Unlocking the value of your data

So, how valuable do you think your data is? My guess is it’s difficult to say, unless you’ve already defined a data strategy, you know what you want from it and are measuring what it’s doing for you.

In 2006, Humby coined the phrase “Data is the new oil”. He went on to say that, “like oil, data is valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used.”  There are often two problems to be resolved in small businesses. One is that, to help decision-making, business owners need to be able to cut through the data-noise to get to the critical insights. Two: Businesses that have moved on from spreadsheets to an off-the-shelf piece of software, tend to find the in-built reporting tools inadequate for their needs (often returning to spreadsheets to find the solution). For example: You click on “sales report” and see a nice chart that gives you the total sales by salesperson. Most of us at this point will want to know why one person is doing so much better than another. But the report doesn’t tell you that. Nor does it go into any detail about the lead indicators or conversion rates. You need to dig deeper.

So, what can you do to extract as much value as possible from your data? Here’s what I’ve learnt from my earlier lives as a Merchandise Manager and a Business Insights manager:

Success factors

The number one consideration for me has always been to start with the end in mind. What is your picture of success? How will you know if you’ve been successful? If, for example, success to you just means profits, you’re going to need to organise and categorise your data to tell you that. So, ensuring the efficient and effective capturing of all your costs and sales is vital.

Storage

Data isn’t data unless it’s stored somewhere first. This could range from a tick chart on a whiteboard to a spreadsheet or a CRM. Either way, consider where and how your data will be stored, its usability and whether it can be efficiently manipulated for reporting purposes. Obviously, systems with automated workflows can reduce the amount of manual manipulation time. Cost may be a driving factor in your decision here.

Workflow

Preferably before data storage occurs, but often much later, workflows must be defined that relate to measuring the success factors. Consideration must be given to how the relevant data will be captured, by whom and whether it can be automated. It is often useful if time and/or date fields and categories can be added into the process to enable a more detailed analysis further down the line.

Categorisation

As a merchandiser, categorisation was always the number one priority when entering new data. We assigned a category to each product as part of a hierarchy. This was particularly useful when it came to space-planning of groups of products in-store. But for services, it is less often the standard. However, how often have you looked at data and said, “that’s interesting but why is that?” or words to that effect? Categorising your data enables you to perform more in-depth analysis and monitor trends of groups of products or services and answer some of those “why” questions.

Accuracy

The beauty of working in supply chain or retail is that data capture is very bar-code driven, avoiding (not excluding) too much human intervention and inevitable errors. Where processes and data entry procedures are designed and delivered by humans, accuracy checks need to be built-in to those procedures, to prevent wrong data skewing our insights. Users should also be educated in the reasons why they are capturing the data, what the process is and why it’s important.

Spreadsheets

All businesses that I’ve worked in, have used spreadsheets to collect and manipulate data to produce their insights. That includes the large multinationals. The problem, as I stated at the start, is that the integrated reporting tools are rarely adequate. Analysts regularly extract the data into an Excel spreadsheet. Nothing wrong in that really. Spreadsheets are fantastic tools and are a great, cost-effective way of managing data in a small business. However, as data sets grow, spreadsheets can become unruly and open to inaccuracies (without adequate protection) and corruption.

Data visualisation

There is nothing worse, when you’ve asked for further details, to simply receive tables of data. You want answers not numbers in boxes, don’t you? Data visualisation tools – of which there are many out there – help create an interactive story for business owners. Users can view a visually engaging dashboard with clickable filters for closer inspection of the data. For me, they are the holy grail in terms of supplying valuable insights, but not an easy or cheap choice in terms of the training and expertise required, not to mention the licence fee. For Microsoft users, Power BI can be added to your license for £7.50 per month, but you will need to invest time in training and then use it daily for full benefit.

Back it up

And finally, given the value of your data, make sure you back it up. Data corruption will not only cost you person-hours in terms of recovery and redevelopment, but if it’s not backed up and lost for ever, it is obvious that the value of those insights will be lost too.

My advice: Treat your data as the valuable asset that it is. Keep it safe, protect it, look after it and most of all, let your data strategy be driven by your quest to understand whether you are succeeding in what you do. And I should just add this final bombshell: Do not forget about GDPR! Make sure you are compliant before you start. But that’s another story for another day.

Sarah German
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Sarah German

Sarah launched her VA business in 2020 following redundancy and a change of direction to support work/life balance. Sarah now works with a team to provide social media and administrative support to a variety of small businesses. Having immersed herself in Paid Ads during this past year, Sarah now also provides training, 121s and full Paid Ads management services, specialising in Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. With a past career in retail merchandising and customer insights, both being extremely detail-focused, a key part of her service is auditing and optimising social media accounts in preparation for launching new Paid Ads campaigns.