by Kristen Gardner-Volle, MS, Evaluation Plus & Alexis Krause, MPH, Community and Cancer Science Network
Most programs and initiatives gather a lot of data. Having the capacity to hone in on the most important data to help improve the process is a common challenge. This is where a dashboard can be useful. A dashboard is a visual snapshot of your data. Dashboards use charts and graphs built from underlying data in a spreadsheet or database to highlight patterns in data. What elements get included in a dashboard are based on specific questions about how a strategy is expected to perform. Although it seems simple, it is a powerful way to synthesize and interpret data in a visual form.
Why a Dashboard Creating a dashboard from the existing Scholars Program tracking tool addressed several challenges: (1) project leadership was primarily focused on executing program activities and had little time for record-keeping; (2) the tracking tool dataset was getting too big to focus on the most critical information; and (3) notes about required follow-up and next steps were getting lost with so much information. Providing a quick visual snapshot of the data helped direct the project team’s attention to the most important information.
There are many dashboard tools on the market for purchase that will populate dashboards at the click of a button. We built our visual dashboard in the same Excel workbook we use to track outreach and recruitment. While we are not experts in creating dashboards, we found we could create a customized dashboard with minimal effort. The visual elements of our dashboard, once developed, allowed us to quickly answer questions about the size and strength of our recruitment pool and what immediate actions we needed to take to course correct.
Using Dashboards to Grow Our Recruitment Strategy Since our tracking tool was designed to hold a lot of data, we first had to determine the most critical data points for understanding our immediate recruitment goals. We chose fields that would trigger further conversation between team members that would encourage them to think about next steps or strategy. For example, listing how many contacts were “closed” vs. “open” led to a discussion about whether follow-up communication was needed. A graph showing which sectors our contacts belonged to led to a conversation about whether we had enough scholars interested from the sectors we needed. Charts displaying the outcomes from our contacts led to conversations about what strategies they were responding to and what they were not. These discussions helped us identify critical next steps to adapt recruitment and outreach strategies to meet our recruitment goals.
In order to identify action steps to achieve recruitment goals, we made reviewing the data dashboard a standing agenda item. The team dedicated time on each agenda to debrief on closed contacts and focus on new strategies for open contacts. The discussion further strengthened the quality of our data. As the team reflected on the visual dashboard components, it reminded them of the details of their outreach; they could focus on strategic approaches and ways in which to make the best use of their time. As a standing agenda item, it created a great opportunity to discuss the communication and recruitment process and provided a context for the team to identify areas for immediate improvement, and surfaced important questions to strengthen future cycles.
Implementing a Dashboard in Your Own Work Dashboards are effective tools to help a team focus on progress toward meeting goals and identifying critical steps in a process. Dashboards focus a team’s attention where it is needed most, which is helpful when team members are engaged in different aspects of the work. Lastly, and most importantly, they are a simple tool you can use whenever you need to stay on track and make data-informed decisions. During the recruitment period, we learned a lot about how to get the most out of our data. Below are recommendations for teams considering a similar process.
Be flexible and reasonable
Don’t be a perfectionist. You may have missing data or an incomplete picture especially when you are gathering data in real time. Focus on what the data tells you and make decisions accordingly. The point is to use your data, not make it look pretty.
Start with a simple dashboard that summarizes totals and focuses your attention on the most important issues. You can always add on more nuanced data and interactivity, such as pivot tables, once you have a better feel for what you want to know and how you’ll use this extra information.
Actually use your data
Agree upon targets and measure progress against those targets. The data collected is arbitrary if you do not know what you’re aiming for.
Set a recurring time to review the data and engage your team in what it means. Leave with clear action steps to move forward with the project.
Realize that what you want to know about your program may change over time and that’s okay. Adjust your tracking tool and dashboard accordingly to serve your goals.
Set aside time at the end of your program cycle for a debrief or After Action Review to reflect and improve for the future.