Data Strategy Thoughts round up for July 2020

By Daragh O Brien
July 24, 2020
15min read
Cake with candles

Castlebridge is 11 years old on the 24th July 2020. It’s been an interesting journey. Looking back on my vision for Castlebridge, I find myself returning to the reasons why I started the business. My strategy and motivation was to help people in organisations do great things with data. Not by buying more technology (although I do love my toys and tools), but by understanding (as Peter Drucker put it in a 1998 article in Forbes Review) “the meaning and purpose of information”. Drucker saw this as the basis for sustainable competitive advantage for organisations of all kinds. Who am I to argue with the Father of Management Consulting? While the specifics of what we do in Castlebridge has evolved to include ethical data management, data governance, data strategy, data protection, and data quality, the fundamentals return to those key questions of meaning and purpose.

A key focus of my consulting and coaching engagements with clients this quarter has been on issues like that. The strategy issues of data as it supports and enables business change are important. How we manage data influences and enables social change. This past month I’ve presented and written about the need for organisations to embrace a data strategy to pay down legacy data and governance debt and unlock value. This is the key to ensuring the sustainability of that the Covid-Pivot that society has gone through in relation to remote working, distance selling, and implementing technology to process data to serve man-kind. Of course, it’s not just me saying things like this.

Data Strategy in 2020

Things that are on my mind recently are the momentous opportunity we have for change. This change in organisations and society triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic could be far reaching. This change will be enabled by and delivered through the management of data and information. We have witnessed in most organisations in the past five months a mindset shift around digital transformation that would ordinarily have taken five years. Organisations have taken a leap of faith into remote work and online delivery. Making those changes sustainable is the next critical challenge.

Back in May I wrote about this in the context of organisations who are now embracing doing business online and the information and process challenges that that will give rise to. The “new normal” will require organisations to consider their process and information flows as, in a distributed remote working workforce, the historic approaches to crisis management will be harder. That’s why we need to be careful to put in place appropriate data strategies for organisations of all sizes to avoid digital hangovers. That means considering data quality, data governance, and a host of ethical data issues.

Joshua and Katie (our PhD candidate colleagues) wrote in February about the importance of moral versus technological solutions. This is a key consideration for the adoption of new ways of using data. Joshua followed up later in the quarter with some thoughts on the social change aspects of technology implementation and new ways of using data, and the implications for ethical data management.

The Tipping Point for Data Strategy

Looking back on how the data landscape has changed in the last decade, I see some key issues. We are at a tipping point. But in order for us to progress down the far side and not fall back, we need to learn the lessons of the past. Talking with my colleagues in the Leaders’ Data Group think tank (people like Doug Laney, John Ladley, Danette McGilvray, Tom Redman, James Price, and lots of other smart cookies), there is a consensus that we haven’t actually learned a damned thing over the last 30 years.

Ladley and Redman called Data Management out over this a few weeks ago, and the variability of data quality and data understanding that has been laid bare by the Covid-19 response in various countries hammers home that point. We have an historic opportunity coming out of this crisis.

Faced with a chasm of missed opportunities in the past, and the havoc of mismanaged information in the present, we need to learn from the past.

Looking to the Future: Some drivers to think strategically about data.

Some of the things we need to get right this time are listed below. The list is not exhaustive.

We need to ensure..

  1. That we become more data literate in organisations and in society. This does not mean “knowing how to use Tableau”. It means understanding what data is, what it means, and being able to understand basic data concepts and statistics.
  2. That we don’t conflate information with technology. There is a big difference between a data strategy and technology tactics.
  3. That we respect quality by design across the information life cycle. This includes privacy by design, data protection by design, information ethics by design, and (surprise surprise) data quality by design. Good things don’t happen by accident.
  4. There is recognition that the ONLY reason we record and encode information is to support communication of meaning. And communication requires intent and focus to ensure that the meaning is relayed consistently and coherently.
  5. That there is an even distribution of the future. The ethical data issues of the digital divide where access to education and meaningful work is dependent on access to computer equipment and decent infrastructure cannot be ignored (Katherine and I touched on this topic in our book).

As W.Edwards Deming put it:

We don’t have to do this. Survival is entirely optional.

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