Please raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by your database.
Whether it is an Excel spreadsheet or a CRM system, there are all sorts of ways that our databases can make our lives more difficult:
The data entry process isn't intuitive
The data is messy, inconsistent, or incomplete
You need a computer science degree to run a report
No one has updated the system since the founding of the organization
Sometimes, the technology housing your data may not be the right fit for your organization. But if the resources aren't there for a significant database overhaul, here are three steps you can take to turn your system from your enemy to your friend (or at least a frenemy).
Messy, missing data? Make a dictionary!
No one is ever as excited about data dictionaries as I am because, on the surface, it doesn't sound like a riveting topic. However, a clear data dictionary is critical to keep your data clean and consistent in the short and long term. Let me give you an example.
I once worked for an organization that ran a support hotline for families. Whenever a call came in, we would summarize it in a few sentences in our database and categorize it as an education call, legal call, or benefits call, depending on the topic. But it didn't take me long to notice that the same types of calls were categorized differently depending on who entered the information into the system. That's because there were no instructions or guidance about what "counted" as an education call versus a legal one, especially when families called about multiple issues at once. As a result, we didn't have a good sense of what issues were most important to families reaching out to us for help.
So how did we fix it?
Our team got together and discussed how to define each call category based on our experiences working on the hotline.
We wrote down our definitions and created a dictionary with examples that we could all access to prevent any confusion.
We developed a process for what to do if any of us needed help deciding how to categorize complicated calls.
By creating a reference and sticking to it, we improved the quality of our data and better understood what kinds of resources our families really needed.
Need a PhD to run a report? Write a user guide!
Sometimes, databases can feel unnecessarily complicated or have "quirks" that prevent you from entering or running data reports as quickly as you might like. Organizations often do not have written step-by-step instructions on operating their databases or navigating those pesky quirks. The lack of guidance leaves people to figure things out on their own, which is not super fun if you're new to data entry and reporting.
Instead of leaving everyone on their own, gather your data team to write a step-by-step guide to data entry and reporting in your system. (Your data team is anyone who uses your database). To get the most out of your user guide:
Be as detailed as possible with data entry and reporting instructions so that anyone without any data knowledge can be successful (check out this peanut butter and jelly sandwich lesson to understand the importance of being specific!)
Use screenshots and even videos to get your points across
Include the process for what to do (and who to ask) if anything in the guide is not working as it should
As a bonus, writing your own guide will allow your team to talk through current processes and see if the team can make updates to simplify more complex tasks.
Train, train, train
Once your team has documented its database definitions and processes, train everyone who uses your database to increase the likelihood that everyone will use the system the same way. Incorporate a review of these documents as a part of onboarding new employees and be ready to conduct further training if any changes are made to data definitions or processes.
It's easy to think of databases as cold, uncooperative, sterile things when they aren't working how we want them to. But databases are human creations; we decide what we want to put in and why, and what we need to get out of them. By owning the creative process – defining what terms mean and how to use them – we can get more out of the tools designed to serve us.
Need help with an unruly database? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation call!