What does it mean to be data-informed?

Being data-informed is about striking a balance between your experience and expertise AND your data. Achieving social impact goes beyond merely collecting data; it also involves using that data strategically and creating a data-informed culture.

If used properly, the knowledge gained from data can deepen relationships with key stakeholders and improve program implementation. Indeed, knowledge-centric organizations shift key practices within their organization:

  • To be forward, rather than backward looking;
  • From having a select group handling data to involving all staff in data use; and
  • From collecting data to measure impact to putting data in the hands of practitioners to strengthen impact.

You might be thinking, this all sounds great, but how does my organization make this happen? There are significant challenges facing organizations trying to engage in this type of work.

Here, ImpactED recommends three questions to keep top of mind as you work to build data capacity, and shares key characteristics and practices of data-savvy organizations.

Three Questions to Guide Your Data Collection Efforts:

First, what data do you need? Data should help you get better at what you do. It’s important that staff don’t think about just meeting monitoring and compliance requirements but aspire to look at data as a source of knowledge for getting better at what they do.

Second, what stage of data use are you in as an organization? From our experience, organizations typically fall into one of three stages:

  • Emergent Stage. In this stage, the organization wants to use data but doesn’t know where to start. Data collection may occur from time to time, but there is no formal reporting and data isn’t tied to strategic goals. Or, the organization may have more data than they know what to do with. Organizations in this stage should prioritize a few key indicators and data collection methods, using them to demonstrate the value of data before scaling up.
  • Developmental Stage. In this stage, the organization is regularly collecting data, but it is stored across different spreadsheets and collected by different people or departments. Data may sometimes be linked to strategic planning goals and is periodically discussed in staff meetings, but these conversations and processes are not strategic or institutionalized across the organization. Organizations in this stage should prioritize developing a dashboard that pulls together key indicators across programs and determine a schedule for regularly checking in on progress over the year.
  • Institutionalization Level. In this stage, there is an organization-wide system and dashboard for collecting data that are shared with different departments. There is a staff position/s responsible for setting the overall agenda for data collection and reporting, helping staff understand data, and assuring that systems and timelines are successful. There are periodic check-ins to evaluate what is working and what isn’t. Organizations in this stage should provide professional development for staff to learn how to use and apply measurement tools to their work and provide opportunities for staff across departments to share knowledge and prioritize action.

Third who needs to know what? Despite conventional wisdom about transparency, not everyone in your organization needs to know everything. There should be different levels of detail in a data dashboard, customized to different stakeholders. As you’re building your strategy for data use, think about who needs what and why.

Key Contributors to a Data-Informed Culture:

Reflecting on the three questions above will help your organization assess its current data capacity and identify steps to improve it. As you forge ahead, consider the following key contributors to building data-informed organizations:

  • Building a data-informed organization starts with leadership. Leaders in data-informed organizations are unafraid of what the data say, and they don’t try to explain away the data. As well, leadership makes investments in time and resources for staff to both collect and use data. Leadership also models “good data” behavior by being transparent about how data is used to drive decisions within an organization.
  • Data-informed organizations are learning organizations. Staff are encouraged to ask questions, gather information, and think about how to improve their work based on data. But that is just the starting point; true data-informed organizations are creative in their approaches to engage staff in the collection and use of data.
  • The policies and processes that an organization institutes affect its ability to be data-informed. Data-informed organizations provide ongoing opportunities for training on data collection and use activities (including the use of databases), hire staff that have data-informed “tendencies” and have robust documentation of data practices on everything from logic models, to data collection manuals, data dictionaries, and other facets of the work. These staff should be experienced in change management and relationship building to cultivate buy-in from other key staff.
  • Data-informed organizations commit to using technology and tools for the collection of high quality data. This includes monitoring data on an ongoing basis. They also use data collection tools and they leverage technology to assist them in their efforts. Finally, they design reporting tools that are easy to use, transparent at all levels of the organization, and easy to interpret.
  • Adequate financial and staff supports are integral to a data-informed organization. Financial supports are dedicated to staffing, technology, both internal and external evaluation efforts, and also incentives for participant engagement in data collection activities (when needed). There are also dedicated, experienced staff focused on collecting and using data.

A culture of strategic data use will help your organization execute its mission more effectively, remain competitive, and respond to growing funder and stakeholder demands for evidence-driven programming. Implementing and sustaining a culture of data is no easy feat, but it’s achievable if you start with the steps above. Evaluate your current level of data expertise; identify strengths, needs, and next steps; and invest the time and resources necessary to cultivate a work environment that supports and rewards data use. We’re certain the process will be worth your while.