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Ask the Right Questions About Your Data to Build Business Value

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Financier Bernard Baruch once said, "Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why."

Let that quote inspire you to stop and think about how important asking questions really is. In science, it can mean the difference between routine and making history. And in business, it can separate the safe from the successful.

In the ever-changing world of business and technology, it's no longer enough to simply gather data and compare results. You must continuously question your data to understand your business on a new level. Asking the right questions could be the catalyst that pushes your leadership, team and company toward success.

Although more companies are adopting data-collection processes, not every organization's management understands how to use big data in an effective, innovative way. That's why poor-quality data is often cited as a reason for overrunning project budgets.

Asking the right questions about your data can uncover insights, increase its usability and allow companies of any size to sift through substantial amounts of data to make focused, educated decisions. Improving data usability can also benefit your company's bottom line. A 2010 study at the University of Texas at Austin found that small improvements in data quality, usability and accessibility can increase a company's annual sales per employee more than 14 percent.

Instead of spending so much time looking at "the numbers," retrain your brain to question what the data is telling you. As a driver of the company's vision, set a precedent for how data is evaluated, questioned and applied across the company. To start evaluating your company's data more effectively, do the following:

Related: Disruptive Technologies Highlight the Importance of New Data Roles in Companies

1. Apply the five Ws.

It sounds simple, but the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) are a great starting point for questioning your data. You might ask questions such as these:

Who's being hindered in his or her role based on this data?

Who's performing really well?

What is the company not measuring that it should?

What products or services should be added to the wheelhouse?

When should the company launch its next product?

When will the organization need to make its next hire to keep up with growth?

Where is the company falling short in terms of performance?

Where is the organization having big wins?

Why didn't the company have a better month based on its production levels?

Why are sales down despite a growing social-media following?

2. Make data research a company-wide effort.

Everything changes so rapidly in tech that it's foolish to try to keep up on your own, so get members of your team involved to deliver a fresh perspective.

Switch who's taking the lead in this role every time so everyone has an opportunity to be educated on big-picture goals and ideas.

Related: 4 Reasons Sharing Performance Metrics Will Accelerate Your Business

3. Don't be afraid to share.

Sharing data between departments enables each team to evaluate another group's numbers and generate new questions or ideas. Make sure you block out time in your employees' schedules for them to sit down and look at another department's data critically. For example, salespeople can look at marketing conversion numbers, and marketing people can look at the number of prospects in the pipeline.

Share data with vendors and customers. Doing so will create brainstorming opportunities, which will increase the chances of finding new solutions and prompt innovation.

Even if you think you know all the answers, you need to ask questions. When you look at your numbers and see that your revenue is growing, you could stop there. Or you could try to understand why this is happening and what that really means.

The world of business and technology is moving faster than ever and companies that don't take advantage of every chance to innovate and adapt will fall behind. If you aren't asking the right questions about your data, you'll miss out on the answers that could move your company toward greater opportunities and success.

So will you just watch the apple fall or will you question why?

Related: What Your Business Can Learn about Leveraging Big Data From Netflix, Eloqua and the 2008 Election

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