A couple of weeks ago, we presented a statistical report to one of our clients in North Carolina profiling the students that had registered for Continuing Education courses using our online registration system. The information we presented was well received by campus administration, and it instantly armed the Continuing Education staff with usable information.
Although we designed our online system to gather information not easily available in other systems, we believe the “special sauce” of what we created does not come from the technology we developed, but rather from our interpretation of the data it provides.
Early in our careers, no matter what data we brought forward, it never seemed to be enough for those sitting around the table, and conversations concerning this type of data usually went nowhere. The time it took to gather such data instead felt wasted, and we found ourselves asking what went wrong. Over time, the answer to that question became more evident.
Data does not provide answers. It informs decisions.
Data must always be presented with a story in mind. Data without a story is nothing but a confusing bag of numbers. For example, if you were presented with a number, say, 25,338.84, would that figure have any meaning to you? Of course not, as it is without context. However, if one was to say that the figure represents the closing market value of the DOW Jones Industrial Average yesterday, then it's a number worth noting.
The stories told with data require context in order to be of any use to an audience.
What we delivered recently from our registration system to a client can be summarized as the following:
“In the last three months, one single employee managed over $25,000.00 of income to the college, while one third of registrations happened outside of business hours and during weekends. 34 students did not complete their registration, but here is who they are. On average, it took three clicks for registered students to go from enrollment to payment to confirmation. More than half of your students registered using a mobile device last month.”
Once a story is created, you can compose a document with all kinds of detailed numbers to support it, but the story itself needs to be simple to understand. It makes it easier to lead a conversation about data and how its use can help move peers beyond any misconceptions. Retelling this story can help drive data driven decision making at an organizational level.
We have found that those who expect to make perfect decisions (based on "perfect" data) need help understanding that decisions will always be imperfect, and that making decisions on that premise will always have unintended consequences. As campus leaders, one needs to help lead others in that understanding of what the data may represent.
Even the most complete data set without context is useless.
However, an incomplete data set gathered daily can be very powerful. Don’t shy away from gathering data until you know what you need. Instead, start gathering data today. As a practice, if you obtain a simple headcount number starting today, that data might be very interesting. Yet, if you pull a simple headcount number every day for two years, you will be able to tell exactly how and when your students enter your college, and if and when they leave. You may also use that data to measure future admission cycles and start to better understand how the ramp-up compares to historical data. All of this insight can be gleaned from a single headcount number gathered over time.
Data requires context. Are you in a position to tell a story and use data to better inform your future decisions?