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Managing “Data”… when the data don’t make sense

Data-Based Management (DBM) is an increasingly popular concept across all work sectors because it seems to capture the idea that decisions should be based less on assumptions and more on actual indicators related to the situation at hand. That makes a lot of sense.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the data make sense. Or that the more data we have, the better chance we’ll understand the problem the data suggests we have.  That’s because aggregating data doesn’t indicate their relationship to each other as our minds connect them into information, then knowledge… and with experience, wisdom. It’s these interrelationships that contribute most to the sense-making necessary for understanding why a problem exists, what might be done about addressing it at that core level, and then how and where to start.

The seriousness of this missing dimension of DBM was suggested in the last posting ==  Making Sense of “Nonsense”where we questioned the belief that Montgomery County MD Schools successful systemic improvements and results are not applicable to the situations confronting urban districts because of differences in their demographic data, such as the community’s economic and ethnic characteristics, or its access to fiscal resources.  And we raised two “What if…?” questions.

(1) What if the problems causing the bleeding in urban districts are more deeply embedded in all school systems?  And

(2) What if the “blinders” created by a focus only on urban school systems keep them (and those who try to help them) from seeing effective “how-to’s” that can directly and effectively address the priority conditions in reformers “urban musts” lists?

Consider this “data:”

•            If the root of the problem lay in just children’s economic, social  and ethnic characteristics then MCPS couldn’t have been so successful in developing the learning capacities of the same cohort of children as found in “urban” districts.

•            If it were just about “adequate funding,” then 30 years of “throwing money at problems” by major foundation and government programs surely would have made a difference by now.

•            If the problem were simply an “urban” one, then the national math and science test results from all schools that have alarmed the science and business communities would not be demanding all the attention they are getting from those concerned about America’s future.

Making sense of the sameness

To understand the significance of the knowledge being generated in MCPS requires first looking at different “data” about the core of  work of a school system.  Data about the ways they are the same as other worksettings, not different.   And this is largely information about the nature of the functional “relationships” among the systems “parts” that interconnect it into a sustainable “whole.”

–        Governance relationships,

–        Accountability relationships,

–        Problem-solving relationships,

–        Labor-Management relationships,

–        Community-engagement  relationships,

–        and, most of all at its core, the interactive relationship of the “worker” and the “work.”

When this “data” is brought together in a coherent way, new knowledge is created and it’s possible to see that school “systems” have been operating from a common, but unarticulated, systems model that frames and supports that web of these invisible but entangling relationships.  It is their unstated “theory-of-action,” and it forms the old “box” that reformers keep trying fruitlessly to break out of.

The difference of the MCPS story is at the level of this “box.”  The alternative way-of-thinking about a work system this site employs makes it possible to make sense of how MCPS has “managed” their data in order to transform it into the information and knowledge required for its work from the classroom to the boardroom.  And, if that makes sense, to then explore its implications for other districts – especially urban communities where the need is greatest.

That story of Data-Based Management is an essential component of this sense-making website and serves as a reality check on my tendency in blog postings to communicate at a too-theoretical, abstract, “head-hurting” level.

So don’t hesitate to ask for my “data”…

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