Management and employees at every level of an organization use data every day to make decisions, and we now have more information at our fingertips than ever before. For organizations to be truly agile and proactive, it is essential for leaders to have accurate and relevant data in a format that they can quickly understand and act upon. It sounds simple enough, but a concerted effort is needed to evaluate the right data to use, and then you can execute a plan to put systems in place to make the information readily available.

Take these 4 key steps to leverage your data:

What data is needed?

Take some time to consider what you need to know to make informed decisions. Think big picture and try not to think ahead to the difficulty of getting the information. What do you need to know to make forward-looking decisions? Are there certain trends in your programs that would be helpful to identify? Think about the drivers of success financially and for your mission to help you identify the right data needed.

How do you get it?

Define where the data would come from in preparation for creating visualizations for a dashboard. How will the data be gathered? What processes are necessary to collect data from multiple sources? Who will be responsible for gathering the data? The best dashboards will have relevant data collected using automated processes you put in place. However, as you get started, a manual process for collecting the data can be the best option. As your process matures, look for input from your team in how the manual collection could be automated. Manual processes can be prone to errors, or they may fall by the wayside in a busy time, right when the information would be the most useful! If the information is difficult to gather, consider if a related measure could provide similar information using more readily available data. Once you’ve nailed down your sources of the data, move on to evaluating solutions for creating the dashboard.

What tools will you use?

The market has exploded with many different options for creating dashboards. Some have different strengths than others. You could make simple dashboards in Microsoft Excel, but a weakness is that the underlying data might not update on its own. Many organizations do their accounting in QuickBooks, which has some of its own built-in data visualizations. The right tool for your organization will depend on the information you’re looking to get out of it and the systems and processes that create the data. If you’re not sure where to start, talking to someone with a background in data analytics can get you moving in the right direction. At TDT, we have professionals with experience in evaluating and using dozens of different products.

Execute and adjust

Build (or work with someone to build) your visualizations and dashboard in the product you choose. This will take some time to work through, ensuring the correct data flows seamlessly (and ideally automatically) from the inputs into the models created in the dashboard. You will likely go through several iterations before you are satisfied. That’s normal, and this is your opportunity to define the data and the rules that help it flow to your dashboard. As you use the information, identify the shortcomings and tweak where needed.

The usefulness of dashboards comes when systems are in place to gather data and present the most relevant information to decision makers in a way that’s easily accessible. Each step in the process is critical to getting the right outputs. When set up correctly, dashboards can enable your organization to be nimbler, making quick and informed decisions that will lead to continued success in driving your mission forward. At TDT, we can help if you’re looking for someone to discuss the drivers of success in your organization and how you can leverage your data to make great decisions. We would be happy to talk through your goals and work with you on implementing strategies to achieve them.

Ross Van Laar, CPA and Partner at TDT CPAs and Advisors, discusses setting up systems to create easily accessible data for making decisions. With ten years of experience, Ross specializes in audits of nonprofits, small businesses, and employee benefit plans.