Arriving at a Decision: Building a Bridge with DataPosted on Jun 12, 2014 12:00:00 AM
If you are like me, driving across a bridge is one of those things you might take for granted as you are headed towards a particular destination. Whether driving across a river-spanning bridge or taking a nature walk across a narrow, wooden foot bridge, the ability to do so is really the result of much preparation, planning, and communication. Without that bridge, the ability to arrive at the destination would, at the very least, be much more difficult and in some cases impossible.
As leaders of schools or other local governments look to make many important decisions, one of the most important aspects to arriving at a decision is dependent on the informational bridge that was built to reach that point. Almost all decisions, no matter how impactful to the overall organization, are better made with data as the footing. Each time your organization moves down a decision path, several questions should be addressed:
- What type of data will help us move forward on our decision path?
- Where can we get that data?
- What tools do we need to better understand the data?
- How can we best communicate the situation to all stakeholders?
Having a full understanding of these questions will help identify specific needs and put you in control of the situation as you build your data strategy. Whether you are building a budget, defining a staffing plan, identifying opportunities for efficiency or just responding to a question asked by a stakeholder, it is important to know where the necessary data resides and how it will be used. This is often referred to as having “command of your data”. Being in this position increases credibility and can often disarm a discussion around a decision that is less based on data and more anecdotal.
Data can come in many forms, but at a very high level the focus is often on historical and comparison data. For school districts, it might be data collected annually on a statewide basis, survey data, regional/affinity peer data or it could be your own in-house data. Regardless of where the data comes from, the opportunity to analyze is enhanced when disparate data sets can be combined into analytic or “business intelligence” tools. These tools allow leaders to better understand trends, benchmark against relevant peers and shine the proverbial flashlight in certain areas to ensure the “right” questions are being addressed. In many cases, this will include incorporating data visualization into the process. By taking a visual approach to the analysis of data, it is much easier to build the informational bridge needed to communicate the “why” of a particular decision.
While quantitative analysis is essential to understanding how you compare or where your organization might need to make changes, another very important component includes bringing a qualitative view to the analysis. This is where leaders draw on their own experiences along with the needs and desires of the organization or community. By pairing quantitative with qualitative, the decision-making process has the footing necessary to gain buy-in from various stakeholders.
The data bridge you build is not only dependent on the type of data you collect and analyze but also how you communicate with both internal and external stakeholders. While using a visual approach assists in the analysis process to identify outliers and trends, it is also important to use this approach for communication purposes. Using charts and graphs to tell your story in an easy to read “USA Today format” makes it easier for all stakeholders to understand how or why you are arriving at a given decision.
No matter how big or small the decision, it is important to understand the type of data needed, how/where you can gain access to the data, and what tools are needed for proper analysis and communication. As you look to arrive at a given decision, consider whether you are taking certain steps in the process for granted or if the bridge you build has the necessary data footing for that decision.
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Scott Smith is the Senior Vice President of Sales and Engagement of Forecast5 Analytics, Inc. – a technology company focused on software development and data analytics for the public sector. Scott has spent the past 10 years working with school districts and other local government clients with a focus on providing financial planning and data analysis tools. His prior experience in the private sector has enabled him to offer solutions that combine the bottom-line needs of corporate entities with the unique service-level commitments of the public sector.