Demystifying data: The power of numbers for running your business

As a business leader, data can help you to understand complex issues, separate the impact of an issue from the root cause and can give you assuredness in your decision making by providing an evidence base and a clear rationale.

Data is not for a select group of analysts working away in a darkened room. Data is for everyone and crucially, for you as a business leader. In this post I’m going to break down what is meant by data and show you the value that data can bring.

I recently worked for a large organisation (with approximately 5000 employees and an annual turnover of more than £100m. per annum) where the Chief People Officer couldn’t tell me exactly how many people were employed (including permanent, contracted staff and agency staff) in the organisation. There was a significant reliance on agency staff to deliver some essential services yet there was no central oversight of which services. In the same organisation the Managing Director for Services didn’t know how many service delivery contracts they were responsible for because there was no central record to tell them. I could write an entire article on the widespread risks associated with not knowing the answer to both these questions, and I probably will. But for now, let us focus on the topic at hand.

To define what is meant by data, and information:

Data is simply facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis.
Information is a collection of facts provided or learned about something or someone.

In other words, data are raw facts and figures that are processed into information, such as summaries and totals.

As an example, a piece of data is that today the sun rose at 4.49am. This is a fact. It happened, it can be evidenced, it is true. If I add to this piece of data that I live and work in England (another piece of data) and that the date today is 25th June 2021 (another piece of data), when these pieces of data are grouped together, you will now know that this is British summertime. And this is information. You may also infer that as it is British summertime, it is probably raining, and in this case, you would be right. Although now I digress.

Data, information, insight and impact

In an organisation there will be countless pieces of information available. Data becomes most powerful when it is possible to bring different pieces of data together in a way which brings new information and new insight. Taking the example of where I recently worked, if the number of agency staff was known (a piece of data), the number of permanent employees was known (another piece of data) and the number of contracts was known (yet another piece of data), it would have been possible to begin to understand which services were overly reliant on agency staff (a piece of information).

Having this new information would mean that the executive leaders of the organisation could take more effective action. For example, undertaking more fact finding to know which kinds of services are so reliant on agency staff and for what reasons. This may lead to a conclusion that, for example, certain services are not sustainable because it has not been possible to attract and recruit the right permanent staff. Knowing this, the leaders of the organisation could decide that the service is no longer viable. If I also told you that this organisation had been carrying a financial deficit for over 10 years, then you can quickly see how significant this data and information becomes.

Data and performance management

Data underpins all performance management. Knowing what you data you have and having trust in the accuracy of that data is paramount for a leader. On the one hand, accurate and available data is essential for statutory reporting, mitigating fraud and compliance with data privacy laws. And on the other hand, accurate and available data will drive the achievement of your organisation’s goals. As a leader, you are ultimately responsible for ensuring that you have the data you need for your organisation to flourish and yet so many leaders don’t have this understanding.

  1. What data do you already have access to, and what data do you not have access to?
  2. How do you currently use the data you already have access to as part of your corporate planning and decision making?
  3. What would you do differently if you had access to all of the data that you needed to run your organisation effectively?
  4. What data do you already have access to, and what data do you not have access to?

I can help to demystify your data to better understand complex issues and distill complicated data sets into meaningful packages of information that help you to take better decisions.

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