Stop passing the data buck…


Dr Thomas Redman’s latest article in the Harvard Business Review, Build Better Management Systems to Put Your Data to Work, speaks to the unspoken problem facing most businesses today: In spite of its critical importance, in most organisations data is essentially unmanaged.

This does not mean that businesses are not spending (a lot) on data management. They are.

But in most instances, data management initiatives are poorly coordinated, have no clear expectations, and as a result, “people don’t know what to do, basic tasks are left undone, and much of the work that is undertaken is done poorly.”

How does data chaos impact business?

Recently, I was chatting to a friend who is a senior BI developer at a leading South African corporation.

He was expressing his extreme frustration with a problem that he had been grappling with for the previous two months. He had been asked to produce a report to measure operational efficiency in the retail sites. HIs problem: “The report I am being asked to produce is not technically complex, but I cannot find the data that I need I need to build it.”

He had literally spent months reaching out to various people trying to find the data set. Tow months of a senior developer’s salary, plus the additional people engaged and trying to help, plus what ever opportunity cost was incurred by management not having the insight that they were asking for for several months. And, having found the data (finally), nothing is recorded to allow the next person coming along with the same problem to get to a result more quickly.

And hidden costs like these are not restricted to analytics users.

Another large organisation needed to make changes to a core system in order to comply with some new tax regulations. When asked whether a particular field on the mainframe could be reused to store the required tax percentage the response from the system owner was that. “They would need a year to analyse the field and understand the impact of making the change.” A year’s delay for a project with a tight, externally imposed regulatory deadline!

The fear of poorly understood changes impacting production systems is not unfounded! At another client, changes made at the business’s request to remove “invalid” values from a CRM table brought a customer-facing digital platform down for a few hours. Why – unknown to business (and anyone in IT) the digital platform was adding its own values into the CRM platform, rather than reusing the “valid” values agreed with the business.

Businesses must craft better systems and approaches to working with data

In spite of the reality that practically everybody’s job involves using, interpreting, and creating data it remains unclear in most organisations whose responsibility data is?

Most of the real data action involves people that don’t have the word data in their titles.

Salespeople, or branch staff, capture new customer records; purchase orders are created and issued by procurement clerks, and factory workers take delivery of consignments and update inventory lists.

Data programs that engage these people, and their managers, can unlock massive potential, particularly around identifying opportunities to improve the integrity of the data that will be used to enable digital transformations and advanced analytics.

Siloes get in the way of decision making

For better or worse, data siloes aren’t going anywhere soon.

Yet, almost everybody in a business is dependent on data created by other departments (possibly with their own systems) to do their jobs – yet in most cases departments work in siloes and are unaware of the downstream impact that bad data has on other, dependent areas.

Redman suggests that companies must define and track how data is moved from one place to another, and how it is used along the way.

Stop passing the data buck!

While it may not be clear who is responsible for data, most experts agree that IT cannot take responsibility for data integrity.

The IDC defines trusted data as coming through “transparency provided by intelligence about data backed by enrichment to provide context and deliver integrity.”

The data intelligence referred to in this definition is your organisational knowledge – the knowledge sitting in the heads of operational staff, line of business managers, and executives.

Business executives need to get off the sidelines and get involved in driving the data changes that will help their business succeed.

image from unsplash

“It appears to me that senior leaders want to do the right things, they just don’t know what the right things are. In their defense, they face a confused deluge of proposals, all of which promise dire consequences if ignored, but each of which offers different recommendations. Separating the signal from the noise is a tall order.”

Dr Tom Redman, via Harvard Business Review

Executives are ideally placed to connect to key groups of stakeholders – those that have great ideas, and those that have business problems that these ideas can solve. In far too many organisations, data opportunities are missed due to the lack of these connections.

Tom also tasks executives with building the capabilities required to drive the cultural and organisations changes need to truly take advantage of data. A Chief Data Officer needs the support of the board to enable a long-term vision without getting distracted by petty sniping.

And the Chief Data Officer, in return, has to tie data management and data integrity initiatives back to the business priorities of the Board and other senior managers. Data people in general need to become better at communicating how they are enabling the business to meet its goals.

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