Data Strategy in the education sector needs to take into consideration one big question: Why? Why should education professionals care about the seemingly endless streams of data they’re asked to enter into systems? Why should data input be a priority when they have so many other critical responsibilities to students on their plates?
That’s what Shiyloh Duncan-Becerril, Education Data Administrator at the California Department of Education, believes. It’s similar to observations that also have been made by data specialists in other sectors, including Krista Joy Casey, business advisor at McKesson/Relay Health Intelligence, (see the recent article, When Nurses Embrace Their Role in Data Governance, HealthCare Organizations Win). That’s because it’s an observation that resonates across every industry. In education, as in other verticals, it’s critical to make the people who are involved in the data process be invested in the data process, Duncan-Becerril told an audience at the DATAVERSITY® Enterprise Data World 2016 Conference.
Referencing the statement by the President of Navesink Consulting Group, Thomas Redman, that the two most important parts of the day are the time that data is created and the time that it is used, she discussed the need to do a better job engaging people when they are entering the data. After all, “at the end of the day,” she said, “the people are the first part of the process.”
Yet, people are too often left out of images that show up in experts’ presentation slides about the data lifecycle, and that says something about how their role in the lifecycle is viewed. Not surprisingly, those who input the data are often ambivalent about their work, as they’re generally in the dark when it comes to knowing where their data winds up, how it is used, and why their efforts matter to the bigger picture.
To illustrate the point, Duncan-Becerril played a video excerpt from a Ted Talk where the topic was the Golden Circle: This is the idea that everyone knows what they do, some know how they do it, but very few know why. The why has to come first, and that means leaders have to ask themselves, “What is the why in your data?”
And once they understand the point, that message has to be communicated from the inside out. It’s about building a motivating vision about data and Data Strategy that users can buy into, much as Apple has built a vision about its products: The tech behemoth’s why is that it challenges the status quo. It’s how – that it does so by building elegant products – and it’s what – the computers themselves – all flow from that message.
What’s the Data Message?
Duncan-Becerril spoke about how she went through a transformative process that helped her better engage people who didn’t know the why behind their data input roles, or understand its importance. “It changed the way I engaged with everyone about data,” she said.
She turned the emphasis in her conversations with school districts and other stakeholders that supply data to her to focus on the value of the data. For instance, special education student data – statistics about students with autism, visual problems, and so on – must be collected for the federal government. By law, California’s education department must be able to supply the feds with that information in order to get the funding it needs for its 900,000 special education students. That’s an important reason for collecting the data, but for the message to work, she needed to craft an inspiring reason.
To that end, she now explains to stakeholders how the data can be used to “tell stories about kids with disabilities in California, to give voice to the children of California,” she said.
“It’s a really powerful why to use in conversations and it changes the conversation to be more about how I can work for and with their data to improve the data. Give me great data and I can do amazing things with it.”
With that focus, the people creating the data and responsible for coordinating it see that her goal is to do something to support their work and help make their jobs better. That’s important, as the teachers, superintendents, special education directors, and other professionals who provide that data are often underpaid and may feel undervalued.
Changing the focus also helped Duncan-Becerril face the challenge of having limited authority over their data entry practices and processes – which weren’t always handled accurately. “A lot of people think data gets in the way of their real job,” she said. For example, a teacher once told her that she didn’t go to school to enter data into the system. Duncan-Becerril response to that “was that the only way I can tell the great job you are doing is through your data. It changes the conversation completely.”
The clarity of why, she said, helps others see the bigger picture.
“The why can create trust. It breaks down the wall between data and non-data people, which is key. The why helps non-data people want to talk to you,” she said.
Selling the Why
The why of data and Data Strategy can’t be a complicated mission statement, though, she noted. Too often, it’s impossible for people to make the thousand mundane connections between these statements and the executions necessary to make them successful. Mission statements must be simple and something people can connect to on a deeper level – they must be focused on the problems data can help solve or make easier today or in the near future.
How to get the why out there to the non-data constituents? First, make sure it’s an authentic why, one that you can really believe in so that you can live it. “Be the model, talk to people and tie it to their work,” she said. “Let the why be your brand.”
One example she has shared with education stakeholders is a realization that she came to about just how valuable the data they deal with every day is. Duncan-Becerril explained that she had long talked about data security with district leaders and employees, but the conversations always had been more abstract than personal. Then one day she got a call from a woman who had heard about a student data breach in a district and wanted to know how she could be sure that her daughter’s data would be protected at the state level. When the woman explained the reason why – that her daughter had died and she didn’t want anyone to be able to steal her daughter’s name or her memory:
“I realized that the data that sat in my system were people’s children – the date of their children’s birth – the most important day in their lives, sits in a database somewhere,” she said. “This story made data security real and it resonates with people.”
She acknowledged that data specialists aren’t always communication specialists. But making connections with their non-data colleagues are critical, and that requires interacting and talking with them. “If you don’t understand people then you don’t understand data,” she said. “The data system is completely dependent on the people.”
Emphasizing the role of data in storytelling is a great way to tie the meaning of data to educators’ work. Invite employees to contribute stories that can be enhanced with data, she said. You can analyze their stories with data in a way that continues to help build a case for the why of its value.
“When they get the why they take more ownership in their work – [they see] that the data they put into the system becomes part of the district’s story,” she said. “It’s not just shoving data into a black hole anymore and having no idea what it does. It’s not about being ambivalent about data but being engaged with it.”
That feeling of being part of something greater contributes to a greater fulfillment in their own work: “Everyone wants to be a part of something greater,” she said.