Data usage is often viewed as a technical or computational challenge, especially for organizations with multiple data streams. However, as Sara Morton And Ailsa Cook Discuss how the main challenges faced by organizations using data are mostly related to the human factor. Emphasizing the importance of taking time to “think about it,” they argue that careful analysis and discussion of data has multifaceted benefits.
We live in a world rich in data. On the surface, this seems like a great opportunity for organizations and decision makers who have plenty of facts, information, and feedback at their fingertips to better inform decision making. However, data access alone does not solve problems if there is no time and space to consider and reflect on them. This “thinking” process can be stopped when the budget is limited. However, it is important to recognize that people are at the center of the use of evidence and to ensure that they have the capacity to use evidence effectively. Without it, it is difficult to track and guide changes in the complex settings of public services.
Our argument is based on our years of experience supporting hundreds of public service organizations in the public and voluntary sectors to understand the changes they want to see in the world and get the data and evidence they need to track them. Questions that we discuss in detail in our recent book, How do you know if you’re making a difference?.
It is not surprising that people who manage public services need and have a lot of different evidence. They are needed for several purposes:
- To understand how to solve problems and what initiatives can help, and how to plan for them.
- To learn about the work they are doing now – what is going well, what can be improved.
- To learn about the most effective interventions and where to focus resources.
- To demonstrate that the initiatives are delivering the benefits they hoped for.
By evidence, we mean all the feedback, data (quantitative and qualitative), formal evidence and reflections from practice that are used to understand complex initiatives in the real world. Public organizations have a lot of (sometimes staggering) amounts of evidence, mainly because it has become so much easier to obtain. They have their own systems and ways of obtaining data about the population they serve, with quick ways to conduct surveys or receive other feedback electronically.
This often leads to the feeling that “we have to do something” with all this data.
But where to start? If only there was a quick fix!
In addition to issues related to the amount of data, there is often a lack of consistency in the data that organizations collect. Sometimes there was a permissive data culture that allowed for many different approaches to data collection and feedback—thousands of flowers bloomed! In other cases, data collection methods have changed over time. Often, customers think they have a lot of data, but they’re not sure where it all is and don’t have a system in place to put it all together.
The use of mixed data is a recognized academic problem. Different people have the training and skills to use quantitative versus qualitative data, and understanding statistics along with examples from people’s experiences can be difficult. This is exacerbated in the real world, where people often lack the tools, knowledge, capabilities and skills to analyze and report.
How can these problems be solved? It starts and ends with people. It’s easy to see evidence as a technical thing and data as a neutral resource waiting in ever-increasing numbers for smart technologies to emerge and be analyzed. It is important to remember that this People who use the data. The data does not speak for itself. It is animated, analyzed and understood by those who need it. He is not neutral and has no power other than what we give him.
If people are at the center of the process of using evidence and must do it well, they need time, space, resources and skills to reflect. And they need safe interpersonal spaces for reflection: discussing the evidence can be just as important as the data in question. The space should be non-judgmental and suitable for learning. Support from an expert or knowledge broker to “hold” this space can also be important.
Reflection in action
What happens when people have time and space to reflect? This may include:
- understand what data they haveits strengths and weaknesses, as well as any gaps
- receiving the information to work and what the data tells them, especially where there are multiple data sources of different types,
- achievement collective understanding available evidence and key themes
- consensus building about what the testimonies tell them about their work
- education what goes well and decide where improvement needed
- action learning cycles: improvement, collect more data and reflect
When public services are faced with growing challenges and shrinking budgets, this time to think can be seen as expendable. But the benefits of this meaningful work are enormous.
Creating meaning brings many benefits to organizations that prioritize this activity. They can make more informed decisions using the best evidence they have. When they receive external requests for data, they know how to respond – either provide the data they have or explain why such data is not suitable for them. By working this way, you can improve employee well-being by giving them time to think and really see how their work means to people. The ability of staff to collect, compare and analyze evidence is being developed. It can help you on your way to becoming learning organization. Ultimately, working this way means initiatives stay focused on what really matters and delivers the greatest value. It also means they can make the case for further funding and have more impact through a clearer account of the impact of their work.
Everyone’s job is to try to defend meaning-forming spaces. To make sure people have time to think and don’t get stuck in a constant and exhausting “work”. This can contribute to efficiency, effectiveness and, most importantly, staff morale. This should not be seen as “nice to have”.
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Image Credits: Featured Image Killian Cartines via Unsplash, in text image, Sensemaking in Action, reproduced with permission.