Data can be a wonderful thing. There are so many stories you can tell with the right data. These stories have the power to persuade and motivate positive changes in the organization. And so the marketing stories go on and on about the power of data.

The question is, do you have the right data? Can you tell compelling stories with your data? How do you know what is possible or needed? Let’s discuss some straightforward techniques to help you determine the answer.

Many times, I’ve walked into a client’s office and was greeted with large quantities of data. However, the client was still struggling to tell a compelling story from their data store. There was always doubt as to whether the reports they generated were useful or compelling.

I’ve also encountered clients who maintained additional data as they thought someone *might* need. Unfortunately, wishful thinking is not an effective business strategy and can waste scarce company resources.

Here are some signs that you might need to rethink your data strategy.

  • Do your reports require data definitions, report keys and long explanations for someone to understand what they are viewing?
  • Do you have a training session on “how to use the reports”?
  • Are you maintaining data for which you are unsure of the purpose or use of said data?

If you answered yes to any of these, it might be time for a little housecleaning.

The Effective SimplicityTM approach dictates that we maintain as little data as possible to meet the business need. Minimizing data is a way of reducing the overall cost by reducing the overhead to manage the system. The trick is to determine what data is needed which is sometimes easier said than done.

At Tumble Road, we use an approach that follows a pattern that is understandable and helps determine the context and the need for the right data.  The pattern is Conversation – Question – Supporting Data and Activities.

Conversation is about identifying the specific meeting / use case that the tool will ultimately support. A diagram of some standard Project Management conversations are illustrated below. The conversation will have a schedule so that you can determine how often the data needs to be updated. The conversation has standard participants, which is helpful if you need feedback on the data you will need to provide. It also helps later in the case where you need to inform the report consumers of an upcoming change. Lastly, a list of 1-3 key questions is defined for the use case.

Project Communications

Key Questions are the information needs that needs to be supported. The Key Question also determines the form in which the answer must be presented.

For example, if the conversation is the weekly Tuesday portfolio status meeting between IT Management and Finance, likely, you will need to answer questions similar to:

  • What have we spent?
  • What did we plan to spend so far?
  • What are we planning to spend in the near future?

Supporting Data and Activities are the exact data elements that allow the key question to be answered and the activities necessary to generate, collect and maintain said data. The data can help you determine other incidental data, specifically necessary for organizing and filtering the Supporting Data. The activities can help you spot process gaps that may be present that would prevent you from successfully addressing the question.

When examining the What have we spent question? above, Finance wants Project spend broken down by Project, Cost Type (Capital or Expense) and Sum the totals by Fiscal Year, Fiscal Period for each IT Director.

From this short exercise, I already know the following is needed:

    • A lookup table for Cost Type with values of Capital, Expense.
    • A task custom field with Assignment Roll Down of the values enabled.
    • A lookup table for IT Directors, to maintain consistency.
    • A Project custom field for IT Director so that this can be assigned to each project.
    • To add this Project custom field to the correct Project Detail Page so that the PM can maintain this data.
    • Resource rates in the system so that costs can be automatically calculated.
    • To enter the Fiscal Periods in Project Online.
    • A project template which exposes the Cost Type column at the task level.
    • The cross-tab report layout
Director/Project/Cost Type FY2014-M01 FY2014-M02 FY2014-M03 FY2014-M04 FY2014-M05
John Smith

$100

$100

$100

$100

$100

Project X

$100

$100

$100

$100

$100

Capital

$50

$50

$50

$50

$50

Expense

$50

$50

$50

$50

$50

 

As you can see, you can generate quite a bit of actionable detail using this approach. There are several follow-up questions that can now be asked since you have specific, concrete examples from which to work. For example:

  • Do you need filtering by director?
  • Do you show only incomplete projects?
  • Is the IT Director data something that should be maintained by PMs?

This approach also aids in designing supporting processes. You already know this is a weekly review, so cost information has to be updated on a weekly basis by the PM. As the meeting happens on Tuesday, Monday is the deadline to get updates in and published.

A final advantage is that it is easy to track the progress of visible work by your users. For these engagements, the top level summary task would represent the conversation, a key question represents a sub-tasks and key activities, such as gathering required data, defining maintenance process, etc. are the third level tasks. This makes it easy to determine the “health” of the conversation implementation.

Once you are maintaining the data essential to answering the questions, with clearly defined uses, you should see a reduction in overhead as well as evidence of easier training conversations. If you would like to learn more, please join our Community here.