How can leaders use data for good decision-making? While for-profit corporations, healthcare systems and educational communities use data frequently, church bodies and non-profit organizations are slow to the table of using data for decision making. This is partly because data takes time and resources to gather. It requires “measurability” which is hard to determine with “soft” measures like satisfaction, effectiveness and transformation. Data can also be misused without proper attention to bias, variables, and methods of gathering and reporting.
Data does not exist for the pure reason of collecting data. It exists to resource organizations for identity, effectiveness, accountability, and equity. Data isn’t just spreadsheets and surveys. Data can be interviews, focus groups, informal feedback, trends and characteristics from oral conversations or printed materials. Data can be “actionable knowledge” which leads to intentional and useful decisions for the organization.
Organizations are complex systems that require nimble and flexible standards of accountability that do not see data as the “end” but a “means to an end.” Data should have a service role in organizational change. For effective decision making, data needs to be more integrated and less silo-ed. Your organization needs to help decision-makers to understand the benefits of data-collection to accomplish their goals.
Researchers have found, however, that many organizations do not know how to use data for effective decision making. Far too often, in the organizations where I’ve worked, data is expected and collected without the education of decision makers for how to analyze and use the data for effective decision making. In addition, far too often “data exercises” of collecting and referring to data are done without a clear understanding of how systemic issues or complex decisions might be informed by the exercises.
For the church body or non-profit seeking to be better informed by data for decision making, here are some questions to consider:
- What gaps in information for decisions might be filled with data collection?
- What data would provide that information? How would you find that information?
- Who, inside or outside of your organization, has expertise in data collection and reporting? (What neighboring university, company, or community partner might have that expertise to share with your organization? Doctoral students like me are always looking for organizations to study and research at no cost to you!)
- How does your organization need to be trained in reading data and implementing data driven decisions?
- How can the use of data reduce individual or institutional bias, roadblocks or stuck-ness? How can your organization learn the value of data in decision making?
- Is data being used in your organization as an “end” or a “means to an end” for more effective decision making?
- Is data being used in improper ways to justify personnel changes, program elimination or someone’s personal agenda? (If it is, the organization and good leaders will sniff this out and be reluctant to use data for healthier organizational change).
Organizational decisions emanate from problems and issues which are never linear and rarely obvious. Problems range in complexity and definition. In addition, decisions range in difficulty in frequency, configuration and significance. Data can be “actionable knowledge” that can inform decision makers’ understanding, accepting and implementing. By thinking about these questions, you might discover how data can be a welcomed friend into your organization for greater missional effectiveness and innovation.