As a professor of information technology at the Kogod School of Business at American University and a former consultant in Deloitte’s Information Management practice, I’m pretty familiar with the fundamentals of data. When it’s understood and used most effectively, it can drive exponential value for an organization. I’ve led hundreds of projects across industries and there is one constant – those companies that spend time defining what data, information, and knowledge mean to them most often fair far better than those who don’t.

In a world where disruption has become the norm and competition can come from anywhere, the Fortune Global Forum predicts that that the connected economy will impact business much faster than we expect. With the explosion of connected devices, traditional boundaries that used to separate industries and consumer expectations, alike are blurring. This is no different for education organizations. It’s becoming more and more likely that the people influencing education are outside of the traditional industry – the Facebook Schools, Google for Education, and the Amazons.

So in this rapidly evolving world, it has become painfully clear to many that data is an amazing asset, one that can differentiate your organization from the others. But just having data isn’t enough, hence the concept of ‘data rich, information poor.’ Data is somewhat useless unless it helps inform decisions that have clear impact.

Thus, creating the right data-loving culture that can survive (and thrive in) a digital revolution is a central challenge. If you can create an organization that embraces data and finds ways to unlock and transform it into information or knowledge at every level of the organization, you’re winning. Easier said than done, right?

Before I jump into some key steps to developing the right “data-oriented” culture that works for you, let’s do a quick refresh on the differences between data, information, and knowledge:

Data is facts and figures. It is unprocessed and without interpretation and analysis. It is generally unstructured, but always correct. This is where the saying “the data is always right” comes from.

Information is data that is processed or presented in context, so that it can be made useful. It reveals relationships in data and is more structured and organized than data. Information aims to answer basic questions like who, what, where, and when.

Knowledge is insight derived from experience or expertise. It is the application of data and information to reveal patterns and answer more complex “how” questions. Knowledge connects static information and data into a dynamic, contextualized whole.

While simple, I’ve found this almost 20-year old visual representation of the continuum of understanding helpful to refer to when I approach new data projects and challenges.

The Continuum of Understanding Data Image

Cleveland H. “Information as Resource”, The Futurist, December 1982 p. 34-39.

Educational organizations are gathering more data than ever before on every aspect of the learner and learning lifecycle, so how do you use this orientation and take some steps to cultivate usage of big and little data for your organization?

  1. Connect data to results. Whether it’s learner outcomes, retention rates, or revenue, clearly defined business needs, processes, and use for data are essential to realizing results at the organization level. This may mean there are several layers that require mapping – from lots of little data like transactions or interactions to large scale aggregated volumes of information – but if you don’t spend the time to articulate the worth of collection at each level, your results may not meet expectations.
  1. Organize, clean, and optimize your data sources. Data often lives in many silos across an organization with varied ownership and access rules. This limits your ability to ask anything but simple questions. In order to differentiate, it’s critical to invest in the right internal infrastructure, resources, and policies that will ensure data integrity is strong and information is available. This makes for a foundation that can be trusted, in turn, fostering a culture where information and knowledge can be developed to drive meaningful decisions without doubt.
  1. Integrate and automate as much as possible. Similar to the advancement in our ability to collect and track, the machines we have to process and analyze have also improved incredibly. The great data-driven organizations optimize their resource usage around data – if a machine can process it, it makes no sense to have one of your knowledge-creating, highly valuable people doing it. Show them that their time is worth more than basic reporting. Help them find ways to automate data processing and integrate data sources to develop the contextualized whole that will unlock the answers to their most complex answers and allow them to drive enhanced results for the organization.
  1. Produce and communicate insights with speed. Decision-making is critical to business, but also incredibly critical for learner success. No organization can expect to reach its maximum potential without the ability to make sound decisions quickly. To do this, organizations must 1) identify how best to produce the right information on the right frequency to best meet their business needs and 2) how to communicate it to the right people via the right medium. This will not only empower teams operationally, but also propagate the natural iteration of honing your data and information flow across the organization.

At the end of the day, there are still going to be many ways to approach and employ data, information, and knowledge across the education landscape and its up to you to figure out what best fits your needs.


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  • Debbie E. Miller

    Great Blog, Lily! Looking forward to expanding this conversation at IPC2016 in Austin, TX February 4th – 5th!

  • Debbie E. Miller

    Great Blog, Lily! Looking forward to expanding this conversation at IPC2016 in Austin, TX February 4th – 5th!