Data as Storyteller: Three Ways to Turn Your Analytics into Action

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Click to learn more about author Asha Saxena.

Here’s a scenario to consider: A Data Analyst is told to prepare a report. She has reams of figures ahead of her, and she’s a pro, so she sifts and sums, weaving through the numbers and finding precisely what she needs. The whole organization is captured in spreadsheets.

What she doesn’t realize is that within her detailed report is the potential to change the business. The data she’s gathering aren’t just numbers — they’re the story of the company’s employees, its customers, and how it’s changing over time.

Businesses sometimes generate reports for their own sake, as if data reporting is just a to-do list item to check off. But these reports are a waste if they’re not action-oriented. Rather than compiling descriptive reports, which include only data, businesses should be compiling prescriptive reports, in which data is reported in the context of the organization’s past, present, and future.

Data gives you the power to intuit what’s happening in your business — why employees jump ship, why leaders are getting burned out, why one project is going so much better than another — so that you can take action. For example, I worked with one company that was having trouble with employee tension. The executive team decided to start data reporting in the HR department to monitor the problem, so it collected data on the hours people were working, the flexibility they had, and the resources that were available to them.

The reports found that tech people were leaving at a higher rate than their co-workers and were not happy with the culture within the company. So executive team members took action on the data: They started generating a report for their tech people that was designed to get them more involved in innovation and flexibility.

Instead of just looking at the report, the company took the report and turned it into a series of actions that would engage these employees more thoughtfully. The data told a story about what would actually keep them motivated to stay. By using prescriptive reporting, the business was able to nip a long-term problem in the bud.

Three Ways to Make your Analytics More Action-Centric

Of course, saying “be more action-centric” is like saying “run faster” — in order to make it happen, you can’t just try harder; you need to understand what you can change to achieve a different result. Here are three tweaks you can make today to improve your company’s data-reporting philosophy:

  1. Don’t Shy Away from the Problem.

If you’re doing data reporting, chances are there’s a major issue in your company and you’re trying to use data to solve it. But in order to form solutions from data, you need to fully understand the problem you’re having.

For example, let’s say employees are leaving at a rapid rate from a certain department and you’re not sure why. It’s time to match the data about those employees with a more intuitive investigation: What’s the underlying commonality between these departures? What is it about this particular role that’s encouraging people to leave? You’ll need data to answer these questions, but you’ll need a human touch to understand them. Once you understand the problem, the data will start lighting a clearer path forward.

  1. Tell the Full Story of Your Data.

Each tiny piece of data is part of a massive story. It’s easy to get bogged down in the individual facts when you’re looking at spreadsheets packed with numbers, but if you can’t build a story around those numbers, you can’t create actionable reporting.

It’s easy to say, “We lost X dollars last month,” or “X employees quit in the past quarter,” but what’s the story? Did you undergo a companywide change at that time? Were those employees low-performing or high-performing? To truly understand data, you need to identify the factors that are possibly influencing it.

  1. Point Your Compass Toward the Future.

Have a specific idea of where your business is heading in the long term before you start data reporting — the story that your data tells will ultimately be working toward that ending.

When you have a long-term goal in mind, you might find that seemingly negative data is actually part of a successful story. A 20 percent turnover rate for one quarter could mean that the lowest performers are leaving of their own accord and that you can now focus on hiring people who fit with your long-term vision. Without action-oriented reporting, you might miss out on this opportunity.

To turn data reporting into helpful action, Data Managers must scrutinize the relevant problems, connect data with storytelling, and look to the future. Data should shed light on the humans in your business — they’re the ones who will ultimately make you successful.

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