“Imagine if the secret to mastering data lies in our capacity to ask the right questions?
In the process of developing Data for Action, a question-centered approach to data became one of the foundations. I wanted to explore and explain a few reasons why I think this is important, and why I think it can help organisations improve their approach to data.
The Importance of Questions
Organisations everywhere are striving to improve their approach to data.
Hands up if you’ve heard or even said ‘we want to be a data driven organisation’?
The latest Charity Digital Skills report indicates that ‘improving data’ is a primary goal for 62% of organisations in 2023. Yet, improving a whole organisation’s approach to data can be tricky. It requires good infrastructure, skilled people, a ‘data culture’ and good data communication. And often organisations don’t know where to start on this journey. Well, I think starting with questions can help.
We are naturally inquisitive by nature. As children we ask thousands of questions, to understand the world around us. This innate curiosity has driven our evolution, leading to discoveries, innovations, and progress. But, as we grow older, we often become more self-conscious, hesitant to ask questions for fear of standing out or appearing uninformed . I’d argue that having a default position of ‘not knowing’ is incredibly useful and powerful.
When it comes to data, inquisitiveness is a good thing. Questions give context to data, helping to transform raw numbers into meaningful insights. They help to guide what we collect, our analysis, and the actions we will take with data. They can act as our compass in the fog. Maybe rather than a ‘data culture’ we need an ‘inquisitiveness culture’?
Our brains are exceptionally adept at pattern recognition, processing millions of inputs non-stop. However, when faced with gaps in information, it instinctively tries to fill them. This habit can lead us astray when dealing with data. We may start seeing non-existent patterns or overlook the real ones.
By centering questions, we can focus and direct our attention to what matters. And by pairing questions with an action cycle, we can ensure that we aren’t merely reinforcing our assumptions. It encourages us to go beyond the surface of the data, promoting a more in-depth exploration. By beginning with questions, refining them, talking about them, we engage our critical thinking skills. This helps to challenge assumptions, and give us a more comprehensive understanding of the data.
Democratising Data with Questions
Most people in organisations don’t class themselves as a ‘data person’, which can leave data work, and data teams isolated. This can result in a whole range of negative outcomes such as a lack of understanding of the role of data, a lack of investment in data teams and infrastructure, poor data governance, and a general fear of data.
One of the most powerful aspects of a question-centered approach is its democratic nature. Everyone in an organisation, regardless of their role or their familiarity with data, can engage with questions. They can contribute their unique perspectives, ask their own questions, and participate in the process of finding answers.
By bringing everyone into the process, by centering questions, we not only begin to democratise data but also foster a culture of engagement and curiosity. Each member of the team becomes a data citizen, empowered to explore, understand, and use data in their work, even if they aren’t a ‘data person’.