Outcomes measurement is the strategic methodology of setting goals and defining strategies, measuring progress toward your goals, and using this information to improve your outcomes. It helps to inform you of what works and what doesn’t work. It also moves beyond anecdotal evidence and generates concrete, empirical information that can be measured and analysed with a degree of scientific rigor to determine if you have achieved your goals so that you can make informed strategic decisions about your programs and services. So it assists in showing your funders that your programs are making a difference and that you are continually improving results by managing program performance.
There are different types of information gathered in outcomes measurement work, each with its own use, context, and purpose. Each type is useful in its own way, but understanding the differences and knowing how to develop different types of information will help your organisation get the most out of your outcomes measurement system. This blog will outline the types of information gathered and explore how to transform your data into action.
The Information Hierarchy
Information exists in a hierarchy, as outlined in the diagram below. Each type of information has a purpose – not all of it is going to provide you with the answers you need to make informed strategic decisions. So, in order to use the different types of information effectively it is important to understand what each one is all about.
Data lies at the bottom of the hierarchy because it is essentially the starting point or foundation. It is the raw inputs or pieces of information that have little meaning at this stage. That is, data doesn’t provide any context. It is just discrete bits of information that are collected throughout your organisation. This can be phone numbers, postcodes, demographics, transactions, bank deposits, program attendance records, staff time, etc. So because data is the foundation of the hierarchy, good data ensures good measurement. Good data in equals good data out. Moreover, the other parts of the information hierarchy cannot exist without good data, making it a critical component.
Information is the aggregation or grouping of data points into an understandable format so that it has specific purpose or meaning. For example, consider program attendance figures for the month of December. The data is the individual attendance records, whilst the sum of those data points is a piece of information that has meaning beyond the individual records. Generally, information is what you create when you run reports from your outcomes measurement software system. So, information requires consolidation and aggregation of data to reveal trends that exist within the raw data points.
When information is contextualised and given meaning that applies to a particular situation, then it becomes knowledge. Knowledge therefore moves beyond aggregating data statistically or mathematically (which is information), but applies this information to your organisation so that it adds value. It requires interpretation and thought, thus it is more of a human process, as opposed to data and information which are more computational. For example, your program attendance figures for the month of December is just information, but when applied to your goal for the month of December you create knowledge. The knowledge you generate is the realisation that you either did or didn’t achieve your goal. However, knowledge can only be generated with clear information applied to a situation, and good data, which is why it is at the top of the hierarchy.
Although data, information and knowledge make up the information hierarchy, it doesn’t end here. To truly look at your outcomes and manage program performance, you must go one step further and transform your knowledge into action. While action is not an information type, it is a critical element to the information hierarchy, as depicted in the diagram below.
Data, information, or knowledge alone cannot help you manage program performance and improve your outcomes. Essentially, you need to take action to make a difference by combining all of the three types of information together. So with clear data that is aggregated into accurate information and then transformed into insightful knowledge, your organisation has the context and concrete evidence to take action. Action might be modifying elements of your program design, or tightening the budget next month. The information hierarchy along with the critical component of Action can give you the evidence you need to make these changes with confidence and accuracy to bring about organisational improvements, thereby transforming your data into action!