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12 ways to ensure your data management implementation doesn’t become a dumpster fire

By Jason Rubin, PCI; Kate Mueller, Dev Results; and Mike Klein, ISG. They lead the session on “One system to rule them all? Balancing organization-wide data standards and project data needs.

Dumpster FireLet’s face it: failed information system implementations are not uncommon in our industry, and as a result, we often have a great deal of skepticism toward new tools and processes.

We addressed this topic head-on during our 2017 MERL Tech session, One system to rule them all?

The session discussed the tension between the need for enterprise data management solutions that can be used across the entire organization and solutions that meet the needs of specific projects. The three of us presented our lessons learned on this topic from our respective roles as M&E advisor, M&E software provider, and program implementer.

We then asked attendees to provide a list of their top do’s and don’ts related to their own experiences – and then reviewed the feedback to identify key themes.

Here’s a rundown on the themes that emerged from participants’ feedback:

Organizational Systems

Think of these as systems broadly—not M&E specific. For example: How do HR practices affect technology adoption? Does your organization have a federated structure that makes standard indicator development difficult? Do you require separate reporting for management and donor partners? These are all organizational systems that need to be properly considered before system selection and implementation. Top takeaways from the group include these insights to help you ensure your implementation goes smoothly:

1. Form Follows Function: This seems like an obvious theme, but since we received so much feedback about folks’ experiences, it bears repeating: define your goals and purpose first, then design a system to meet those, not the other way around. Don’t go looking for a solution that doesn’t address an existing problem. This means that if the ultimate goal for a system is to improve field staff data collection, don’t build a system to improve data visualization.

2. HR & Training: One of the areas our industry seems to struggle with is long-term capacity building and knowledge transfer around new systems. Suggestions in this theme were that training on information systems become embedded in standard HR processes with ongoing knowledge sharing and training of field staff, and putting a priority on hiring staff with adequate skill mixes to make use of information systems.

3. Right-Sized Deployment for Your Organization: There were a number of horror stories around organizations that tried to implement a single system simultaneously across all projects and failed because they bit off more than they could chew, or because the selected tool really didn’t meet a majority of their organization’s projects’ needs. The general consensus here was that small pilots, incremental roll-outs, and other learn-and-iterate approaches are a best practice. As one participant put it: Start small, scale slowly, iterate, and adapt.

M&E Systems

We wanted to get feedback on best and worst practices around M&E system implementations specifically—how tools should be selected, necessary planning or analysis, etc.

4. Get Your M&E Right: Resoundingly, participants stressed that a critical component of implementing an M&E information system is having well-organized M&E, particularly indicators. We received a number of comments about creating standardized indicators first, auditing and reconciling existing indicators, and so on.

5. Diagnose Your Needs: Participants also chorused the need for effective diagnosis of the current state of M&E data and workflows and what the desired end-state is. Feedback in this theme focused on data, process, and tool audits and putting more tool-selection power in M&E experts’ hands rather than upper management or IT.

6. Scope It Out: One of the flaws each of us has seen in our respective roles is having too generalized or vague of a sense of why a given M&E tool is being implemented in the first place. All three of us talked about the need to define the problem and desired end state of an implementation. Participants’ feedback supported this stance. One of the key takeaways from this theme was to define who the M&E is actually for, and what purpose it’s serving: donors? Internal management? Local partner selection/management? Public accountability/marketing?

Technical Specifications

The first two categories are more about the how and why of system selection, roll-out, and implementation. This category is all about working to define and articulate what any type of system needs to be able to do.

7. UX Matters: It seems like a lot of folks have had experience with systems that aren’t particularly user-friendly. We received a lot of feedback about consulting users who actually have to use the system, building the tech around them rather than forcing them to adapt, and avoiding “clunkiness” in tool interfaces. This feels obvious but is, in fact, often hard to do in practice.

8. Keep It Simple, Stupid: This theme echoed the Right-Sized Deployment for Your Organization: take baby steps; keep things simple; prioritize the problems you want to solve; and don’t try to make a single tool solve all of them at once. We might add to this: many organizations have never had a successful information system implementation. Keeping the scope and focus tight at first and getting some wins on those roll-outs will help change internal perception of success and make it easier to implement broader, more elaborate changes long-term.

9. Failing to Plan Is Planning to Fail: The consensus in feedback was that it pays to take more time upfront to identify user/system needs and figure out which are required and which are nice to have. If interoperability with other tools or systems is a requirement, think about it from day one. Work directly with stakeholders at all levels to determine specs and needs; conduct internal readiness assessments to see what the actual needs are; and use this process to identify hierarchies of permissions and security.

Change Management

Last, but not least, there’s how systems will be introduced and rolled out to users. We got the most feedback on this section and there was a lot of overlap with other sections. This seems to be the piece that organizations struggle with the most.

10. Get Buy-in/Identify Champions: Half the feedback we received on change management revolved around this theme. For implementations to be successful, you need both a top-down approach (buy-in from senior leadership) and a bottom-up approach (local champions/early adopters). To help facilitate this buy-in, participants suggested creating incentives (especially for management), giving local practitioners ownership, including programs and operations in the process, and not letting the IT department lead the initiative. The key here is that no matter which group the implementation ultimately benefits the most, having everyone on the same page understanding the implementation goals and why the organization needs it are key.

11. Communicate: Part of how you get buy-in is to communicate early and often. Communicate the rationale behind why tools were selected, what they’re good—and bad—at, what the value and benefits of the tool are, and transparency in the roll-out/what it hopes to achieve/progress towards those goals. Consider things like behavior change campaigns, brown bags, etc.

12. Shared Vision: This is a step beyond communication: merely telling people what’s going on is not enough. There must be a larger vision of what the tool/implementation is trying to achieve and this, particularly, needs to be articulated. How will it benefit each type of user? Shared vision can help overcome people’s natural tendencies to resist change, hold onto “their” data, or cover up failures or inconsistencies.