How to Collect and Report Data
Data collection and reporting has emerged as a central issue for most companies in the world. This is universally recognized by companies all over the world. And this need is growing rapidly – whether it’s due to the simple fact that regulatory compliance needs are multiplying, or the increased emphasis on supply chains and sustainability, there are more and more things to do to make sure your data is in order.
With this growing reliance on data, we might expect commensurate growth in processes to efficiently and confidently source the information and get it where it needs to go. But companies do not have such processes in place. In fact, even the “early adopters” glance over the process part and skip straight to the collecting. Why?
If we need the data (and we do) and we rely on it for crucial business activities (which we also do), why do a lot of us just buy a fancy basket (I.e. software) and start dumping heaps of information inside of it? Why do we send out reams of surveys to our suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders without ever explaining to them the context and importance of these activities?
Your guess is as good as mine, but here’s mine: no one wants to do this work. It’s time-consuming, labor intensive, and has no obvious inherent value. It feels empty, like a project perpetually stuck in the middle, without a beginning or end.
Sounds bad, right?
Well, that’s why I started Stacks Data in the first place - if we have to do this work, we may as well do it right, and maybe even enjoy ourselves a little bit on the way. And to do it right requires a well-thought-out approach. The first and most important step in that direction is to have a process in place.
1 Have a Process for Collecting and Reporting Your Data
It always amazes me that it is necessary to point this out, but for your data collection system to work, you must have a process in place. This process can be quite different for various organizations (and projects within those organizations), but they all share the same need for at least a basic set of strategies and procedures.
We’re now going to look at the fundamentals of such a process. Let’s start with the most obvious (and the most overlooked) - goal setting.
Data collection and reporting is so fundamental to a business’s success, yet I can’t think of another activity that is more routinely carried out on an ad-hoc basis. There can be many reasons for this but rather than spend a lot of time understanding the root causes, it’s more important to just recognize that it’s an issue and fix the problem. Goal setting is the driving force behind the fix.
Goal setting starts with figuring out if the project you’re considering is even necessary. Sometimes we find that there are other people within the same company doing something similar that could be piggy-backed on. This is more common than you might expect. So before getting deep into goal setting, do some fishing around your company to make sure you’re not replicating existing work.
Once that’s out of the way, you’re ready to goal-set in earnest.
There are two basic kinds of goals to be aware of -- “business” and “process.”
They often overlap but generally speaking, business goals are more all-encompassing and are usually supported by the process goals. The best convention for setting quality business goals is to make sure they’re specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
In our case, some examples might be:
Getting the highest rating in your best customer’s supply chain reporting initiative
Identifying all at-risk products in your supply chain for possible intervention
Obtain chemicals compliance information from 60% or more of your suppliers for a government reporting initiative
Once your goals are in place (don’t worry, you can tweak them later), it’s time to identify the process goals that will help you fulfill your business ones. Examples include:
Specific completion rates
Recipient engagement rates
Before you can move on, you’ll want to clearly state how you’ll know when you’ve achieved your goals. While this is sometimes straightforward, there will be occasions when it is not immediately apparent.
For example, have you achieved your goal when you’ve reached 100% completion of your requests? Or will 90 percent, or some other number, be your target? And what happens if you reach one goal but not another? Do you move on and quit while you’re ahead, or is it necessary to achieve both targets?
Who’s in Charge?
After you’ve stated your goals and put in place the metrics you will use to measure them, it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts.
In order to do that as effectively as possible, you need to determine who’s going to be in charge. Especially in large, sprawling organizations, your project can run away from you if you don’t have a clear pecking order.
One way to do this is to break up the roles by stages. Start by assigning a person for each of these:
Troubleshooter/point person (manager)
There are a million ways to configure these roles so we won’t spend any more time on this here. But we hope you can see the importance of spending some time making it clear.
2 Choose your tools
If there are a million roles that might fit inside your project, there must be a billion tools you can use to do the work. We’ve covered this previously so please reference that article if you’d like some help finding the right solution for you. But it’s good to have the discussion before you’re ready to start the project, otherwise you might find that a rushed decision to choose the software you will use ends up backfiring.
3 Creating Content
If you’re using questionnaires to do the outreach, you’ll now want to start building them. This is obviously a huge step, and we will cover it in much greater detail in future posts, so for now, I will outline some critical factors to consider:
Are there existing materials you can leverage? Industry associations often have reusable content and/or experts on staff or affiliated with the association, all of which can help you get a jump start on your work.
Are there templates, either inside or outside of your organization? Depending on your industry, there’s a good chance you’ll find readily accessible templates out there, and often they’ll be surprisingly robust. Don’t waste your time recreating what’s been done a thousand times before.
Can you pre-populate? This is more for after launch, but if there’s a way you can help your respondents by filling in some of the answers for them, your completion rates will very likely be higher (and your respondents happier)
TEST, TEST, TEST. No matter how low or high tech your solution is, you’ll want to run through it with people less familiar with it than you are to make sure it’s clear and that it works as intended. Things are much easier to fix when they’re not in use, so you’ll be glad you thought ahead before rushing into launch.
4 Have a Communications Strategy
Okay, you’re about ready to go. But don’t leave out what may be the most important step of all: defining your communications strategy.
Communications are important under any circumstance, but it is especially so when it comes to data collection. For one thing, people often feel they don’t have time to participate in these activities, so you’ll need to be clear about why it’s in their best interests to do so.
For another, data is a conversation so, whether you like it or not, you’re going to find yourself communicating a lot.
Here are a few ways to help craft a strategy for communications:
Be open. Say what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This is best done in an introductory note (usually via email) before the project even starts, by simply stating in plain words what it is you’re doing, why, and what’s expected of the recipient. Will there be consequences for failing to participate or comply? Let them know!
Determine a communications cadence. Our most successful projects have had a clear pattern of outreach – for example, reminders at specific intervals (once per week, every other day, etc.). Different projects have different needs – as do different respondents within the same project – so you’ll have to determine the right ways for your situation.
Follow through. If you say you’re going to get in touch on a specific date for any reason, do it on that date (or before). If you demonstrate that you’re going to be lax with responses, you can be pretty sure your respondents will handle things the same way.
5 Stick to the Plan
In much the same way your communications have to be consistent, you also need to maintain fidelity to the process you’ve put together. There will be frustrations, there will be times when you think it’s just not working but – unless there’s a glaring omission or something is obviously out of whack – you should trust the plan.
It is especially tempting to seek different technological solutions sometimes and, while there will be occasions when this is warranted, but more often than not you can right the ship by taking a step back, seeing where or why things aren’t working as intended, and then getting back to your agreed-upon processes and procedures.
6 Have a Cutoff Date
Everyone wants to get 100% of their data needs to be met but we all have to recognize that at a certain point, you’ve just done the best that you’re going to do. For many of the reasons stated above, you need to make your project completion date (and milestones within the project) a hard and fast rule. If you open the door to exceptions, the rule will be meaningless.
While it may seem like it’s very easy to do, collecting and reporting on diverse data from large numbers of other organizations can get quite complicated quickly. When you have multitudes of different personalities, practices, levels of organization, time, etc., you may find yourself all of a sudden lost in a maze of emails, documents, spreadsheets, and phone calls -- all of them related, but none of them connected.
So whether you work with a software provider, a consultant, neither or both (my company is, of course, a great one to choose!), I suggest in the strongest possible terms that you spend some time with your teammates and come up with an easy-to-follow, well-thought-out workplan, and try to follow it closely for at least the first round of data collection for your project. It may not be the most thrilling work out there for you to do but if you want to save yourself untold amounts of time and heartache later on, you’ll be glad you did.
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