I Need a Ride to the Airport

Jan 22, 2019

Imagine a coworker says to you, “I need a ride to the airport. Can you buy a car and take me there? My neighbor went to the airport last week in a Toyota, so that is probably the only way to get there.”

Sounds crazy, right? Everyone knows there is more than one vehicle that will get you to the airport, and the one you already own will do the job. Maybe it’s a different model or color from your neighbor’s, but getting to the airport isn’t just about the car. Which airport? Which airline? What time is your flight? Do you have a plastic baggie for your 3-oz. liquids? These are the important questions!

This metaphor parallels a frequent request from end users to business intelligence managers: “We need to buy new software that does XYZ.” It seems less outlandish than buying a new car, but in reality it is far costlier in both financial and human resources.

Consider two recent examples from clients. At one institution, a department purchased two new software systems because they believed their ERP didn’t address their needs, when they were simply unaware of its full functionality. At another institution, a user of the existing BI platform asked the director of analytics to purchase another tool to create a particular report he had in mind, because another institution had used that tool for their own similar data. It didn’t occur to the user that the platform they already own could easily produce the same information and visualizations.

These requests are notable examples of solution statements, rather than problem statements, and stem from a lack of data literacy—the ability to understand data and communicate it as information. When solving an analytical challenge, the most essential element is not what tool you’re using. The first step is to explore and define the need—figure out the what before deciding on how. Consider what data you want to use, where that data is stored, what you want to measure, and who your audience is for consumption. It is these actions of critical thinking, not the tool itself, that lead you to a solution.

Any car on the market can you get to the airport. Though they have different looks and styles, the result is the same: you’ll still make your flight if you focus your attention on the details of location and timing. Likewise, most BI tools on the market can be used for any analyses a user desires, provided they start by focusing on the data rather than the tool.

How can you improve data literacy at your institution? Stay tuned for our next post, where we address some of the key factors.


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