Data can be helpful to teams, but it can also be harmful
Have you ever heard the phrase, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”?
Some say the “inventor of modern management,” Peter Drucker, originally said this and others say it was the management consultant W. Edwards Deming. Of course, it doesn’t really matter who said it – the idea is that data allows people to know more and therefore make better decisions. This statement makes sense, right? If you can capture data then you can see what’s happening in any situation.
There are lots of quotes like this. W. Edwards Deming, one of those attributed with the first quote, also famously said that in “God we Trust, for Everything Else There’s Data”. Data is clearly very important. It’s the only thing you can trust …aside from God, of course.
Data and its use in the workplace
In my day job, I work with designers and developers to create apps and websites. In the process, we create a lot of data that’s really useful in helping us to make decisions. Every task we do is captured and tracked. We set ourselves goals for each week and track whether we are on target to achieve them. This helps us to work out the best methods to progress with our project, or to get new functionality to users as quickly as possible.
The data has helped us. However, the data only shows part of the picture. We know that sometimes we achieve less because of other reasons. People get ill, or take holiday, or something we are working on turned out to be a much bigger challenge than we expected. This is not captured in our data but we know that happened and that it had an impact on what we achieved.
Managing using data
Data is useful, but this kind of data can also be misused. Management can use the same data to help them make decisions too. They could use this data to predict whether we are on target to deliver our project by when it was originally planned. They could use it to measure whether we are achieving enough. They might use it to question whether we are working effectively and, if they don’t feel that we are, they can tell us to up our game. They an use this data however they feel it is best to – with or without its context.
Of course, if managers use this data out of context, a number of other quotes come to our team’s mind. Like the one in Braveheart, where Mel Gibson’s character says: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” Data can be helpful to teams, but it can also be harmful.
Computers can only give you answers
In my experience, managers and people at executive level in organisations are not quite as bad as that when it comes to using data. However, it is true that often people have data and they don’t understand how to work with it. Data is useful, but only if you know the right questions to ask. For instance: Where did this data come from? How confident are we in this data? What factors affected the data?
As Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Well, data can only give you insights. People will make the decisions.
Business Executives and Data
There is an article from 2012 in the Harvard Business Review called “Big Data: The Management Revolution”. In that article, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson explain that “we believe that throughout the business world today, people rely too much on experience and intuition and not enough on data.” They go on to expain that, at executive level, people need to “allow themselves to be overruled by the data; few things are more powerful for changing a decision-making culture than seeing a senior executive concede when data have disproved a hunch.”
Maybe McAfee and Brynjolfsson overstated the value of data over experience, or maybe the world has changed since 2012 – but I believe that data is only of use if you understand the context surrounding it. Gathering data, so that you can use it is always going to be helpful – but we need to make sure that we are gathering useful data, that we understand it and know how we are going to use it.
There are more and more opportunities to gather data, so at every level we need to learn what questions to ask and where the opportunities are when gathering and using data.