Do You Need A Data Strategy?
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.
- Is the number of users (or organizations) building queries/reports to analyze data growing?
- Are there multiple reports containing conflicting information?
- Can a new staff member find and use data on their own, or does it require weeks or months of staff mentoring?
- Is data systematically inspected for accuracy (and corrected)? Is anyone responsible for fixing “broken data”?
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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”?
- 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.
The Flaw of the Data Inventory
Back when I was applying to college, I’d read over college catalogs. Inevitably, each university would mention the number of books it had in its library. When I finally went to college, I realized that this metric was fairly meaningless. A dozen volumes on Grecian pottery did me no good when I was in search of a book on polymers for my mechanical engineering class.
Clients will often ask us to scope a “data inventory” project, inevitably focused on identifying and describing all the data elements contained across their different application systems. Recently a new CIO asked us to head up a “tiger team” to inventory his company’s data. He was surprised at the quantity of information needs that had been sent his way. As expected, he inquired about systems of record and data dictionaries. As you can imagine, he received multiple and conflicting answers which only exacerbated his confusion.
As a point of reference, well-known ERP systems can have in excess of 50,000 discrete data elements in their databases (never mind that some aren’t in English). As I’ve written in the past, many of these data elements have no use outside of the application itself.
Having terabyte upon terabyte of information is equally irrelevant if that data is unrelated to current business issues. The problem with a data inventory activity is that identifying and counting data elements in different systems and applications won’t necessarily solve any problems. Why? Because data across applications and packages is inconsistent: there are different names, definitions, and values, and there is no practical means of determining which data they actually have in common. This is like going to the hardware store and looking for a specific screw, but all the different screws are in one big barrel—you end up having to pick through each screw, one at time. When you find the screw, you just throw all the other screws back into the barrel.
The point of a data inventory isn’t to pick through data because it exists, but to inventory the data people actually need. If you’re going to undertake a data inventory, your output should be structured so that the next person doesn’t have to repeat your work. Identify the data that is moving across various systems, as this indicates key information that’s being shared. Categorize this data by subject area. You’ll inevitably find that there are inconsistent versions of the data, enabling you to identify data disparities. You can then begin to develop a catalog of key corporate data that will form the basis of your data dictionary.
Inventorying the data that moves between systems accomplishes two things: it identifies the most valuable data elements in use, and it will also help identify data that’s not high-value, as it’s not being shared or used. This approach also provides a way to tackle initial data quality efforts by identifying the most “active” data used by the business. It ultimately helps the data management team understand where to focus its efforts, and prioritize accordingly.
So next time someone suggests a data inventory without context or objectives, consider sending them to college to study Grecian urns.
Underestimating the Project Managers
By Evan Levy
One of the most misunderstood roles on a BI team is the Project Manager. All too often the role is defined as an administrative set of activities focused on writing and maintaining the project plan, tracking the budget, and monitoring task completion. Unfortunately IT management rarely understands the importance of domain knowledge—having BI experience—and leadership skills.
To assign a BI project manager who has no prior BI experience is an accident waiting to happen. Think about a homeowner who decides to build a new house. He retains a construction company and the foreman has never built a house before. You’d want fundamental knowledge of demolition, framing, plumbing, wiring, and so on. The foreman would need to understand that the work was being done in the right way.
Unfortunately IT managers think they can position certified project managers on BI teams without any knowledge of BI-specific development processes, business decision-making, data content, or technology. We often find ourselves coaching these project managers on the differences in BI development, or introducing concepts like staging areas or federated queries. This is time that could be better spent transferring knowledge and formalizing development processes with a more seasoned project lead.
In order for a project team to be successful, the project manager should have strong leadership skills. The ability to communicate a common goal and ensure focus is both art and science. But BI project managers often behave more like bureaucrats, requesting task completion percentages and reviewing labor hours. They are rarely invested in whether the project is adhering to development standards, if permanent staff is preparing to take ownership of the code, or whether the developers are collaborating.
An effective BI project manager should be a project leader. He or she should understand that the definition of success is not a completed project plan or budget spreadsheet, but rather that the project delivers usable data and fulfills requirements. The BI project manager should instill the belief that success doesn’t mean task completion, but delivery against business goals.