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Do You Need A Data Strategy?

20200608 ThinkingDataStrategy

During my time teaching Data Strategy in the class room, I’m frequently asked the question, “how do I know if I need a data strategy?”  For those of you that are deep thinkers, business strategists, or even data architects, I suspect your answer is either “yes!” or “why not?”.

When I’m asked that question, I actually think there’s a different question at hand, “Should I invest the time in developing a data strategy instead of something else?”

In today’s business world, there’s not a shortage of “to do list” items.  So, prioritizing the development of a Data Strategy means deprioritizing some other item.   In order to understand the relative priority and benefit of a Data Strategy initiative, take a look at the need, pain, or problem you’re addressing along with the quantity of people affected.  Your focus should be understanding how a Data Strategy initiative will benefit the team members’ ability to do their job.

To get started, I usually spend time up front interviewing folks to understand the strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and opportunities that exist with data within a company (or organization).  Let me share 5 questions that I always ask.

  1. Is the number of users (or organizations) building queries/reports to analyze data growing?
  2. Are there multiple reports containing conflicting information?
  3. Can a new staff member find and use data on their own, or does it require weeks or months of staff mentoring?
  4. Is data systematically inspected for accuracy (and corrected)? Is anyone responsible for fixing “broken data”?
  5. Is anyone responsible for data sharing?

While you might think these questions are a bit esoteric, each one has a specific purpose.  I’m a big fan of positioning any new strategy initiative to clearly identify the problems that are going to be solved.  If you’re going to undertake the development of a Data Strategy, you want to make certain that you will improve staff members’ ability to make decisions and be more effective at their jobs.  These questions will help you identify where people struggle getting the job done, or where there’s an unquantified risk with using data to make decisions.

So, let me offer an explanation of each question.

  1. “Is the number of users (or organizations) building queries/reports to analyze data growing”

The value of a strategy is directly proportional to the number of people that are going to be affected. In the instance of a data strategy, it’s valuable to understand the number of people that use data (hands-on) to make decisions or do their jobs. If the number is small or decreasing, a strategy initiative may not be worth the investment in time and effort.  The larger the number, the greater the impact to the effectiveness (and productivity) to the various staff members.

  1. “Are there multiple reports containing conflicting information? “

If you have conflicting details within your company that means decisions are made with inaccurate data.  That also means that there’s mistrust of information and team members are spending time confirming details.  That’s business risk and a tremendous waste of time.

  1. “Can a new staff member find and use data…”

If a new staff member can’t be self-sufficient after a week or two on the job (when it comes to data access and usage), you have a problem.  That’s like someone joining the company and not having access to office supplies, a parking space, and email.  And, if the only way to learn is to beg for time for other team members – your spending time with two people not doing their job. It’s a problem that’s being ignored.

  1. “Is data systematically inspected for accuracy (and corrected)? …”

This item is screaming for attention.  If you’re in a company that uses data to make decisions, and no one is responsible for inspecting the content, you have a problem.  Think about this issue another way:   would you purchase hamburger at the grocery store if there was a sign that stated “Never inspected.  May be spoiled.  Not our responsibility”?

  1. Is anyone responsible for data sharing?

This item gets little attention in most companies and is likely the most important of all the questions.  If data is a necessary ingredient in decision making and there isn’t anyone actively responsible for ensuring that new data assets are captured, stored, tracked, managed, and shared, you’re saying that data isn’t a business asset.  (How many assets in the company aren’t tied to someone’s responsibilities?)

If the answer to all of the questions is “no” – great.  You’re in an environment where data is likely managed in a manner that supports a multitude of team members’ needs across different organizations.  If you answered “yes” to a single question, it’s likely that an incremental investment in a tactical data management effort would be helpful.  If more than 1 question is answered “yes”, your company (and the team) will benefit from a Data Strategy initiative.

 

Data Strategy. Why it Matters

I’ve been consulting in the data management space for quite a few years, and I’m often asked about the importance and need for a Data Strategy.   

All too often, the idea of “strategy” brings the images of piles of papers, academics-styled charts, and a list of unachievable goals identifying the topic at hand, but not reflecting reality.  Developing a strategy isn’t about identifying perfection – it’s about identifying a set of goals that address problems and needs that require attention.   A solid data strategy isn’t about identifying perfection, it’s about identifying a set of goals that are achievable and good enough to improve your data environment.  A data strategy is also about identifying the tasks and activities necessary to achieve those goals.  A data strategy is more than the finish line, it’s about the path of the journey. And, it’s about making sure the journey and goal are possible.

