Frances Fiorello: helping students stay on track, and a university reach the top

By | 7 minute read | January 24, 2020

This story is part of Analytics Heroes, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of business analytics.

Carving out her educational and career paths have led Frances Fiorello to where she is today. She manages to seamlessly blend aspects of both her personal and professional life: “I like things that have organization. Some data has organization, some does not. If you go look in my closet, my clothes are organized, everything is there. I like bringing those skills to what I do, but also interacting with people.”

Her career at the University of Florida holds more meaning to her because it’s not just where she works, it’s also her alma mater. She sees working for the organization as a way of giving back to the people and institution that set her up for success. With a warm and open disposition, the best way to describe her is passionate.

Meet Frances Fiorello, IT Manager of Reporting and Analytics at the University of Florida.

Building relationships — and a school’s reputation

When she started at the University of Florida’s IT department 18 years ago as a report writer, Frances Fiorello gained a wealth of knowledge about how the university did business. She began teaching reporting basics to various campus departments using IBM Query Studio and PowerPlay. “I loved seeing that lightbulb go off, as staff members realized how their data could help them make timely and relevant decisions.”

Frances now works with data that’s integral to the school’s mission to “Rise to Five” — meaning its rank among the country’s best public universities. At the time of this article, the University of Florida is currently ranked seventh by U.S. News and World Report.

But this benchmark isn’t merely about bragging rights. “Since we broke into the top 10, we’ve been able to do better fundraising, attract more awards and research grants, and of course, attract more talent,” said Frances.

From “pretty please” printouts to instant insights

To help academic and administrative staff at the university gain a clearer picture of student progression, the University of Florida evolved its data analysis and visualization functions by upgrading to IBM Cognos Analytics.

“One of our biggest successes is the student QuickView dashboard. It used to take an advisor 15 to 20 minutes to get all of this information. Now, they enter the student’s ID number into the dashboard and can instantly see the student’s career history, how they are tracking towards their degree, how many times they’ve changed their major or minor, and whether or not they’re compliant with academic regulations. We can see how invested they are in their own career paths, in the community, and being a student at UF.”

That particular implementation was the turning point in the school’s adoption of IBM Cognos Analytics, said Frances. Advisors are now able to see more students and give them more attention in less time — which is important in a school of 56,000 students. “We don’t want to rush them through like cattle. So empowering advisors to get these insights on demand was a huge success.”

Reducing attrition, staying on track

With attrition rates on the rise nationwide, keeping students on track for graduation is a key metric. Frances explained, “In our Rise to Five goal, we have a 96 percent retention rate from first to second year, which is extremely high across public institutions. Our six-year graduation rate is very high, but the four-year graduation rate is where we need to focus. So, we’re using Cognos Analytics and doing predictive modeling. Some of the metrics or indicators may show us there are students who might not make that mark. So we can take that information and offer courses to increase that four-year graduation rate.”

Overcoming adoption challenges

Frances is frank: instilling new ways of accessing, using, and analyzing data isn’t always easy. In her career, she’s encountered her fair share of challenges, and the biggest challenge is user adaptation. “People are generally averse to change. It’s hard for them to go from ‘I know who to ask for this, and it will show up on my desk’ to ‘I can do this on my own.’ When they’re faced with a whole new buffet of products, they can get overwhelmed.”

She can personally relate to such struggles. “I love to bake, and it’s easy to end up following the same old recipes. But you have to change it up every so often to find something that’s more delicious. So, I feel like you do that same type of thing when you’re building reports or creating a data model. With IBM Cognos Analytics, as long as people are willing to open their minds and invest the time to learn the tool sets — even just a few short hours — they’ll be rewarded.”

The second biggest challenge is data silos. “First, you need to get people open to sharing their data. And then you need to reassure them that yes, it will be secure. You are in control. You define the roles and access policies. We’re helping your data serve a broader audience, without you having to do all of the work.”

Frances encourages users to lean on the school’s reporting and analytics team as a support network. “Getting out there and having face-to-face conversations is essential to breaking down the barriers to adoption.”

Keeping current pays dividends

In the past, the university had been slow to update its reporting tools, so becoming diligent early adopters of new IBM Cognos Analytics releases was a cultural challenge. But, says Frances, the rewards have been immeasurable.

“Every little new feature is like another brick falling from people’s walls against change. They realize, ‘Oh, I can use this type of visualization now? I can bring in my own custom visualizations (D3) or my high charts or any of those things?’ Every release further empowers our end users.”

This empowerment isn’t just happening on the IT side, it’s also on the business side. “For example, we’re seeing huge growth in sponsored programming. We have an $838 million portfolio of research contracts that we’re looking to build up to $1 billion. Our HR and finance departments can use IBM Cognos Analytics to get the data they need to discover trends among the agencies and organizations awarding the contracts.”

Frances said she never wants to fall behind again. “The investment that IBM has made in this product has been amazing, and it makes us want to stay on top of every release.”

Game-changing features cause “oohs” and “aahs”

With IBM Cognos Analytics, Frances’ team has empowered people to create reports that they envisioned, but previously might not have been able to articulate. “When we did our road show for the student information system, people were coming off a mainframe into a new transactional system. So there were a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘Oh, babies!’ I mean, it was amazing. We hadn’t had that kind of a reception for anything until then.”

“Dashboards have been another amazing feature. After showing an associate director the dashboarding features of IBM Cognos Analytics, and how people could upload their own spreadsheets or CSVs, he turned to the other director and said, ‘I see no reason to renew our licenses for our current vendor next year. IBM can do exactly what we need it to do.’”

Frances then laughingly stated, “If I could still do cartwheels, I would have done them out of the room! That was a really big win for the team and for the core IT office. It brought them back into the fold of collaboration that we really wanted to have with them.”

Being an analytics hero: saying yes, opening doors

To Frances, being able to answer “Yes, I can do that,” is the essence of being an Analytics Hero. “I love my job. I love empowering people to get the information, the data, the reports that they need. I like having one foot in the people aspect and the other foot in the data.”

Using IBM Cognos Analytics, “I can nerd out and data model and come up with really interesting ways of solving things. It’s actually opened a lot of doors for me on campus in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. Co-workers have even stopped me at the grocery store and said, ‘Oh, I meant to ask you — I need this report — is it something that you can do?’ And I say yeah, we can do that.”

Another aspect of being an Analytics Hero is being able to give back to her alma mater. “I went to the University of Florida, and when I started as a junior I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I took a database class. My senior project was on reporting for the Child Advocacy Center. Being able to build a career that I love, from that beginning, has been wonderful.”

Learn more about IBM Cognos Analytics.