What’s all this talk about ‘small data’?

Slide1.pngIs big data your only focus for improvement? 

90% of the data you collect will never be
actionable or even helpful” 
(Jake Peterson, founder of Dirty Analytics D-Zone)

Attention is turning to ‘small data’. If you’ve heard Pasi Sahlberg recently or read his book FinnishEd (2018), you’ll know about small data.

Small data finds the humanity, and focuses on details, observations and interactions. Walk around a school or workplace, and small data abounds, in the information displayed on the noticeboards, how people work as a team, and relationships amongst the community. These can form everyday cultural clues that lead to broader trends.

Big data, Sahlberg explains, is very helpful for making correlations, such as variables between student behaviour and learning, but it is less helpful when looking for causation, the relationships between cause and effect. Small data provides insight and meaning at a micro level, as Sahlberg writes, “If you don’t start leading through small data, you will be led by big data and spurious correlations” (p.45).


How is the mission, and supporting values, evident in the everyday life of your school or organisation?

Danish branding advisor, Martin Lindstrom has worked with major global companies, including Disney, Pepsi and LEGO as a small data miner. His book, Small Data: Tiny clues that uncover huge trends (2016) suggests that big data on its own offers an incomplete solution. Rather, understand big data in concert with small data, spend time watching, listening and noticing clues to find human, rather than only digital insights. In his book, Lindstrom tells stories of how he hunts for small data, in kitchens, bedrooms and even garbage bins, “If someone crushes a toothpaste tube and tosses it away capless, experience tells me they are prudent about saving money” (p.114). Seriously, it’s that small!

Slide2Working with global brands, Lindstrom seeks insights from users around the world, his fresh eyes see things that can be easily missed. This is a little like the so-called ‘dead dog’ audit, as Australian academic, Stephen Dinham, wrote in his book How to Get Your School Moving and Improving: An Evidence-based Approach (2008),

“people who have spent a long time in a school … develop organisational myopia, unseeingly stepping over the ‘dead dogs’ in the corridor” (p.129)

I have had visited many different schools around the world. As we walk around, the principal or senior leader explains the ethos and philosophy of the school, I might notice subtle examples where the espoused mission and values seem disconnected with what I observe. I’ve also witnessed a ‘quiet achiever’ supporting the school’s values in an interaction with a student. Fresh eyes can see what might be hidden. Slide3Where to next?
Do you need a Small Data Audit of your school or organisation? A fresh pair of eyes collecting evidence through observations and conversations, framed around identified priorities. This becomes the basis for developing strategic alignment with espoused mission and values.

There are three stages to the Small Data Audit:Slide4.pngGet in touch and let’s have a conversation about your small data. 




Lindstrom, M (2016) Small data: the tiny clues that uncover huge trends

Sahlberg, P. (2018) FinnishEd: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education



One thought on “What’s all this talk about ‘small data’?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: