By Jesh Harbaugh, Assistant Director of Business Intelligence
Development, Evaluation, and Strategic Initiatives (DESI)
SENECA FAMILY OF AGENCIES
This is the last post of a 3 part series
In the previous posts of this series, Data is Only Useful When it’s Used and Increasing the Value of Your Data With Interactive Reports, I’ve discussed the importance of setting up your data systems in a way that facilitates engagement and demonstrated how interactive reports can guide users to a deeper exploration and understanding of a topic. Today, I’m going to share some key areas to consider as you pursue building interactive reports in your own organization, and I’ll spotlight our experience at Seneca Family of Agencies as an example of how one agency successfully navigated this challenge. I hope to convince you that with the right approach, you can successfully build interactive reports in your own organization.
Seneca’s Journey: A Brief Overview
First, some context: Seneca is a large service provider impacting over 17,000 youth and families per year in over 100 programs and service models throughout the states of California and Washington. We pick up our case study a few years ago, when Seneca had a small team of two staff members responsible for all agency-wide evaluation, performance improvement, and data analysis activities, and analyses of data were primarily one-off projects done in Microsoft Excel and/or a statistical package such as SPSS. (I describe these analyses as “one-off” because, even though the same analyses were often replicated at regular intervals, each dataset had to be compiled and cleaned or manually updated each time—a time-consuming and tedious approach, but which often feels like the only realistic option when an analysis needs to get completed on a timeframe.)
As you can imagine (and likely relate to), there wasn’t much time to explore new systems—evaluation reports for stakeholders had to be compiled, internal program requests for data analyses were fulfilled, and high-priority performance improvement activities needed to be completed. Our journey began when one of the members on the evaluation/PI team heard about the “PowerPivot” add-in to Excel and did a little reading up on what it could do.
Since this add-in exists right within Excel (and many of the team’s analyses were completed in Excel), the next time one of the regular projects came up, they took a few hours to set up this one project to run with the new PowerPivot add-in. (Without getting too technical here, PowerPivot is powerful part of Excel that uses what you could call “glorified Excel formulas” to turn what were previously manual analyses into automated interactive Excel reports that can be refreshed at the click of a mouse.)
From there, things quickly gained momentum—with each manual Excel analysis that was automated using PowerPivot, more time was freed up to repeat this process with other projects, and to build new, more complex analyses. When Power BI (a new web-based platform for creating and sharing interactive reports and dashboards) came out in 2015, the team discovered that it was fully compatible with Excel and could take all the work that had already been done and provide a web-based platform to easily share live, interactive reports with other agency staff.
Before long, many of the typical reporting needs and internal requests for data were built as interactive reports on Power BI, where select staff can access the data they needed whenever they wanted. Seneca’s implementation of Power BI went agency-wide in 2016, and every staff member can now engage with a wide range of data on-demand, including over 15 CANS-related reports along with many others related to client discharge outcomes, service provision and documentation, important incidents, placement changes, and academic performance.
That Sounds Too Easy… How Does it Really Work?
I’ll be the first to admit that it sounds easier than it actually is; of course, there are challenges along the way, some bigger than others. But we’re living in a brand-new era of technology—one in which it’s entirely feasible for someone with no technical/IT background to create and share engaging interactive content online.
If you’re serious about building effective interactive reports internally (as opposed to contracting with someone to do it for you), you’ll need to make sure you find a way to address these three “essential ingredients” (in no particular order):
- Staff Time
- Skills/Technical Capacity
- The Right Tools
You might be thinking, “this reads like a list of the exact things my organization is most pressed for!” But each of these can be overcome, and you will likely find yourself saving staff time while producing better analyses if you approach this the right way. Let’s explore each of the areas above:
The Right Tools
The emergence of a new wave of software programs called “self-service business intelligence (BI)” tools has fundamentally shifted the landscape and made it possible for anyone create high-quality interactive online content which would have only been feasible for large corporations to afford 10 years ago. To be clear, a “BI” tool is simply a program used to turn raw data into meaningful information.
These new programs are not only cheap or free, but are also relatively easy to learn, will increase the quality of your data analysis, and will save you loads of staff time once you’re up and running. In addition to the efficiency and analytic power these tools bring, they also offer a wide range of compelling visualizations packaged with an accessible web-based platform that makes it easy to share your analyses with others.
A key piece of Seneca’s eventual success was the ability to start small. Since Power BI and Excel were both either free or already part of Seneca’s existing Microsoft Office 365 software package, it was possible to test them out over time without needing to make any upfront investment or a major financial decision about the path to pursue.
The threshold level of skill required to effectively make use of tools such as Power BI or Excel (PowerPivot) is much lower than you might think. In fact, it’s very natural for anyone who is familiar with Excel formulas or uses pivot tables to learn the DAX formula language (which is what Power BI and PowerPivot use)—many of the formulas are identical. There are some great entry-level books for new users, and it’s an ideal professional development opportunity for staff who might be interested in developing their data-related skills.
Once you get into building more complex reports that merge multiple data sources together, you will want to develop an understanding of Dimensional Data Modeling. But keep in mind that all of these concepts are completely feasible for someone with no technical background to learn. The accessibility and familiar interface of these tools makes it possible to identify people within your organization who have skills or interest in Excel and develop them into interactive report designers.
This is obviously a tough one, but you’ll have to find a way to create even just a little space for a staff member to develop some skills/technical capacity as described above—and this could be as small as sending them to a one- or two-day training or carving out an hour or two per week for them to work through a book or video course. Once they have some basic skills, they’ll need some initial time to apply those skills to an existing project and start automating the manual data analyses they’ve become so used to doing. It’s all downhill from there!
The conversion of manual data projects to automated analyses in a program such as Power BI or Excel frees up hours of time down the road, and it’s the gift that keeps giving—not only do you never have to perform the same labor-intensive analysis again, but the data can be sliced interactively and your analysis becomes much more flexible, accessible, and useful.
If you’re considering setting out to develop interactive reports within your organization, I hope that this high-level overview provides you with a real-world example of how it can be accomplished and gives you an idea of some key areas to keep in mind. It’s never been easier or more affordable to create systems that facilitate effective data use and informed decision-making!
Are you interested in learning more about these tools or related topics? Let me know by completing this brief survey—and if there is interest, I’d enjoy providing more focused content or training in the area that’s most useful to you. Also, feel free to reach out to me directly: email@example.com.
For more information on this post and the work being done at Seneca, email Jesh Harbaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org