Building a Data Culture: Tips & Tools
An article by H.O. Maycotte in a 2015 Forbes magazine describes being data-informed as: “A GPS system in your car or on your phone. When the system presents you with all the available options, you have more information with which to assess what you want to do next. And you can apply your own experience to that information and choose accordingly — even if that means overriding what the system recommends.”
Being data-informed is about striking a balance between your experience and expertise AND your data. Achieving social impact goes beyond collecting data; it also involves using data and creating a data-informed culture. Key contributors to building data-informed organizations include:
- 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.
- Organization and Culture. 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. For example, one organization we’ve worked with has a monthly “Data Duck” Award. The Data Duck is a large rubber ducky (think of a bathtub duck) that is awarded to the staff member who has stewarded the use of data in their everyday work. Other ideas include a Family Feud style game where staff are encouraged to answer questions/think about strategies based on data findings, and monthly Dashboard meetings that bring together staff to review data and develop action plans.
- Policies and Processes. The policies and processes that an organization institutes will greatly impact 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, to data dictionaries, and other facets of the work. These staff should also be experienced in change management and relationship building to build buy-in from other key staff. Organizations also ensure they are compliant with state and federal regulations including HIPAA and FERPA policies.
- Data, Technology, and Tools. Data-informed organizations commit to 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.
- Funding and Staffing. 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. For more information on staff roles within data-informed organization, review the linked article.
Below are several resources that profile how organizations have made the shift to a data-informed culture.
- Data as a Means Not an End. This Stanford Social Innovation Review article describes how the education nonprofit City Year tackled “measurement drift” by reorienting its measurement activities around one simple premise: Data should support better decision-making.
- Moving Beyond a Culture of Compliance to a Culture of Continuous Improvement. Starting with Part II (on page 17) of this Resource Guide for Head Start Programs, you will learn about how to create a data culture shift within your own organization and how to put data into action.
- How Can Nonprofits Switch to a Data-Informed Culture? Non-profit guru Beth Kanter blogs about how different organizations have made the switch…and sustained it over time.