Helping Data Consumers

Helping Data Consumers

StockSnap_LUKSVTLPLT_HelpDataConsumers_Hand_BPWe tend to focus our data governance marketing, training, and services efforts on a few key roles: subject matter experts, business analysts and certain technical resources, and of course data stewards. Some reasons for this are because we sell a product, the Data Cookbook, that features a user-friendly business glossary, and because that product allows you to catalog technical and structural metadata from your data systems, and because the product is designed to bring this information together in a package that, for example, would explain to a data consumer what they are looking at when they look at a dashboard, and because the product, further, features workflows that record when data stewards and other managers sign off on this data-related work.  This blog post is about data consumers.

Unquestionably, subject matter experts and data stewards have critical parts to play in a successful data governnance and data intelligence effort, such as:

  • defining terminology from a business perspective
  • documenting data quality standards
  • taking action when data quality issues are discovered
  • setting regulations for accessing, sharing, and analyzing data, and monitoring data throughout its lifecycle

While we recognize that enterprise data stewards, technical stewards, and operating stewards exist, and while we also recognize that anyone who handles data should apply stewardship techniques to their use of data, we refer here to domain data stewards, who are generally middle managers, and to the subject matter experts who report to or otherwise work with them.

Business analysts and data integrators and practitioners of data science move massive amounts of data around, they join data from multiple sources into rich data sets, they perform analytical and computational tasks to deliver actionable insights, all while keeping an eye on security compliance, data consistency and integrity, performance and reliability, and so on.

In organizations where data is governed well, these groups have formed a productive alliance. We have observed a commitment to transparency, a willingness to communicate, an openness, if not enthusiasm, about sharing knowledge, and above all a recognition that data is an organizational asset and that making effective use of it should be an organizational objective.

What does this look (or sound) like?

  • Data is not mine, it is ours.
  • Locking people out of systems is not a practice. Providing them with streamlined access to critical information is the goal that undergirds policies and activities.
  • Requests for data go through proper and mostly public channels, and they are followed by rigorous gathering of requirements and testing of preliminary results.
  • Whenever possible, decisions are informed by carefully analyzed data.

These statements should not sound extreme, although we continue to encounter entrenched resistance to some (or, occasionally, all) of them.

But these groups do not represent the entirety of data stakeholders in an organization, and while it makes sense to focus on them when ramping up data governance efforts, the work cannot end with them. Who else must we be careful not to overlook?

In organizations with mature data governance structures, there tends to be a layer of people to whom data stewards report to. Often these people are referred to as data trustees, although the terminology certainly varies. Frequently data trustees served as data stewards earlier in their careers, and they tend to be well aware of data's importance, and supportive of efforts to utilize it better. Now, a person does not have to be formally known as a data trustee to serve as one, in much the same way that people who have historically done what we now call data stewardship have not always been known as data stewards.

We are certain that some senior managers and high-ranking leaders are still out there who are largely uninterested in data, possibly to their detriment and almost certainly to the detriment of their organizations. But the tide in this area has long since turned, and whether you are at a company seeking competitive advantage, or a nonprofit organization seeking to provide more targeted services, or any kind of organization seeking to operate more effectively, data is undoubtedly widely seen as a tool that can be wielded.

But: how to use that tool? and when? and to what end? Whether your senior decisionmakers are data trustees, they are almost certainly data consumers. What do we mean by data consumer? A data consumer is a person - or office, or entity - who receives data, who consumes data created and processed by others. Primarily we think of them as readers or viewers of dashboards, formatted reports, printouts, etc. Now, some data consumers can look at records in a transactional system--perhaps they'll look up the details of a purchase or sale, or information about a customer. And some data consumers are spreadsheet wizards, and they perform incredible feats with extracts. Some data consumers can generate their own reports, or are comfortable working with slicers and filters on dashboards. Some are savvy enough to understand complicated statistical analyses!

What they all have in common, though, is that they acquire data at the end of, in some cases, a very long chain. They should have questions about that data, lots of questions!

What kinds of questions your data consumers ask, therein lies the rub. Ideally, they ask things like, can we get another period's worth of data for further comparison, can we plot these results a different way or can we run a what-if simulation using a different set of assumptions. Most of our clients would be ecstatic (and would probably be more successful at their work) if consumers asked something like, given this data and these analytics, what do you think we should do? Or, better, which of our potential courses of action do our analytics best support?

Unfortunately, too many of our clients report that their consumers do not ask these kinds of questions. In our view, a lack of questions from data consumers is not a sign of perfectly governed and exquisitely delivered data. More likely, it's a sign of insufficient data literacy, resulting in data consumers who do not or cannot understand data, no matter how thoroughly processed. It may be a sign of a decision-making process not informed by data, which may be caused or exacerbated by consumers who are not sufficiently well versed in the data to see how the analytics would be employed in planning, strategic discussions, or resource allocation. It could also be a sign that data consumers do not trust data or they resist new data products and instead have developed a flourishing ecosystem of underground and shadow systems. (Data stewards and subject matter experts, and even business analysts and data scientists, are consumers of data as well. So they, too, benefit from improving the ease, breadth, availability, and trustworthiness of data made ready for consumption.)

So we return, as we often do in this space, to some practical data governance activities you can engage in that will assist your organization on its journey to a culture of data, one in which employees are not just data literate, but they are avid readers, so to speak, seeking out useful and interesting data within a data rich environment.

  • As we have argued before, data governance needs to occur throughout the lifecycle, not just in the reporting and analytics segments.
  • Data needs to be understood as a business asset, explained in plain English (or Swahili, or Urdu, if those are the languages of your organization) using business terminology, and organized according to business needs by data trustees and data stewards, not your IT teams.
  • A full inventory of data systems, and an accounting of the data flowing between them, helps reduce data quality and security concerns, and may identify easily remedied duplicate recordkeeping.
  • A consumer-focused catalog of reports, dashboards, and integrations simplifies data discovery, speeds up delivery of key insights, and assists with describing complicated data structures and procedures using accessible language and vocabulary.

And this list is a few bullet points out of dozens, potentially. The key is to start taking these practical steps, or to keep taking them - and building on them - if you have already started.

Our solution, the Data Cookbook, has enabled hundreds of organizations to make significant and lasting steps. But our vision for data management, and one we have helped our most successful clients achieve, ensures that employees have the right incentives to utilize data, the appropriate skills and knowledge to interact meaningfully with data, and the organizational structures and processes to facilitate and reward that interaction. In real life, that often means that data stewards and subject matter experts and business analysts and everyone else has to do a better job governing data, so that the data consumers who want to rely on that data to drive the organization forward can in fact rely on it!

Photo Source: StockSnap_LUKSVTLPLT_HelpDataConsumers_Hand_BP #B1248

Aaron Walker
About the Author

Aaron joined IData in 2014 after over 20 years in higher education, including more than 15 years providing analytics and decision support services. Aaron’s role at IData includes establishing data governance, training data stewards, and improving business intelligence solutions.

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