In the Quest for Big Data, Don’t Forget the Little Data!

In our growing excitement about the power of Big Data, it easy to overlook the importance of using the ‘little data’ out there. These are the data that organizations already collect, but which may not be used to their full potential.    Time spent summarizing, analyzing and using data is as important as collecting it!  Here are five simple tips for getting more from your data:


1. Get into the practice of communicating quality and not quantity.
Communicating something briefly and meaningfully requires time to synthesize information and to think strategically.   Data and other information are ultimately there to support decision-making, strategic directions and to engage others.  It can be pulled together in ways that can create new insights. Nurture a culture in your team and organization that values time for analysis, and demands that key learning is communicated in a few pages, rather than in a giant reporting package.  Take the time to systematically refine the data that you collect and use.  The Demonstrating Value Workbook and Performance Snapshot can help.


2. Dot your ‘I’s and cross your ‘T’s before starting something new.

Even small organizations can easily have thousands of MS Word, Excel and other files (or the non Microsoft equivalent).   In the heat of creation and productivity, we create a flurry of files.  Multiple people access countless files over many years, and often this is to support later analysis or instances where somebody builds on earlier work. When it’s time to move on to something else, devote time to archiving and deleting files so you know what’s important. Organize directories in some kind of order, and label things that you know, but which others will not.  If this is not your cup of tea, find somebody who takes pleasure in making everything orderly and organized. 


3. Don’t put data in hard to get places.
Of course if you can’t actually find and access the data you are really out of luck.  This can happen a few different ways.

  1. You can’t easily get data out of a system you’ve been using.  Always make sure you can export data from a database program easily before you commit yourself to it.   Check into how flexible the system will be in the event that you want to change what and how things are tracked. Needing custom tech support and programming changes can be time consuming and expensive.  Open standards like xml make this easier.
  2. You have no idea how something was calculated or where to find that data.  Sometimes data may be on a private computer or in an e-mail account.  Ensure that you have all the pieces from someone in a project. For instance, if you work with a consultant, ask for the analysis files that are created, and not just the final version of the commissioned work.  Using shared, on-line directories and project management systems can be very useful to ensuring everything is in one place.


4. Have somebody around, or train somebody, who can use spreadsheets really well.
Love it or hate it, spreadsheets are one of the most popular tools out there for storing and using data.  Many people use spreadsheets as a word processor (with lines) to record information. But that is all. The power of spreadsheets truly lies in its analytical capabilities.  There are many built-in functions like Conditional Formatting, Filtering, Graphs, and linking and transposing tables that can readily make sense of your data and save a lot of time.  Pivot Tables are truly an amazing tool.  Avoid errors using Data Validation tools and follow rules to ensure that your data are kept in a format that can easily be used.  If you don’t have a spreadsheet whiz around you could find a volunteer, hire with this skill in mind, and/or train up.  There are many courses out there, and the tutorials on You Tube and the internet generally, make it easy to learn new skills in this department.


5. Know when it's time to kiss the spreadsheet goodbye.
It’s time to start looking at relational databases and sector specific software solutions when…
• Data inputting is increasingly challenging to do. 
• You are doing a lot of it and have many records that are inconsistent. 
• You often are often combining your data with that in another table or file. 
• You craft similar reports from the data, and spend too much time making them look good and format properly.
• You end up with multiple versions of the same file that different people are using.
It is likely somebody out there has experienced your data challenges and that somebody has developed a solution that may be in your budget. If not, a custom designed system may make sense as an investment for a growing organization. Ask around.  Know your needs fully before you buy something. 

blog type: 
Issues & Ideas