Trusted Data: Working Together and Communication Play a Big Part

Trusted Data: Working Together and Communication Play a Big Part

StockSnap_1DD6143273_JetsTogether_BPRecently we found ourselves re-reading Educause’s annual Top 10 IT Issues, 2019 Edition. We commented on this publication when it came out, but we wanted to revisit in this post a few observations from the Trusted Data section:

"Some of the work is tactical and technical. Projects are under way to develop shared, consistent data definitions and sources and to integrate those sources across many systems and, often, across competing versions."

Our approach to data governance often begins with the “tactical and technical,” especially if the client is using our Data Cookbook solution. The very heart of the Data Cookbook is shared, consistent data definitions, captured in context (institutional reporting, knowledge management, data lineage, etc.)! Some of the challenge, at many institutions, lies in identifying just how many data systems serve as data sources. But in a surprising number of instances the challenge is even more fundamental: there is often no agreed-on definition of key operating concepts, nor a consistent method to calculate and display metrics that measure those concepts.

From the Educause article:

“Much of the work is strategic and political. Technical silos are easier to bridge than organizational silos. Stakeholders must agree on data definitions and definitive, trusted sources. They must acknowledge the precedence of the institution over the department if the goal is to become a data-enabled institution.”

Of course, if only one person or one office inputs those definitions, then it’s hard to consider them shared definitions. We believe there is value in beginning this work, and that every organization owes gratitude to its employees who take these initial steps. However unless competing versions (and visions) of data can be harmonized, it’s hard to imagine much sustained progress occurring.

This harmonization takes place when data stewards work together. We like to describe data stewards as people who are responsible for data, and not as people who own data. Owned by the organization, not the individual, the data stewards take care of data on behalf of their organization. Accordingly, the Data Cookbook is organized around a data stewardship structure: definitions are grouped by functional area or data domain, and individuals or groups are identified to provide formal, public approval of definitions. Moreover, the Data Cookbook accommodates multiple data stewardship structures, and in fact more than one at a time, if that’s what makes sense for the organization.

Data governance doesn’t happen without communication. Now, that communication can occur in many forms, and there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations in formal meetings and informal hallway encounters. But meetings can be difficult to schedule, and data managers may be scattered about campus, so other measures are probably necessary. The Data Cookbook notifies data governance actors when a task is waiting for them, it notifies interested parties when a definition or report specification or reference data set has changed, it allows for users at all levels to make comments and provide feedback. It’s not a substitute for other effective communications, but it does supplement the communication methods and avenues that are critical for the proper understanding and use of organizational data.

One final quotation from the Educause article:

“The most difficult work is cultural. Cultures are social constructs that link, transcend, and outlast individuals. People are difficult to change, cultures even more so. Applying data to decision-making requires entirely new ways of making decisions, of working, of thinking.”

It's received wisdom that higher education is notoriously resistant to change, and no doubt everyone has their own stories about institutional changes, even ones with widespread support, that fell flat. It’s no accident that when we work with clients on data stewardship, we start by pointing out the vast number of things they’re already doing that qualify as data stewardship. In our experience, however, people who work at colleges and universities want to collaborate with colleagues in other offices, they want their institutions to make better decisions, and they want to utilize their organizations’ data assets. Data is siloed out of habit, or convenience, or tradition; decisions about data – at every point in its lifecycle, not just during reporting and analysis – are fragmented and inconsistent; attempts to manage or govern data struggle to gain attention and to stay afloat.

Does data-informed decision making really require entirely new ways of working and thinking? Perhaps, if you think that collaboration and meaningful communication are new ways of working, or if you believe that committing to validating data prior to using it for decision support is a new way of thinking. Obviously, we see things through our own lens at IData, but we tend to think that governing your data effectively and managing it according to those data governance guidelines goes a long way toward improving data’s use at the operational and strategic level, and even towards reframing an organization’s data culture.

Many of the data problems our clients encounter stem from a lack of access to the right tools and technologies, from a lack of structure to govern what data means and how it is to be used, and from leaders’ insufficient awareness of and attention to the problems. The three foundations of governance we espouse, and that the Data Cookbook helps actualize, are practical ways to address these problems. A public knowledge base identifies what data an organization collects, and where it is stored, and how it is used. A data stewardship structure identifies individuals and groups who are responsible for data by domain and system, and a healthy communications strategy enables these people to collaborate on defining data, developing policies around data storage and usage, and sharing it with decisionmakers.

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_OXWAMUDMLP_IRChallenge_BP #1015)

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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