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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Data is a cultural issue


Using data can help all organisations deliver more effective services and make a real difference to people's lives - but only if they have the right culture in place, says the Satori Lab's Ben Proctor ahead of his session at TAI 2018.

I don’t really care about data. Which is perhaps a dangerous admission for the analytics director of a company to admit. What I care about is delivering effective services. And long ago I became persuaded that data can help to do that.

Many years ago when I was working in local government tackling crime and disorder, what I cared about was the impact these things had on the lives of the people I served.

Every week I had a call with the neighbourhood police inspector. We looked at maps of our patch. The maps showed the reports of crime and anti-social behaviour for the preceding week and the preceding months. So we could see hotspots emerging and move our (even then) scarce resources around to tackle them. We could also see whether our previous actions were working or not. By using data we could make a real difference, to real people.

Given that using data well can almost always improve services and help improve people’s lives you might be surprised that so many organisations struggle to use data to drive their decisions.

You might be surprised. But I’m not.

Because it turns out that using data to drive the decisions in an organisation is hard to do. This is not, in my experience, primarily because of skills gaps or poor technology (though skills and tech can often help).

Instead it is cultural.

Taking decisions based on evidence is, it turns out, very hard to do in hierarchical organisations. In fact hierarchies have a whole range of ways in which they make it hard to use data and evidence in decisions.

For example: the people closest to the data tend to be the people with the lowest rank in the hierarchy. Many organisations expect those people to follow the policies and procedures set out to manage the borders of their work. If your organisation tells the people closest to the data not to use the data to take decisions, it’s not surprising if that quickly becomes the norm in the organisation.

Here’s another mechanism: using data in decision-making means, ultimately, looking for the things you got wrong, seeking out the errors rather than the successes. And seeking out the things that your boss got wrong, and the things their boss got wrong. Left to themselves hierarchies strongly discourage those sorts of behaviours.

It’s certainly possible to overcome these problems. There are plenty of examples of organisations that have managed to become effective at using data to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their services. It’s not easy. It takes a long time and a concerted effort across the organisation.

But it is worth it.

  • Ben is running a workshop on data and data infrastructure on day two of TAI 2018, CIH Cymru's annual conference, which takes place in Cardiff from 24-26 April. Find out more and book your place

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