Build what you need using what you have to collaborate and empower and change

I have been working on a few somethings over the past couple of years and while, for me, all of these somethings are connected to one another, this post focuses on the one, the Interim Database and Dashboard.

I know that for most who read this (if any actually do), this will be a story about (as its flashy name suggests), a tool built to be short-term solution to a training data tracking issue while waiting for the implementation of a new enterprise-wide learning management system.For me, it is a story about to strengths and limits of data and narratives, of big and small, of controlling and being controlled. For me, it is a story about the good and the harmful of ed tech/ data-supported learning that I have seen, and continue to see, being repeated over and over. And over.

Build what you need

The Interim Training Database was developed around an urgent and real problem; we had conflicting sources of training information and data surrounded by ill-defined and inconsistent processes. Digging in more, we needed three data-related things: to know what various folks needed, to know what each person had done and when and a single accurate and trusted source of record. And we needed it *now*.

It was refreshing to start with a defined need rather than a defined tool.

In addition to the data, we also needed to build trust in folks that really had no reason to trust us. They’d been promised fixes before, but more importantly, they’d been promised badly needed training/learning opportunities before that never came.

I have often heard that “in order to fix a problem, you need to be able to measure it.” I am increasingly skeptical that this statement is true. Instead, I now am thinking that you “need to be able to name a problem in order to fix it and that measuring may assist in tracking your progress towards fixing it”. And this, in turn, points to the need to think critically about the role of naming and framing (aka stories and narratives) in the use of data.

In this particular case, the data problem I walked into was framed in two different ways, depending on who I talked to: “We need to train folks so that we are compliant/ don’t get fined” and “We need to train folks so that they can be safe and effective.” These folks were almost saying the same thing. Only different. One of these narratives is fear-based, the other speaks of building something better.

Given this choice, I started talking about our need “to support the development of a safe, effective and engaged workforce.” A smart lady once said “that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes reality.” In this case, that “building something better” narrative was repeated enough and so hard to argue with that it has even found its way into the official business plan 😉

Suddenly, supported by a ton of really hard work and listening to a lot of people, our little data project had turned into something bigger, something that supported a shared vision of something better.

Using what you have

Because the backdrop to my little project was a big (, expensive and high profile) LMS implementation, there was no appetite anywhere to explore new tools. So we took stock of what we had. After eliminating the possibility of upgrading existing Moodle system, SQL, Access and Sharepoint, we were left with the option of building in Excel using Visual Basic.

Was it the best tool for the job? Nope. Did it work? Yup. how long did it take to implement? 6 weeks. Did folks require significant training to use it? Nope. Do they actually use it? They sure do.

Now to be fair, it is the fanciest thing in Excel that I have ever seen with a good underlying data structure, auto-archiving data files and clean data entry forms. We also got lucky in that the reporting team had just been given Power BI licenses which meant that our little no frills DB, could be connected to a web-based, dashboard.

And while the building of this little tool was cool, the most amazing thing was what happened when we launched it. I sent the link off to one person to test, who then sent it to a couple of others and then a few others, such that an actual launch of the “new system” never happened.We implemented standardized paper attendance sheets across the departments with instructions to complete and submit for data entry.

Sure, we had to explain that nothing was really connected in the back end and that it might take up to three days to see updates due to the multiple human touch-points happening in the background, but as it turns out people can be quite forgiving when you are doing your best with a limited tool set.

They did manage to launch the big LMS, but a year later we are still waiting for our data to be loaded. Meanwhile, our little database continues to flash and buzz (as the many Excel sheets needed to make it run open and close and the thing processes giant vlookups). It has been tracking and managing training data for 18 months now with only minor hiccups. Features have been added based on feedback from users and it is now being used not only to track but also to plan.

To collaborate and empower

At first, access to the Training Dashboard was restricted to managers and supervisors in alignment with previous systems. Then we added the schedulers, then the clerks. And the instructors and then the relief instructors. At some point, the union reps asked for access and then the leadership team (or maybe that happened the other way around). And then another and another and another. Eventually, I asked for permission to make it accessible to all in the company. And the answer I got back was “yes.” This little project highlighted how many people were invested in getting training issues sorted out.

At the same time, it suddenly wasn’t only about training any more. It was about shared access and transparency. “We need one set of numbers and all be talking the same language,” I explained. I advocated strongly for the same data to be used by everyone whether they were sitting in boardrooms or working on the shop floor.

You want to know who is trained in your department? Go look. You want to know what training you need? Go look. You want to know where the gaps are? Go look. You want to know whether your co-worker is qualified to do the job you’re gonna do with him today? Go look.

As always, there are privacy considerations and we share only the last successful completions and there are the thousands of historical data gaps that still need to be addressed. But when I am asked, “Why do I have all of these courses showing as still required?” and answer, “Because we either were not teaching it when you started or were unable to locate the records. We will continue to look for ways to fill these gaps over time.” The most usual response is, “Oh. OK,” which I find pretty funny given all of the fear folks have about sharing information lest they misinterpret it.

And change

I mentioned earlier that the data was only part of this little project, that the real goal was to support folks being safe, effective and engaged.  As the dashboard continued to tick down the number of folks who needed training, people across department began to work together to “do their bit” to reach a shared goal. Eyes throughout the various departments become our auditing eyes, looking for anything we missed in terms of data entry. We adjusted and planned and questioned and shuffled to get as many folks through training as possible. Frontline staff, supervisors, schedulers, clerks, analysts and managers all working together to complete a level of training that, so far as anyone can remember, had not been done before. Again, something was changing that went beyond training. Change that had seemed so elusive for so long suddenly seemed possible.


I was tempted to end this story on a positive note, because it *should* have ended that way in December 2019. We set lofty goals, we worked together to achieve them and we did. The End.

But… early in December our leadership team wanted to help us to achieve even more than our original targets (why aim for 90%, let’s reach 95%). I have no doubt that their intentions were good, but they made a decision, possibly a fear-based one, without understanding the nuances and stories and complexities wrapped up in a few percentage points of data.  Perhaps we all got fixated on the stake in the ground on the arbitrary December 31 completion date and lost sight of the bigger goal of “developing a safe, effective and engaged workforce” because at some point we ought to have paused to ask, “What difference does it really make if they receive training on Dec. 28th or Jan 3rd?”

In any event, leadership asked to be informed when folks missed training or classes were cancelled or when folks still had training outstanding. It seemed a simple enough request. To make a long story short, what came next involved some yelling, some finger pointing and even some tears. Needless to say, it was not the happy ending this story deserved.

This might be a story that I should unpack more at a later date, but I share it here to emphasize how much the management of data is about control and power. It took very little for this little initiative to shift from something “we were doing together” to something “that was being forced on them.” Relationships that had taken months to build, risked crumbling.

Data has power. Stories have power. Together, data and stories can have a lot of power to affect change. For better or worse. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

So here’s to hoping that throughout 2020 you’ll find me critically reflecting on the intersections of data, stories and power while quietly working in the cracks to affect real and positive change through many, many tiny steps.

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