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It’s time to get strategic about data

  By Andy Youell   - Tuesday 11 September 2018

It is now quite normal for organisations – and specifically their senior leaders – to say that data is an asset. This is true of course; In a modern organisation there is very little that works without some sort of data transaction, process or flow. A failure of data-based operations means that core processes and services (the hygiene factors) fail and we miss the opportunity to drive more value from data through efficiencies and enhanced intelligence and customer service.

But when we say that data is an asset, what should that really mean?

Every organisation will have a strategy which sets out the organisations goals and a high- level plan. A strategic planning framework normally includes sub-strategies for the key resources that will contribute to the delivery of that higher-level plan. Your organisation will probably have a financial strategy and a human resources strategy. It might also have an estates strategy, a marketing strategy and an IT strategy.

So why do so few organisations have data strategies? Even those that declare data as an asset?

As with so much in the world of data, the incredible pace of advances in technology mean that most organisations are playing catch-up as they try to close the gap between the ever-increasing aspiration around data and a reality that is often slightly-chaotic and occasionally quite painful. We try and improve our data processes; we even invest in data governance to clarify roles and responsibilities around the ownership and stewarding of data. But the absence of a strategic perspective on data often leaves these initiatives bogged down in operational minutiae and deprived of a place in the broader strategic conversation. If your organisation is serious about data being an asset, then it’s time to get strategic about data; you need a data strategy.

A data strategy should set out how data will support the organisation in the delivery of its vision and strategic goals and, in doing so, provide context and a direction to aid development and operation of data processes. Like other sub-strategies, a data strategy should define the current (as-is) state, the desired future (to-be) state and how the organisation will move from the former to the latter. Standard techniques like SWOT and risk analysis all have a role to play.

The development of a data strategy is an opportunity for the whole organisation to consider and define the key principles that underpin data operations. The strategy should also set out how responsibilities for ownership and stewarding of data will work across the organisation and how data quality will be managed. In creating a strategy, the organisation should consider how the development of data capabilities and operations meshes with other strategic assets such as finance (the value and cost of data), human resources (the skills for data) and, perhaps most importantly, the systems and processes that deliver front-line services to customers and stakeholders.

In the longer-term, the creation of a data strategy as a part of the broader strategic planning process should ensure a more coherent approach to data issues across the organisation and create a more symbiotic relationship between data and other key strategic assets.

If we are serious about using data to drive efficiency and value, then we need to take a more strategic approach to how we manage and use data and embed data as a genuinely strategic asset. In 2018, I would argue that this is not optional.

Andy

Andy Youell is a writer, speaker and strategic data advisor. Formerly the Director of Data Policy and Governance at HESA, Andy has been at the leading edge of data issues across higher education for over 25 years. His work has covered all aspects of the data and systems lifecycle and in recent years has focussed on improving the HE sector’s relationship with data. Follow him on Twitter @AndyYouell

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