The More Things Change ...

The More Things Change ...

StockSnap_NX9U9L1XRB_Wondering_MoreThingsChange_BPIData Inc. has been in business since 2004, and we’ve performed a lot of different work for hundreds of clients in that time. It’s a little bit amazing then, how little some of the complaints we hear have changed, and how colleges and universities continue to be beset by the same problems.

The most common refrains we hear sound something like this:

I can’t get the information I need.
This can take several forms: I can’t get needed information because we don’t collect it, or if we do I don’t know which office does or how to get access to it; or, I can’t get needed information because the office that manages it won’t share it (or won’t share it at the level of detail I’d like); or, I can’t get the information I need because it’s stored in system B but our reporting environment only queries system A.

I can’t trust the information I’m given.
Again, this complaint manifests several different ways: the figures in this report don’t add up; the numbers vary so widely from day to day or week to week that they don’t seem credible; if I ask five different people for an answer to a data question, I get different responses; I know certain facts about certain students and those facts are not reflected in the information I’ve been given; and so on.

It takes so long to get information that I can’t use it to help make decisions.
Sometimes there is so much back and forth before report developers can figure out what I’m asking for (or what I need, which isn’t always the same); there are lots of other requests in the queue before mine, and waiting my turn just takes too long; my request may require development in the warehouse, or some additional level of approval, and so the roadblocks are procedural as much as technical.

These complaints resound up and down the organization chart, and to the furthest reaches of the institution. When we have the chance, we like to dig a little deeper into these concerns to perform a root cause analysis. In our experience, just as these complaints are fairly universal, so are their causes.

Why can’t you get the information you need?
  • Is there an inventory of your data collections?

  • Does that inventory identify the kind of data collected, and which person or office is responsible for collecting and maintaining that data?

  • What does that responsibility look like? Is it formal in any way? Is it part of a job description or data sharing compact?

  • How do you track the flow of data – and any transformation or alteration along the way – from system to system, or office to office?

  • What is the protocol for requesting access to data, and what are the parameters to guide data managers when deciding who can have access and in what way?

  • Is your reporting/analytics/BI structure included as part of your data collection inventory, and is it managed by the same principles?

Why can’t you trust the information you’re given?

  • Do you have a business glossary that includes agreed-on terminology and technical directions for consistently reporting data that corresponds to this terminology?

  • What are the processes for identifying and ameliorating inaccurate or otherwise low-quality data, and who is responsible for acting within those processes?

  • Do your reports/dashboards/analyses have annotations to clarify and contextualize data? If not, why not? And if they are annotated, why don’t your consumers read them?

  • Is your organization providing ongoing training in understanding, utilizing, and verifying information?

Why does it take so long to receive actionable information?
  • Do you have a searchable data catalog so users and developers can identify when an existing data product can be used or altered, rather than creating a new product?

  • Do you have a way to streamline or fast-track certain requests? If you do have a way, how much visibility and transparency into that process exists?

  • What is your strategic plan regarding a data warehouse, speedier tools, additional skilled and highly trained staff, building data literacy at all levels of the organization, etc.?

We can see from this list of questions that in order to answer yes you need the right people in place, taking the right actions. You also need them to develop and abide by policies and critical data management practices. And you may need some new tools. Taken together, this sounds like recognizing, as an organization, that data is an important asset, and that it needs to be treated like one. We’ll discuss this concept in more detail in future posts, but for now we’ll leave this assertion out here.

Will inventorying your data collections solve all data access problems? Will creating a business glossary to complement your existing data dictionaries and better understand your key reports clarify every misunderstanding? Will a searchable data catalog mean that your developers don’t end up doing duplicate work, or producing outputs that are not exactly what is desired by data consumers? Of course not. But we believe that working towards these ends will provide immediate, tangible benefits. Should you be doing this work in the context of a broader data governance initiative? That depends on the circumstances at your organization. But doing the work of data governance, particularly in the areas described here, will pay off.

IData has a solution, the Data Cookbook, that can aid the employees and the institution in its data governance, reporting, data-driven decision making and data quality initiatives. IData also has experts that can assist with data governance, reporting, integration and other technology services on an as needed basis. Feel free to contact us and let us know how we can assist.

(Image Credit: StockSnap_NX9U9L1XRB_Wondering_MoreThingsChange_BP #1053)


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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