We live in the era of data. No matter how big or small your organization is, you collect data, a lot of it. We live in the fear of missing critical information unless we capture as much information as technology allows. However, did you ever wonder how much of the data you collect has actually been put to use?
Note that data and insights are fundamentally different. Data is the information collected through surveys, Google analytics, and any other software or platform you use. Insights, on the other hand, reveal a clear pathway showing you what you should and can do to achieve desired outcomes.
In this day and time, collecting data is easy. Creating a system to turn data into useful and actionable insights is difficult. Below, I offer a step-by-step guide to help you make better use of the data you have instead of continuing to spend more money and time collecting data you’ll never use.
Step 1: Pick a focus.
This is the pain point you're trying to resolve, the outcome you're trying to improve, the practices you're trying to redevelop. For now, don’t worry about if you have the data or not. There is a higher chance you do. Even if you don’t, knowing specifically what you want to achieve is a useful practice by itself.
Be specific with what you want to achieve. Set clear objectives such as "I want to reduce the number of hours my team spends doing X while maintaining the same outcomes" and "I want the community I provide Y services to have an increased level of satisfaction." Ambiguous goals like "I want to improve my impact" provide little guidance for you to follow through this 7-step process. Also, don't be afraid of picking something small. Baby steps can lead you very far.
For illustration, in the remainder of the guide, I will use the focus "I want the international students at my university to feel more satisfied with our career resources.”
Step 2: Write down everything you're currently doing to achieve that objective.
If you don't know what you've been doing, you won't know what you will need to do additionally.
In the example of career services for international students, list all the resources available for international students and all the marketing channels you use to make these resources and support known to them. Be creative and exhaustive. LIST EVERYTHING.
Step 3: Identify all the data you already have.
Now that you've listed everything you've done, it’s time for some data digging. The overall goal of Step 3 is to compile all the data you have that shows how well you’ve done with each of the activities listed in Step 2.
Two common problems could emerge. One common issue is that when you collected the data, you didn’t explicitly ask about a piece of demographic information that you care about now. If that’s the case, try and see if you have any identifiable information that allows you to cross-reference with a name list with that demographic information.
The other common problem is that you don’t have data on the “exact” topic you want to learn more about. If that's the case, use it anyways. Remember this. The (survey) data you have is meant for you to identify some main gaps to focus on in Step 5. It’s not meant for guiding you to your goal. This is one of the very few situations in life when “bad data is better than no data at all” holds. Step 4: Use the data you compiled in Step 3 to identify patterns and trends over time.
This is when you create all those “breakdown” data and year-by-year comparisons.
Any stand-alone data is meaningless and useless. There, I said it. Knowing that 89% of all the international students at your university feel "very satisfied" with the career support gives you no insights whatsoever. You cannot act on it. In comparison, knowing that 94% of international students from Western European countries feel "very satisfied" compared to only 71% of those from Northern African countries gives you something to think about.
Step 5: Narrow down your focus one more time.
From the data created in Step 4, you will see disparities. It’s perfectly normal as we do not live in an egalitarian society. It does not mean you’ve done a bad job.
What it does mean is that you now need to make some tough decisions to narrow down your focus one more time. Despite your best intentions, you simply do not have all the resources to resolve all the disparities at the same time. Pick something that aligns with your organization's mission, or focus on an issue that is the most pressing. Don't feel guilty about having to choose. But do make sure you’re conscious about the decision you’re making and work on other disparities later.
Step 6: Now you might want to collect more data.
Knowing "what" happened (Step 4) does not mean you know "how" it happened. We all know this. However, in real life, it's much easier said than done. In the example that 94% of international students from Western European countries feel "very satisfied" compared to only 71% of those from Northern African countries, racial disparity is “what” happened. But “race” is not necessarily “how” or “why” it happened. Race plays a role, but the more important question is “What role does it play?” You want to uncover how it happened so you can do something about it.
This is why, at this stage, you will probably need to collect more data and directly engage those affected by the disparities. The goal is to get an idea of their lived experience that resulted in, for example, the much lower satisfaction rate among international students from Northern African countries. Ask the students to tell you what their career goals are, what resources they already have and still need, and ask them to describe how they have been using career resources on campus, to name a few. Focus groups, interviews, and ethnographies are particularly good ways to get these rich and contextualized data.
Be aware that Step 6 can take more time than the first 5 steps combined. If the first five steps take 2-3 months, then plan another 2-3 months to collect contextualized qualitative data. This might feel like a lot of time, but it’s worth it. All the information you collect will help you identify exactly what you will need to do next to achieve your desired goals.
Step 7: Map out a process to improve the outcomes you care about the most.
After completing Steps 1-6, you should have the following information: - a clear idea of who your stakeholders are
- a specific outcome with a specific group or community that you want to improve
- a list of unique needs of this group or community
- an extensive list of everything you've done so far
- a detailed list of everything you will need to do to fill the needs gap and achieve the desired outcome with this group
Use the information to map out a step-by-step process and you will be on your way to improving the outcomes you care about the most.