahead, we set about redesigning everything - the data model, the middleware and especially the user interface to work seamlessly with the CASE CRM system (iMIS - also a ColdFusion-powered product!)- using the experience we gained supporting PCUAD and NEAR to inform our decision making.
We delivered the system to CASE in February 2008 for beta testing, flipping the "go-live" switch in May.
Perhaps more importantly, we delivered the system to them on time and under budget.
Fast, integrated survey creation
Administrators can whip up a survey in next to no time. The CBT supports a wide variety of question types including question matrices. The system strongly encourages question reuse and enables the cloning of questions, sections and even entire surveys. It is through this capability that year-over-year data can be compared and analyzed. Since the user directory is fully integrated with iMIS, assigning permissions can be done anywhere within CASE which makes provisioning and access control a piece of cake.
Pain-free survey taking
For starters, this product is not Survey Monkey. Responses to surveys are intended to reflect institutional (not individual) performance; for any given survey many people from an institution can work on it but there is only one submission per school. This allows us to aggregate and filter the reports by specific institutional characteristics. Assistive text is available for each question in a survey, which when it comes to financial reporting is absolutely crucial. There are many ways to tabulate donations, donors, volunteers and many other aspects of a modern-day advancement organization.
Reporting and Exporting
Reporting is also a breeze. We know that advancement professionals use a lot of Word and Powerpoint documents in their line of work so we made it really simple to get exactly what they want from the available survey data. Not only can you select which of the available criteria to filter on, but you can view charts and graphs, calculate aggregate values and export it all to Excel (report data) and jpg (charts). We found that using ColdFusion to generate the appropriate data and Flex to render it was a very efficient, powerful combination.
Filtering report data was done through a very straightforward interface based on research and design we did for our RecruitWeb product. Criteria are displayed down the left side of the screen for selection; each item carries with it additional parameters that are user-defined. Use of colors to indicate active filters and the translation of selections to "plain English" gives the user a very good idea of what they can expect to see in the requested report.
Aggregate values are calculated for multi institution reports and privacy is protected for specific types of surveys under certain circumstances. We learned just how protective advancement professionals are of their financial data yet found a way to present actionable and useful information without compromising privacy.
Overall, we're extremely pleased with what we were able to deliver. ColdFusion made the middleware and business logic a snap. Flex allowed us to prepare a rich, responsive user interface. Using Flex also provides the server with some additional scalability. Similar to an ajax-powered application, the less we have to generate and send over the wire the more resources are available to support a larger number of connected clients.
Thinking ahead, it would be great if we could deliver an AIR application to enable push messaging - new survey notifications, even faster desktop reporting and possibly even survey completion alerts. The more data this system contains the more valuable it becomes to all of the CASE member institutions. The more tools we can provide that encourage people to participate the better!
1. A "community of practice" is an assembly of peer institutions connected by similar characteristics like alumni population, annual fund budget, or undergraduate population - not the traditional groupings like "Ivy League" or "Big 10." This ensures an "apples to apples" comparison of data for each discipline represented by the toolkit.