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The soft side of data

  By Andy Youell   - Monday 07 January 2019

Hardly a day goes by without somebody imploring us to strive for data-driven success. Promises of process efficiencies, insightful business intelligence and personalised customer service are set out by technology evangelists and salesmen of all persuasions, often in torrents of jargon-fuelled bombast. We must unlock – no, unleash – the power of data to create a world of stock-photography perfection with beautiful young people enjoying their mobile-enabled service perfection and their shining skinny-latte smiles.

Of course, we have come to realise that the reality is a little more messy and difficult than these visions suggest and anybody who has embarked on significant digital transformation knows that it can be a long, hard and occasionally soul-destroying journey.

In 2014 the HEDIIP programme embarked on a strand of work to improve data capabilities across the HE sector. We assembled a talented team including leading practitioners from institutions and external expertise to develop and launch a toolkit to help institutions understand and improve their data capabilities. Over 100 institutions embarked on their own journey to improve the management and governance of data and many of them hit the same sort of barriers; something I can best describe as a lack of organisational interest. For some it was the predictable reality of too many other priorities while for a few it was a more active “we’re not really interested in data” response. Either way it suggests a culture that doesn’t truly value data.

The late Peter Drucker – management guru, if you’ll excuse the phrase – famously declared that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This phrase seems apposite as our thinking and experience moves from data management to data governance and to data strategy. If we had a culture that was more positive about data then it wouldn’t feel as though we are constantly swimming against the tide.

What does a data-positive culture look like?

Organisational culture is a complex and nuanced idea at the best of times and for people who’s forte is the hard logic of data, something this soft and ethereal might be a bridge too far. But without a data-positive culture those initiatives that seek to improve our understanding and use of data assets are likely to flounder on the rocks.

If you’re a data professional, then the answer you’re probably looking for is an ontology that classifies organisational cultures into neatly defined types with unique attributes and relationships that are expressed in third normal form. But alas data-people, those classifications of organisational culture that do exist (Google it – there are many) aren’t going to adhere to your idea of a robust data model and they don’t really move us very far to understanding what a data-positive culture is.

When speaking about data-positive culture, I often draw a parallel to the relationship we have with money. Although there are significant differences between money and data (for example, money is scarce whereas data has the opposite problem) there is something about the extent to which we respect and value money and how this is ingrained in broader society and culture. Children are given pocket money and taught about spending and saving; Organisations employ professional money managers (accountants) and operate comprehensive financial management and governance processes.

But money has been around for over seven thousand years so its role in the functioning of society and organisations is deeply embedded. Data technology is evolving at an incredible pace and those things we build around data are often technically obsolete by the time they are implemented. So, to be truly data-positive an organisation needs to have an appetite for, and capability to deal with, change (or “transformation” as we now call it) on a truly heroic scale: Today’s new development is tomorrow’s legacy system so create it to be dismantled. 

This soft stuff is so hard

Changing organisational culture is a slow and difficult process and it has to be championed at the highest level in an organisation. To create a data-positive culture we need to create a sense of organisation-wide ownership of data issues and therefore give everybody a stake in the quality and application of data. To achieve this we need to de-mystify data issues and cut out the jargon that us data professionals often use to make us feel special. We need to patiently and repeatedly explain the bigger picture and the interrelatedness of everything when it comes to data issues. We also need to shift the debate from the problems of data to the opportunities and benefits it can bring. Most of all I think we need to promote a culture that genuinely respects data.

When NESTA did their 2015 study on data skills, they identified the four desired attributes of data scientists and noted that the soft skills were often those that were lacking in data professionals. I think the same idea probably applies at an organisation-level as well. We know what good data management, strategy and governance look like but creating an organisational culture that is actually positive towards data may yet be the toughest nut to crack.

Andy Youell has spent over 30 years working with data the systems and people that process it. Formerly Director of Data Policy and Governance at the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and member of the DfE Information Standards Board, he now works with further and higher education providers as a strategic data advisor.

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