When our clients are thinking about data that they would like to collect to answer a question, we sometimes are asked about external benchmarking data. Basically, when you benchmark your data, you generally are asking how you compare to other organizations or competitors. While external benchmarks can be useful, there are a couple of points to consider when deciding whether benchmarking your data is going to be useful:
- Context is key. Comparing yourself to other organizations or competitors can encourage some big picture thinking about your organization. But it is important to remember the context of the benchmark data. Are the benchmark organizations similar to you? Are they serving similar populations? How do they compare in size and budget? Additionally, external benchmark data may only be available in aggregated form. For example, non profit and government organizations may be grouped together. Sometimes these differences are not important, but other times they are an important lens through which you should examine the data.
- Benchmark data is inherently past-focused. When you compare your data to that of other organizations, you are comparing yourself to the past. There is a time-lag for any data collection, and the data are reflecting the impacts of changes or policies that have already been implemented. While this can be useful, if your organization is trying to adapt to changes that you see on the horizon, it may not be as useful to compare yourself to the past.
- Benchmark data is generally more useful as part of a larger research project. For example, if your organization differs significantly from other external benchmarks, it can be helpful to have data that suggest why that is.
- What you can benchmark on may not be the most useful. Often, you are limited in the types of data available about other organizations. These may be certain financial data or visitor data. Sometimes the exact same set of questions is administered to many organizations, and you are limited to those questions for benchmarking.
Like most research, external benchmarking can be useful—it is just a matter of thinking carefully about how and when to best use it.