Building a Learning Culture and Using Data to Drive Decisions by Hilary Leav

Hilary Leav
Hilary Leav

Greetings! I am Hilary Leav. I am the Director of MERL Learning at Compassion International, and I have a Masters degree in Measurement and Evaluation from American University. After nearly a decade conducting evaluations for both non-profit and for-profit industries, my focus has now shifted to learning and providing clear, actionable results for stakeholders.

The longer I work in the field of Monitoring, Evaluation, and Research, the more convinced I am that we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to data utilization.

Why? Because in our enthusiasm for the work, we miss key realities in the world of evaluation: Namely, the importance of making our data accessible to all stakeholders; and the parallel effort required to build a learning culture that values both the acquisition and use of data.

Why does a learning culture matter? Many organizations and stakeholders now instinctively understand they need to collect quantitative and qualitative data. They design rigorous efforts to do so. The first data arrives with celebration. More data follows; and still more. Eventually, collecting data loses its appeal, and our efforts wind up on the proverbial shelf.

Yet learning, which I have come to think of as “the thoughtful, intentional pause to understand what the data is telling us and what we need to do because of it,” means just that: Pulling data off the shelf and asking questions. This means understanding and utilizing information to inform decisions, whether they are programmatic, operational, or strategic. This requires meaningful interaction with data, and asking tough questions. To build a culture that considers and welcomes data before decision making, data needs to be consumable, understandable, and usable at all levels of an organization.

Building a learning culture is a daunting task. However, I have come to realize that evaluation professionals need to build the bridge from results to learning.

Hot Tips:

  • Build the “why:” Evaluators need to write thoughtful, easily understood reports. But we also need to help decisionmakers understand why data matters, and how it can benefit them. In this way, building a learning culture includes understanding what people think is important about data, and how people experience change as it relates to our findings.
  • Know your audience: If most of your stakeholders will not read a long report, then do not write one for them. With the diversity of options available to us – from detailed technical reports to executive summaries to cutting-edge visualizations and dashboards – we should never default to only one format, particularly if it is not working!
  • Find a champion: When someone in the organization embraces learning, highlight it, and make mention of it. Senior-level managers can set the tone for the whole group by recognizing and appreciating data and learning.

Change will not happen overnight; like any other behavior-focused outcome we track, it takes time to see results, and the more dispersed or decentralized an organization, the longer the change will take. But it is important to get started!

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Building a Learning Culture and Using Data to Drive Decisions by Hilary Leav”

  1. Danielle Sanchez

    Hi Hilary,
    I am a senior at Texas A&M Central Texas University. I am currently enrolled in a program evaluation class. I think that making data understandable for others is very important. As evaluators, we are taught what these numbers mean and how to decipher it. Stakeholders might not have the same knowledge. It is important to explain these numbers in terms that make sense to the audience. Data is important because it allows us to see whether a program is working or not. Stakeholders need to understand that and ask questions to improve their programs. I also think that presenting data in different ways can help engage the stakeholders. Seeing data in graph charts and visual presentations might be more engaging than reading a lengthy report. This way stakeholders can ask questions and learn what the numbers mean because they have a visual aid.

  2. Thank you Hillary, I’m learning from your article. Let’s continue building a strong Data Driven Decision Culture in C.I.

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