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How to make better data-driven decisions for rail infrastructure projects

Posted: 23 February 2021 | | 1 comment

Every business wants to make clear, confident, and accurate decisions. In rail, like many other industries, improving the decision-making process often means striving to become more data-driven.

How to make better data-driven decisions for rail infrastructure projects

Decision-making will always involve some degree of risk, but when data is used in the right ways, you can validate your ideas, refine your planning process, and add incredible value to your organisation.

But realising the true value of your data requires a clear strategy and a recognition of how to build a data-driven culture.

So how can you make better data-driven decisions?

Define your objectives

Start by asking yourself what kind of decisions you want your data to inform. Think about both short- and long-term business goals.

It can be tempting to gather all of the data you can get your hands on and start trying to look for patterns to make decisions right away. But it’s important to be clear about what you’re looking to achieve before you jump into analysis, or it’s all too easy to make rash decisions based on the first numbers you happen to see.

Spending time identifying your key objectives will build a strong foundation for everything that follows. By considering which questions need to be answered, you’ll be able to develop a clear data strategy and determine the type of information you’ll need to collect.

Sort through the mess

No organisation has ‘perfect’ data, especially if you’re at the beginning of your journey towards making data-driven decisions, so keep gathering all of the data you think you may need.

Once you have a sense of the information you need and what you’re trying to achieve with your data, you then need to figure out where to find it.

With just 44 per cent of employees saying they know where to find the information they need for their day-to-day work, it’s clear that gathering vast quantities of data from a range of sources is not the easiest of tasks.

Collecting your data is likely to involve input from a number of different teams in your organisation. As a result, it is likely to be messy, with duplicate and possibly conflicting data surfacing in the process. This stage can often feel overwhelming or disheartening – but don’t give up.

No organisation has ‘perfect’ data, especially if you’re at the beginning of your journey towards making data-driven decisions, so keep gathering all of the data you think you may need. You can then start the process of data cleaning – preparing information for analysis by removing or correcting data that is irrelevant, incorrect, or incomplete.

Use the right tools

After making the effort to clean and organise your data, making it available in an understandable and usable format is key.

For many people, data means spreadsheets. But, often, these are not the best method for making data-driven decisions, particularly on large projects.

After making the effort to clean and organise your data, making it available in an understandable and usable format is key. Generally, this will mean using a dedicated business intelligence tool to keep all your data in one place and bring it together in meaningful ways.

Using a tool that allows you to visualise your data will aid decision-making by making information more accessible and easier to interpret. For example, charts and timelines for easy comparisons and pattern-spotting, or maps for location-based planning. If your chosen tool also facilitates substantial report-building, this is even better, as you’ll be able to instantly turn your insights into actions.

Think carefully about the tools you select. A single product may not be able to meet all of your data needs in every scenario, but it should at least be an aspiration to establish a single source of truth and avoid data silos being created in multiple tools across the organisation. By encouraging employees to be consistent in the tools they use, you will create an environment where data is more reliable and, therefore, seen as a more valuable asset by all.

Allow experts to interpret the data

Any business trying to make data a priority should have experts and advocates who can keep things on track and guide everyone in the right direction.

To successfully implement the tips we’ve mentioned so far, it’s important to have the right people leading on your data projects.

Any business trying to make data a priority should have experts and advocates who can keep things on track and guide everyone in the right direction.

In the wrong hands, data can be used to selectively support personal preferences, or can simply be misunderstood by people failing to focus on the most significant areas. It can also be difficult for people to identify those occasions where it may be appropriate to make a decision which appears to contradict the data.

If you truly want to make better data-driven decisions, leaders must be in a position where they are suitably informed to take ownership of their interpretations and choices.

Spread expertise to build a data-driven culture

When you are confident that there are leaders in your organisation with a deep understanding of how to make better decisions with data, the next step is to find a way for them to spread that expertise across the business.

Building a data-driven culture can be an intimidating prospect. It is all too easy for businesses to hire some data analysts who report on ‘the numbers’ and have little to no interaction with the rest of the organisation. But having a small number of highly-skilled individuals isolated from day-to-day operations is not the answer.

Creating an environment where everyone in your organisation feels supported and motivated to make better use of data is the best way to avoid knowledge being concentrated amongst too few employees.

Creating an environment where everyone in your organisation feels supported and motivated to make better use of data is the best way to avoid knowledge being concentrated amongst too few employees. Encourage staff at all levels to take a look at your business intelligence tool, and provide regular opportunities for people to ask questions.

This is understandably tougher for large organisations, but can be achieved by having data advocates at the department level who others can look to for guidance. In especially large organisations, you may only be concentrating your data-driven decision making efforts within a single division to begin with. But regardless of the number of departments involved, ensure all affected employees understand the direction of travel and why the company is trying to make better use of data.

Most importantly, remember that this cannot be achieved by your data advocates simply sending out a company-wide email or running a one-off workshop. For many employees, bringing data into their day-to-day decision-making will be a steep learning curve, especially for those who don’t consider themselves to be “numbers people”. But by investing time to help people throughout the organisation to learn and develop their data skills, you will start to see the benefits of data-driven decisions at all levels, and a genuine culture shift emerging.

Be open to what the data shows, even if you don’t like it

It may sound obvious, but the final step in making data-driven decisions is to actually pay attention to what the data shows you.

It may sound obvious, but the final step in making data-driven decisions is to actually pay attention to what the data shows you.

It can be tempting to make a decision and then look for the numbers to justify it. But overcoming cognitive biases and looking past our initial instincts and assumptions is essential for making better decisions.

Keep an open mind and have well-informed teams around you who can all understand the data and contribute to the decision-making process. There may be times when you do need to overrule the data for whatever reason, but for the most part, you must turn data into action. 

Start making better decisions

Your decision-making process is likely to evolve over time, and your data itself should continually be refined. But so long as you are committed to being open and transparent about what your process involves, you’ll be on your way to making clear, confident, data-driven decisions.

Rail BI aids data-driven decision-making for rail infrastructure projects. Find out more at https://www.railbi.com

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One response to “How to make better data-driven decisions for rail infrastructure projects”

  1. Jim Charboneau says:

    Great article, I am wondering what technology solutions Railways and RailBI would use for data quality in SAP for example?

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