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For Workforce Data to Matter, Focus on the Human Factor

Data is a critical asset for state agencies and communities in driving the economy of the future; but the true power lies not in just telling the story of what has happened, but in serving the very people those organizations are striving to help.

As states deploy resources to link data across agencies and services, many have become frustrated by technology moves that fail to bring the insight, process improvement, and efficient service delivery they’d been striving for.

What’s keeping these good intentions from becoming great service delivery? The answer is in how the data connects with people—leaders, end users, and every stakeholder in between.

A new look at the current model

Within workforce development, the past two decades have seen a significant shift toward a demand-driven approach to talent development, which holds employers as its primary customers.

Travel to any state in the union, and you can find examples of this model leading to real results for communities. Employers work more collaboratively with regional and workforce partners to outline key needs and in-demand skills. Workforce development partners collaborate with education and training providers to establish more aligned programs and curricula, resulting in a better-skilled workforce. Individuals who participate in these programs tend to find more direct lanes to employment while spending less time and money on training.

That’s progress, but there’s more to be made. A shift in focus that looks toward outcomes—for employers and employees—can accelerate improvement. Especially as our country works toward recovery from unprecedented demand on the unemployment system. Post-secondary costs and debt are growing exponentially while the middle class shrinks.

The demand isn’t going anywhere and, in fact, is likely to grow before it gets better. Addressing these issues depends on efficient service delivery that supports the workers who need it and the teams who deliver it which, in turn, serves the demand. None of that happens as it should without connecting data and people to find the insights that fuel effective decision-making.

Where meaning hides in data

Technology represents potential, even for those who find technology solutions confounding or intimidating. Too often, organizations put technology first and expect humans to adapt—a method that typically hasn’t led to meaningful change but has certainly collected a lot of data that gathers digital dust while programs chug along without improvement.

Workforce systems are essential for connecting employers and talent, and because they reach so many people also hold vast amounts of data. Through smart strategy, this data could be utilized to streamline and better target programs so they reach more people and get more done. Otherwise, states are data rich and information poor—a pervasive frustration otherwise known as DRIP. States where DRIP rules the day react to demand data but have yet to capitalize on outcome data to improve solutions and help more people.

Getting more from the data starts with shifting focus to people.

End users are the best starting point

As so many organizations—public and private—have learned the hard way, asking humans to rewire their own programming to meet technology changes is a heavy lift. Everyone gets more from technology that meets human needs and supports the ways that humans really work. It’s the difference between building a light-filled home and trying to cram your family into a garden shed.

Integrated data systems have gotten ahead of how people work intuitively. Data is much more than compliance but can be put to work in support of service delivery.

Any data project starts with a close look at the humans who will use and benefit from it. What do end users need? How do teams deliver services? How will leadership strategize based on the data collected? And how will all parties be eased into the new possibilities? With just a few key considerations.

Make sure dashboards bring value

Too often, all eyes are on developing a dashboard and the beautifully designed end product does not deliver meaningful information or fails to transform it into visualizations that make sense for users. Or one of the dozen other ways that a dashboard can exist without earning its place on screens.

Starting with user experience and desired outcomes in mind gets you to a very different place from strategizing based on the data at hand. If you want a dashboard to fit the data rather than the people it serves, you’re basically looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Strive for collaboration

An effective data strategy facilitates secure collaboration—bringing people and data together from disparate sources. Workforce systems can do more when connected with education, health, and other entities that support citizen well-being.

Creating a network for data-sharing doesn’t just give you more data but exponentially more ways to find insight in the data. A secure, collaborative research environment gives you control over how your data is used and by whom while enabling shared analysis.

Lead with outcomes

Data never ends, and a data solution that truly works is never done. It’s always adapting, scaling up, becoming better refined as your analysis deepens or needs evolve. To make sure that your data strategy serves its users, start with the outcomes you want to achieve. All other choices depend on those outcomes.

Further, developing a strategy for how the insights you derive from your data will support the people you serve makes your solution much more meaningful. If you’re measuring and tracking progress, stakeholders are encouraged and propel work further. Program delivery accelerates, and you can derive the information you need to make decisions that serve your desired outcomes for citizens.

Move past DRIP with a human focus

Data and empathy aren’t exactly the cookies and milk of the service delivery world—yet. Focus on data for its own sake has led to a lot of frustration for all involved and a lot of underutilized data while program leaders search for answers that help them meet an extraordinary demand for services.

There’s not an overnight solution to developing a productive data strategy that improves decision making and brings better outcomes. Instead, there’s the need to develop a deeper understanding of how teams work and how employers and workers think about connecting. A need for empathy and focus on people.

For a program that covers so many separate services, workforce merits careful consideration of the human needs it serves before shaping a data strategy that will impact lives.

Todd Hurst is a Senior Consultant at KSM Consulting on the Public Sector Services team and holds a PH.D in Educational Sciences from the University of Kentucky. Dr. Hurst has extensive experience working with and researching school models in Indiana; particularly focusing on innovative models of education, including early college high schools, New Tech schools, and CTE.