How to Use Data to Help (Not Hurt) You at Work

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Between catty coworkers, bosses that hate you, and endless meetings, you’ve got enough to worry about at work. But with the changes in technology, you also have to worry about being replaced by machines. Your job might be safe from being automated completely, but there’s no question that every industry is being reshaped by the influx of data that’s now available to you. If you don’t learn how to use it effectively — or at least talk with the people who do — your position might not be in jeopardy, but your ability to fill that position successfully might be.

Even if you’ve been able to get away with avoiding data completely so far, it won’t last for long. What’s more, it’s probably doing you more of a disservice to your career than biting the bullet and figuring out how to effectively use data at work. “A lot of people want to hide because they weren’t particularly quantitative in school or school was a long time ago, but given the number of executives that want to use data-driven insights to propel their decision-making, you can only hide for so long,” Thomas H. Davenport, a professor at Babson College and the author of Big Data at Work, told Harvard Business Review.

The tried and true methods you’ve used in the past are probably effective — it’s why they were established in the first place. But if you can learn to work with data, and the people in your company who have made it their day job, you’re likely to see tons of advantages. At the very least, it’s one way to make yourself indispensable. Not sure where to start? Try these tips.

1. Get a data refresher

You might be able to fake a few conversations with data gurus without remembering a bit of statistics, but if you want to truly make headway in your career and use data to do it, it might be helpful to refresh yourself. You don’t have to become a whiz, but becoming “data literate” is the goal, Joe Knight, a partner and senior consultant at the Business Literacy Institute, and the coauthor of Financial Intelligence told Harvard Business Review.

How will you make sure you’re actually learning useful information? Knight suggests being able to understand the four families of financial ratios, and be able to calculate returns on investments. Knowing how regression analysis works and interpreting it is also extremely beneficial, Davenport added.

There are plenty of online resources for refreshing your knowledge, but you might also consider taking a course at a local institution to get up to speed. Data will only continue to be intimidating if you don’t take steps to understand it better.

2. Practice using data

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Source: iStock

After you get a handle on the basics, practice using data in small ways — even if it’s not work-related at first. Pick something that interests you, such as your commute time or information from your fitness routine, advises Thomas C. Redman, known as the “Data Doc.” Redman suggests plotting simple information, eventually expanding to understand the distinction between causation and correlation, and so on. After you grow comfortable visualizing data on a more regular basis, bring it into your daily work.

“You can become a credible leader and dispel the fear of data in your team as well as your own fear by increasing your abilities and inspiring the entire department to embrace data,” Redman writes.

3. Embrace the analysts

Though the Information Technology department used to be located in the basement or the darkest corner of every office building, analysts and data-driven employees are having a much larger impact on the day-to-day operations. Your boss is relying on them for decision-making information, which means you should be too.

If you’re a manager, put analysts (sometimes also called “quants”) on your teams to ensure you’re making the best decisions possible, and approaching each business problem from every angle. “Make the quant a full-fledged member of your team,” Davenport said. “Expose them to the business problems, so they can see them with their own eyes.”

At the very least, don’t dismiss the numbers guys in the office — no matter your role. Some of them might just want to solve mathematical equations, but the good ones will be able to transform that information into business-related problem-solving. Nothing can beat real-time information, and you’ll be at an advantage if the analysts are willing to help you out.

4. Know what information is helpful

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by data — especially because so much of it can be at our fingertips. This is where a refresher in statistics and a good relationship with your team of analysts will come in handy, since they’ll both be able to help you drill down to the information that will actually help you succeed in your work. For instance, the analysts in the popular book and movie Moneyball changed the analytics of baseball not because of data — they had always been collecting the same data points. But instead, they were successful because of what they focused on.

The real lessons were “not whether statistics should be used, but which ones should be taken into account,” Nate Silver wrote in his book The Signal and the Noise. In other words, learn which information is going to be the most effective and the most helpful. Drowning in spreadsheets and flow charts won’t do any good unless the information is going to help your productivity or bottom line.

5. Treat gut instinct and data with respect

Some of the best business decisions will always come from a strong gut instinct. But trying to match that instinct with data to support it is a big no-no. More decisions are based on data today, and analysts shouldn’t feel pressure to manipulate the information to support a hunch or instinct you have, Knight said. “Most people who do analytics want to see what the numbers reveal about a truth in the world, not support an executive hunch or prejudice,” Davenport said.

If you’re constantly scorning data in favor of your personal preferences, it might be time to see if those decisions can be backed up with data. In many cases, there’s probably a place for both gut instinct and data analysis in the office. But trying to make them agree all of the time will put the data gurus in an awkward place, and might lead you to make costly mistakes. Use the numbers for what they truly are, and know when an intuitive touch might be best instead. In the best of situations, you’ll know you’re on the right track when your instincts and the data line up, without any manipulation necessary.

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