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Good Data and Good Judgment: a Dynamic Duo

By Jeffrey Shields posted 04-24-2018 09:01 AM


CEO Notebook |

Leaders today struggle to strike the right balance between using data, intuition and judgment when making decisions. 

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Remember the 1960’s Batman television series? When the dynamic duo was perplexed by the latest caper, they would plug numbers into the flashing and beeping bat computer, and it would spit out a punch card with the answer. Sort of. Ultimately, Batman had to solve the riddle himself.

Today, I think all leaders — including those in schools — struggle to strike the right balance between using data to inform choices and exercising leadership based on intuition and judgment. A recent article from the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, “Who Needs Judgment When You’ve Got Data? You Do,” supports this thinking.

We live in the era of big data. I greatly respect the value of data-informed decision-making for schools, along with that of benchmarking to assess organizational performance in multiple areas. Data plays an especially critical role in the areas of finance and operations. In fact, NBOA spent the last several years developing BIIS to provide business officers with the deepest and most accurate financial data, so that you can work with your head of school and trustees to sharpen your school’s financial strategy and create a sustainable future. If you haven’t participated yet, we’ll be collecting your data until April 30 to build the largest data set in business operations.

The reasons for using data have been present for years. Without data, we are doomed to make decisions infused with bias or personal assumptions. Data can help us mitigate that risk. For schools, performance metrics help us focus on student outcomes and steer us away from decisions that may be swayed by the preferences of administrators or faculty. Finally, technology makes it easy for us to conduct research in the form of surveys. Faced with a tough decision, conducting a survey often lets us off the hook. (The other fallback position is, “Check with the school’s attorney.”)

But, as the Wharton title suggests, even the best data must be married with good judgment. I caution you not to rely on data at the expense of judgment or intuition. After all, isn’t judgment key to our jobs as school leaders? Who knows our school better than we do? I have observed it many times: Trustees asking business officers to identify a benchmark or “best practice” for key decisions. Some would argue that benchmarking encourages us to strive for the middle or be average (though few schools tout their “averageness” in admissions materials!). For its part, “best practice” may discourage us from setting our own unique course or innovating — which is the very thing most of our schools need now more than ever!

Sameness is our nemesis, not our friend, and judgment is likely our greatest leadership superpower.

In the Wharton article, the author notes a popular perception of our time. “Human judgment, based on talent and experience, has become unfashionable. Measurement is in.” A result of this emphasis is a sense of “managerialism,” or “the belief that all organizations are fundamentally the same, and can be managed by the same tools. For devotees of managerialism, management requires not experience or judgment but technique.”

I don’t think anything could be further from the truth for independent schools. Sameness is our nemesis, not our friend, and judgment is likely our greatest leadership superpower. Schools have distinct cultures, students have unique learning styles, and our schools’ missions — and how we deliver on them —distinguish us within the intensely competitive preK-12 educational landscape.

Let data bring you into the room, drive and inform decision-making, and even create a context for your trustees. But let leadership guide you out of the room and, most importantly, move your school forward. Data cannot provide the leadership that your school needs to fulfill its mission and achieve a financially sustainable future. That is up to you!

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, April 24, 2018. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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