Companies spend a fortune on data.  They purchase servers and storage farms to store the data, database management systems to manage the data, transformation tools to convert and transform the data, data quality tools to fix and standardize the content, and treasure trove of analytical tools to present content that can be understood by business people. Given all of the activities, the players, and the content, why would you not want a plan?

Unfortunately, few organizations have a Data Strategy.  They have lots of technology plans and roadmaps. They have platform and server plans; they have DBMS standards; they have storage strategies; they likely have analytical tool plans. While these are valuable, they are typically focused on an organization or function with minimal concern for all of the related upstream and downstream activities (how usable is a data warehouse if the data exists as multiple copies with different names and different formats, and hasn’t been checked/fixed for accuracy?) A data strategy is a plan that ensures that data is easy to find, easy to identify, easy to use, and easy to share across the company and across multiple functions. 

Information technologists are exceptionally strong in the world of applications, tools, and platforms.  They understand the importance of ensuring “reusability” and the benefit of an “economies-of-scale” approach. These are both just nice sound bites focused on making sure that new development work doesn’t always require reinvention.  Application strategies include identifying standards (tools, platforms, storage locations, etc.) and repeatable methods to ensure efficient construction and delivery of data that can be serviced, maintained, and upgraded. An assembly line of sorts.

The challenge with most data environments is that a data strategy rarely exists; there is no repeatable methods and practices.  Every new request requires building data and the associated deliverables from scratch.  And, once delivered, there’s a huge testing and confirmation effort to ensure that the data is accurate.   If you had a data strategy, you’d have reusable data, repeatable methods, and the details would be referenceable online instead of through tribal knowledge.  And delivery efficiency and cost would improve over time. 

Why do you need a data strategy?  Because the cost of data is growing –and it should be shrinking.  The cost of data processing has shrunk, the cost of data storage has decreased dramatically, but the cost of data delivery continues to grow.  A data strategy focuses on delivering data that is easy to find, easy to use, and easy to share.  

What is a Data Strategy?

20200525 strategy

A simple definition of Data Strategy is

A plan designed to improve all of the ways you acquire, store, manage, share, and use data”

Over the years, most companies have spent a fortune on their data.  They have a bunch of folks that comprise their “center of expertise”, they’ve invested lots of money in various data management tools (ETL-extract/transformation/load, metadata, data catalogs, data quality, etc.), and they’ve spent bazillions on storage and server systems to retain their terabytes or petabytes of data.  And what you often find is a lot of disparate (or independent) projects building specific deliverables for individual groups of users.   What you rarely find is a plan that addresses all of the disparate user needs that to support their ongoing access, sharing, use of data.

While most companies have solid platform strategies, storage strategies, tool strategies, and even development strategies, few companies have a data strategy.  The company has technology standards to ensure that every project uses a specific brand of server, a specific set of application development tools, a well-defined development method, and specific deliverables (requirements, code, test plan, etc.)  You rarely find data standards:  naming conventions and value standards, data hygiene and correction, source documentation and attribute definitions, or even data sharing and packaging conventions.  The benefit of a Data Strategy is that data development becomes reusable, repeatable, more reliable, faster.  Without a data strategy, the data activities within every project are always invented from scratch.  Developers continually search and analyze data sources, create new transformation and cleansing code, and retest the same data, again, and again, and again.

The value of a Data Strategy is that it provides a roadmap of tasks and activities to make data easier to access, share, and use.  A Data Strategy identifies the problems and challenges across multiple projects, multiple teams, and multiple business functions.  A Data Strategy identifies the different data needs across different projects, teams, and business functions.   A Data Strategy identifies the various activities and tasks that will deliver artifacts and methods that will benefit multiple projects, teams and business functions.   A Data Strategy delivers a plan and roadmap of deliverables that ensures that data across different projects, multiple teams, and business functions are reusable, repeatable, more reliable, and delivered faster.

A Data Strategy is a common thread across both disparate and related company projects to ensure that data is managed like a business asset, not an application byproduct.  It ensures that data is usable and reusable across a company.  A Data Strategy is a plan and road map for ensuring that data is simple to acquire, store, manage, share, and use.

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