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The Data Dump Quandary

Why is getting accurate data from your business systems often such a challenge? It seems like it should be a straightforward thing but often turns into an exercise in frustration.

We’ve all heard the expression Garbage in, Garbage Out. But no one ever sets out with the intention of collecting garbage. So how does it end up happening? Especially since it’s a problem that everyone is cognitive of?

Let’s first examine how the path to reporting and data analysis usually begins:

It always begins with a conversation that goes something like this.

Person 1 says “It would be really great if I could get some better information around X process”.

Then person 2 replies “I agree, that would be fantastic. But we aren’t really capturing that information right now. Accounting is keeping some of that in a spreadsheet I think, and the shop folks have some of it on paper forms”

Person 1 rubs their chin and thinks for a moment. “Well, then let’s create an app or something to capture that data so I can get my report”

Person 2 shrugs and says “I’ve messed around with Microsoft access some so I can probably throw something together”

Person one cheers “Great! I’ll schedule a meeting with everyone, and we will make knock this out. It’s going to be great and so helpful in running the business!”

Everyone high fives and goes about their day.

So far things are good. Until the meeting happens... And that’s where we start going off the rails.

Everything starts out good, but soon everyone in the room starts asking the “what about this piece of data question” and then there’s the “I’d also really love to have this data” statement. So, in the course of a two-hour meeting the white board is full of boxes and arrows and everyone agrees that this is going to be such a useful tool for everyone.

Person 2 takes all this information and begins working on the database. They didn’t remember quite as much about Access as they thought they did, so it takes 3 months of working when they have some time away from their day job to get all the data setup and the reports written. There’s lots of places where data must be re-entered from other outside systems and there are multiple forms that have 15+ data points that must be entered based on the needs that had been scoped out in that original meeting.

Everyone re-convenes to review the data and the reports they are getting now. The problem is that some of the specifics have evolved since they originally talked and one of the original stakeholders has left the company and the new person in charge would like to see some different data.

Another month goes by, the revisions are made, the team agrees that this will give them everything they need. Things are back on track!

Not so fast though. The database is rolled out the people responsible for entering the data are trained on how to use the forms. The problem is that the forms are unwieldy with lots of fields and it takes a good amount of time to complete them. Immediately everyone looks at each other and while they agree that capturing all this data is a good idea, they also point out how much time it will take. The answer is that it will get easier over time and they will get used to doing it.

The new system gets rolled out and at first everyone uses it. It takes a lot of time and they are frustrated, but they do it. But then there is an especially busy week and they don’t get all the data entered.

No one says anything so everyone starts thinking to themselves “I’ll just wait and enter it all at the end of the week, that will be way easier”. So, they start waiting, but then it takes 4 hours to do it all at one time and they are inadvertently forgetting to enter some of the data. It’s still a cumbersome process, so they start just accepting some of the default values.

Again, no one on the management team has said anything yet about the data to them or shown them any of the reports and how it helps them. So naturally, resent over entering all this data grows and starts to feel like busy work. Things start getting worse from there.

2 months later person 1 pulls up the reports and is analyzing the data and starts making decisions from what is now bad data…

Granted, the above story is antidotal, but the bottom line is that garbage data happens not because someone tries to make it happen, but due to a lack of focus and clear communication.

So, what can we do to avoid garbage data? Here are a few tips when setting out to collect something important to your business:

  • Clearly define the GOAL and work backwards. Decide what question you are trying to answer with this information and then decide what detail you will need to get to those answers

  • Avoid SCOPE CREEP. It’s always easy to add “one more thing”. But pause and ask yourself what value that adds and does the value outweigh potential complexity

  • Have someone with EXPERIENCE in building databases and writing reports oversee the project. That may mean hiring a consultant. Or if it’s an internal resource, make sure the project is their core focus and not a side project. The result outweighs potential up-front cost

  • ENGAGE the people that will be entering the information and include them in the feedback loop as development is happening. Communicate and show them how this will help them with their daily jobs, not just create pie charts for management

  • And most of all KEEP IT SIMPLE! Make sure you are laser focused on what data is important and don’t get distracted by auxiliary junk

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