The Data Sweet Spot – 5 Part Series – Part 1
These days nonprofit and for-profit enterprises alike are well aware of the need and value of tracking service data. (Those that may be resistant to embracing the value of data tracking and analysis should look out for the post “Why Do Data?” coming soon). The question of “why track data?” is rarely the question that poses a challenge but rather the more complicated questions of what, who, where, when and how to track data are the difficult ones. Contrary to what some data management software companies and others in “big data” industries promote, I subscribe to the belief that the answers to these questions are not simple and often involve a balancing act that is unique to each organization. Any company or consultant can advise you to just jump in and do things the way every other organization in your industry does. But you don’t wear the same clothes everyone in your age group does, your organization doesn’t provide services exactly the way others in your field do so why would your organization collect and analyze data in the exact same way as others in your field?
I believe in customized, thoughtful data management. My years in direct social service work, social service program administration, AND data management administration has given me a great appreciation of the good, bad, and ugly sides of data. I believe in a balance of quantitative and qualitative data collection for a holistic perspective of your organization. I believe in respecting and working with the realities of service provision as you integrate data tracking systems to improve accuracy, buy-in, and longevity. My approach isn’t easy and formulaic. It IS customized and, I believe, more effective and sustainable.
In this five part series exploring the what, who, where, when, and how of data management, I’ll discuss each component separately with issues every organization should consider in answering these questions. I’ll offer some guidance that will help you resolve these issues in a way that best fits your organization and allows you to find the “sweet spot” of data management.
Part 1: What?
The big question organizations often start with is what services should be tracked. Everything!! Right?? How many clients you saw this month, how many services they received, how did they find out about your services, was this the first time they have used this service, what color pants they were wearing when they came in to use your services. Well, you get the point. In the age of big data, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data tracking options you have available and to be misled into thinking that “all data is good data”.
My first recommendation to organizations is “NO!” not all data is good data. Data that doesn’t add anything valuable to your organization’s “vault of company knowledge” can cost you in many ways. From frustrated employees who feel they are wasting their time on meaningless tasks to loss of clients and bad reviews from clients frustrated by the amount of paperwork and intrusive or repetitive questions. In addition to the negative effects needless data collection has on people, both staff and clients, collecting data that you do not or are not prepared to use to inform your service improvement goals can also be a waste of time, money, and resources.
So how do you know what data you should collect? Well, finding the right balance between too little and too much data tracking is about good self-analysis in some of the following areas:
- What structures (ie. recording systems, staff time, company processes) do we have in place to collect and analyze meaningful data?
- What, if any, are our reporting requirements to funders/investors?
- What data are we ready to track and utilize now? Which might we be better off tabling for a later time?
- What are the needs and limitations of our staff and clients in being able to share that information with us?
- What data are we able to safely collect and manage without risking client, staff, and/or organizational security?
Those questions may seem basic but you might be surprised at how little time organizations spend considering these issues before they launch into data tracking. It may seem harmless to ignore these issues but consider that if you have just one item that costs you 1% of staff time to track, makes clients 1% less comfortable receiving services from you, and with which you end up doing absolutely nothing. Now imagine that over time employees get frustrated knowing you don’t do anything with that data and begin tracking that data less and less accurately. Suddenly, months or years later, you decide to actually do some kind of analysis with that data only to find it is grossly inaccurate and “cleaning up” that data mess is costly and time consuming. Now multiple that times the number of data elements you didn’t give proper consideration to. Yes, exactly. That is why finding the data “sweet spot” matters. To make sure you are striking that balance between not enough and too much, ask yourself the following with every piece of data you are currently or thinking of collecting:
- What are we going to learn from or do with it?
- What will the cost in time, effort, and technology be to accomplish this task?
- Who is going to be accountable for this piece of data?
To learn more about how to answer them, tune in to the next parts in the series. For customized data management support for your organization, contact me at http://arboretagroup.com/.