The Value of Data
The field of monitoring and evaluation immediately evokes images of individuals hunched over Excel spreadsheets analyzing rows and rows of data sets; or a person in the field- clipboard in hand- counting every output of an activity down to the number of rocks moved during a project build. I think many people and society at large consider M&E professionals more as auditors and data trackers obsessed with collecting every piece of information from a project rather than as key strategic resources tailor-made for their project. Oftentimes data monitoring is regarded as a check box activity to meet a funder’s requirements rather than a vital tool in the project manager’s toolbox that allows them to make informed strategic decisions to guide their team.
An M&E professional is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and I like to think of them as both investigators and advisors for a project team. To be successful in the M&E field, one needs to know a bit about strategic planning, resource allocation, budget management, data collection and analysis, social science strategies, human behavior, evaluation, project management, facilitation, stakeholder engagement, adaptive learning and more. These are individuals that must be able to get into the details of a project while always keeping their eye on the big picture, the reason why the project exists, so as to be able to give sound and logical guidance to a team on where their project results are heading (or not heading) and how best to ensure they get back on track.
An experienced M&E professional knows that data is the currency of knowledge. They know that with strategic, relevant data they have access to information about a project’s progress toward its core objectives, the ability to track if activities are meeting deadlines (and expectations), funding and expense oversight, and whether beneficiaries are truly engaged in the project and experiencing positive outcomes. Effective monitoring will show trends over time and allow a project team to catch any downward trajectories or drifting activities that are a drain on resources and not contributing to the intended outcomes. Rigorous monitoring and evaluation allows a team to make critical and sometimes difficult decisions because they can be confident that they have the knowledge and data needed to inform those decisions.
But when is there too much data? Is this even possible? Can a team ever have too much information, too much knowledge, to effectively make decisions?
Remember all those images of M&E professionals hunched over hundreds of data sets analyzing for months on end? Or the team that has been asked to spend more time collecting data than actually implementing the project that will produce the data in the first place? There is a limit.
Only collect what matters– and trust me, it doesn’t all matter. Consider what are the most important questions you need to answer in your project to know if it is on track, achieving outcomes, meeting expectations, and using resources wisely. Anything else is just extra data that will sit in a dashboard taking up space. Be willing to let it go.
Once you have the right data–use it! Don’t just make monitoring and reporting a checkbox activity. Visualize your data, share your data, talk about what your data means with your project team and really take the time to explore it. Allow your data to empower your decisions and hold your project team accountable to the outcomes and deliverables they set forth.
Lastly, don’t be afraid of what your data might tell you. The last thing you want to do is ignore your monitoring results because you have a feeling you won’t like what they are showing. Learn to use this information as a guidepost and strategic advisor. If your data is showing that a project is off track or not reaching its expected outcomes, that is not a time to say it has failed and to give up. It is a time to say there is a problem that needs a new solution. How can we change or adapt our activities to address the issue or improve our results? Are we missing something that is affecting our outcomes? Has something changed in the project’s working environment? Don’t be afraid to make change and try something new if your data is showing you aren’t having the impact you expected. Your data is only a tool– learn to use it well, harness its ability to guide next steps, and be willing to make change.