Who owns your data strategy and how do you define it effectively?

To any organisation that takes its data seriously and understands its value, Business Intelligence (BI) will not be a new concept. Analytics underpins effective decision making and value exchange occurring in digital ecosystems, and, for this reason, it persistently remains the number-one investment area within “IT”, according to the Gartner 2017 CIO Agenda.
Unlike the more traditional and easily defined areas of IT, such as service desk or IT infrastructure, there seems to be very little consistency when deciding where BI sits within an organisation. The knee-jerk reaction would be to say IT, and a large number of organisations follow this model. However, we need to ask whether this is the most effective solution. To establish where BI should sit we also need to understand who actually owns the data, and who owns the strategy.
Peter Hopwood, Altis Consulting UK Regional Manager, has been working in BI for 20 years across numerous different sectors, and, keen to learn from his experience, I asked Peter where he finds that ownership of a data strategy currently exists:
“Having worked in Australia and the UK across a multitude of industries, one thing always prevails, and that is a lack of consistency. There is no doubting that IT are custodians of data, but they don’t create the data itself. Departments like finance, marketing, sales, etc. create the data. I’ve seen data strategies sit with CTOs, CIOs, Head Actuaries, COOs and, more recently, CDOs – the list is endless.”
Given that data is created across various functions of a business and potentially owned elsewhere, determining an appropriate strategy is key. Peter went on to explain how he approaches defining an effective data strategy:
“Start off with a clear sponsor and then talk to the affected business areas: understand what they really want. You need to ensure your strategy fits into the organisation’s key objectives, the culture of its employees and, ultimately, whether or not it will be fit for purpose. There’s no point sending your CFO detailed figures if they only want the headline figures. All of this boils down to understanding your customers."
Peter went on to detail the main challenges he has identified:
“Understanding what the business wants and how they work: this seems straightforward, however, a poor definition or lack of understanding in this area will quickly see your strategy unravel. As an example, businesses want to know how many employees they have, but what does this mean? Does it mean full-time employees, fixed-term staff, contractors, volunteers, or all the above? Each definition will yield vastly differing results.  Don’t be a mind reader: go over the details and ensure you’re on the same page.”
Miriam Vizvary, Head of Data at a leading Lloyd’s of London corporation, has delivered numerous complex BI solutions at a host of different Lloyd’s businesses and has similar thoughts on the significance of understanding business needs:
“In my current business, it is the Executive Management Committee that owns the Data Strategy. You need to take time to understand the overall business strategy so you can create a two-to-three-year data strategy to support the business in accomplishing those goals. The business’ inclination to invest and the company’s risk appetite will also be pivotal pieces of information to ascertain. Assess your users’ ability and willingness to self-service and create a path that will allow them to generate profits for the business through the use of data. Finally, you need to take into consideration the regulations that affect your industry.” 
With so much emerging technology and state-of-the-art tools coming on to the market, it can be easy to get caught up in the latest trends; I asked Miriam to explain how she chooses the tools for her strategy:
“Everything boils down to one thing: the benefits must outweigh the costs. This relates to everything about your strategy, but let’s focus on tools. If you are confident that the latest technologies will bring you more profit than its cost, it could be the best option; just make sure that you account for the running and usage costs, not just procurement costs.” 
Bart Meldau, Head of MI at The Guinness Partnership, has been working with IT and data for a number of years and identifies the fact that tools are a key ally in aligning data with business goals.
“Poor quality data at the point of entry is the curse of BI. You need to use the tools you have at your disposal to work with the business to fix data entry business processes. In more recent years, external data is being widely used; ensure that it enriches insight rather than obscuring it.”
I asked Bart to elaborate on the more business-oriented challenges:
“As more and more business areas and processes become digital, being able to manage the demand for analytics can become a difficult balancing act. You need to forge alliances and engage with all parts of the business, befriend IT and prioritise the workload, based on urgency, and sometimes regulatory demands.”
Brian McNamara, Head of BI at a leading travel organisation, has a similar view:
“In a somewhat perverse way, a potential challenge that we now face is the enormous amount of data that is available; from transactional, to calls, web, social media and CRM touch points, apps and more. It is very easy to develop a report or dashboard that can look great and is easy to use, but the business derives no practical benefit from. It is the role of BI units to act as the gate keeper for these data sources, understand its value, ensure the business understands its value and be able to leverage it in the most efficient manner.”
Graeme McDermott, Chief Data Officer at Addison Lee, has been working with data for more than 25 years. I asked Graeme what he focusses on when developing a strategy and what he believes to be the main challenges surrounding it:
“People – I’ve seen strategies hampered by outdated or bad tools but not paralysed. On the contrary, I’ve seen traditional tools used in innovative ways to answer complex problems, purely because the analysts were highly skilled. The problem comes when you try to recruit, as a large number of analyst candidates are not interested in an organisation using outdated technology with very little to no plans of modernisation.”
As a recruitment business with a specialist Business Intelligence vertical, this is something we hear all too often. I asked Graeme to elaborate:
“It’s the elephant in the room, so let’s address it: PEOPLE. I’ve sat down with numerous CDOs and it’s a common theme. The reality is that your board is unlikely to know you developed an ineffective data strategy, so focus on delivering your effective data strategy; this requires the right kind of people. You need to find an effective way to recruit and retain great talent. Training and enhancing existing talent is very important as well; just make sure you can retain them once you enrich their skill sets.”
Finally, I asked Graeme where he thinks the future of BI and Data is headed:
“Data, tools and people have always been logical and structured; not any longer. There is a new breed of analyst that needs to adapt, but so does the organisation's approach to asking questions of data, as well as getting involved in the answering of its own questions. Remember, while the past is a good predictor of the future, beware in disrupted businesses that it may invalidate your data strategy.” 
So if we look back to our original question, ‘Who owns your data strategy?’ it is clear that this is a complex issue. If you are struggling to answer this question yourself, you are in good company. In truth, there is no definitive answer. Every company will have different business strategies, different data available and a different organisational structure; the ownership of data strategy will differ accordingly. 
What we can conclude, however, is that by understanding the potential value of available data, engaging with stakeholders across the business and aligning with business priorities, we can define effective, target-driven, data strategy ownership. By doing this we will ultimately be in a position to transform how we engage with data and begin to reap the rewards.
As organisations begin to realise and harness the true value of data, they should look to innovate their current processes by attracting and hiring external talent that can advise, consult and guide them through transformation. Do not limit yourself to a pool of talent specific to your sector as by copying the competition you are, by definition, behind them.
When looking to attract the best talent in the market, your interview process needs to be slick and efficient. Your prospective candidates have an in-demand skill set and will have a number of opportunities to choose from. Gone are the days of interviewing four candidates and picking your favourite; if you see someone you like, act quickly and secure them before your competitors do. Utilise interim consultants with a proven track record and begin to think outside the four walls of your own organisation; the benefits and profits will soon follow.
If you would like to discuss Business Intelligence and Data strategy please contact Michael Gilmour, Senior Consultant at Michael Page Technology.
Michael Gilmour
T: 02072 692 261