Overwhelmed by Information Overload?

Today, as I was enjoying 15 minutes of sun on a sidewalk bench, I was struck by how many people are on their cell phones all the time. We have information overload – but rarely take the time to process or make sense of it all. Worse yet, we are constantly pinged with superficial information on a large number of things that we may not devote time to reflect on the really important or in-depth information coming our way.

In my evaluation work, I’ve seen nonprofits, government agencies, and foundations struggle with similar scenarios of information overload. More often than not, staff are bombarded with information and are rarely afforded the opportunity to make sense of it. This is where evaluation comes in. An evaluation system puts into place the infrastructure to intentionally and systematically collect, analyze, and reflect on data to inform strategic decision making. As with any organizational change, kick-starting a new evaluation system can be challenging. It’s OK to start small and focused. Doing so will help your organization pilot the systems and infrastructure it needs as part of a potentially larger, more encompassing evaluation system that helps make sense out of all this information.

Here are a few tips to get you started down the sense-making path through evaluation:

  • Focus on one or two key, upcoming decision points. These might be strategy discussions at board meetings or program improvement discussions during staff meetings. Will you be continuing with existing programs? Is there a new, strategic direction you might take? Should you partner with another organization or foundation working on complementary issues? What will be your advocacy strategy for this legislative session?
  • Collect data that connect to the decisions you or your team need to make. Think about what information would be useful to help you make that decision. If you need to make expansion decisions, you might want to know if the program is more or less effective for particular groups of people. If you are interested in partnering, you might need to know what other organizations work in the space and how their work aligns with yours. If you are planning an advocacy effort, you might want to know the extent to which legislators support your issue or particular legislation. The point is not to collect data on everything – but to collect data relevant to the decisions at hand.
  • Be intentional about bringing the data to bear during your decision-making meeting. Data alone are not evaluation – it’s the discussion, reflection, and sense-making of the data that are at the heart of evaluation. In addition to prepared findings, develop two or three learning-focused questions that help meeting participants engage and process the data (e.g., What are the implications of the data on how we are thinking about Y?).

Using evaluation to identify relevant data and make sense of it helps you focus on those things that are really important to your organization. What tips do you have to avoid information overload? Please share in the comments below.

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