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Defining data can help unions use it effectively



Every week there are new reports and events about how data will transform the future of work. We hear about Big Data, the power of data and why we should all use data. News reports about data hacks, data breaches and the importance of data security are everywhere.

But what even is data?

Too often data is talked about without answering this question. Our new Unions 21 report takes this head-on and asks: what is data, what does using data mean, and how should trade unions be thinking about data?

The report, published later this month, is full of practical examples, ideas and case studies to answer these questions and to help unions enhance how they already use data. That’s because data isn’t new. We’re all using it, even if sometimes we don’t realise it.

I spoke to lots of people in unions to find out how they use and understand data. From organisers, finance officers, HR managers and general secretaries, the message was clear: their union does use data but everyone knew they could do a lot more with it.

There was a clear finding that lots of people in unions want to use data but they don’t know how. It’s unfamiliar and it’s intimidating. And that’s because so often it isn’t defined. This means people don’t see how it relates to their job. So we go right to the start to clearly describe what data is and show why it matters.

Data is individual facts, figures, records and statistics that have been collected. It isn’t just numbers and nor does its existence or creation rely on digital technologies. There isn’t one homogenous thing called ‘data’ but lots of sources and types of data.

Analysing data gives us information. That information helps us to allocate the right resources at the right time for the right purpose.

Data is information about our members and the results of surveys. It’s the union’s management accounts, a database of recognition agreements, research on employers and so much more. There’s a long list in the report of all the different types of data that unions hold and could use.

There isn’t any part of a union’s work that doesn’t involve collecting and analysing data in some form, but this isn’t always recognised by everyone in unions. On several occasions during the research people told me they weren’t sure they could contribute before realising that they could. One official, speaking in a roundtable discussion that we held, summed it up:

“I had a look at the survey you’re doing yesterday and I’m thinking I don’t use data. Now just listening to what colleagues have said, I’m thinking, actually, yeah, we do.”

The report focuses on purpose and not technology. Effective use of data is about always putting strategy before tactics.

Detailed how-to guides about new technologies are important and really useful if you’re experienced at using data, but for people who aren’t they can be off-putting. That’s why we take a step back from in-depth conversations about software and systems to put why before how.

Unions with clear strategic aims and clarity of purpose can assess what information they need to help meet their aims and what evidence they need to make their case. Data can help to provide unions with that information.

This is as true today as it was 10 years ago and 100 years ago. The tools have changed but the aims remain the same. Knowledge is power and data can help to win a better deal for workers and build stronger, more successful unions.


I’m looking forward to sharing the report with you all in a few weeks. Sign up to join us on April 27th at our annual conference and report launch.