Thursday, 22 April 2010

How do you identify your strategic data?

As I mentioned towards the end of my last blog post, many organisations face "information overload". Over time there has been so much data collated, some of which is no doubt duplicated and used by different people in different ways. It may be stored on disparate systems around the organisation, and it may be touched by numerous systems or processes on it's journey from source system to the report on your desktop.

Firstly, How do we separate the data that is "nice to have" from the data that is "critical" to our business? Secondly, how do we govern this critical data accordingly, as a valuable business asset?

Think Strategically

To separate the "nice to have" from the "critical" we need to understand the aims & objectives of the business that we are serving. We need to align our strategy for data provision with the wider corporate strategy and attempt to understand exactly what data will be required to support and achieve the business goals.

If a strategic goal of the business is to enter a new geographical market, do we currently have the data within our organisation that will support the marketing, promotion and launching of a product in this market? If not, what data do we need to start collecting, and from where?

How do we know what we need?

Work with data stewards and subject matter experts within your business community. This network of enthusiastic and knowledgeable individuals were chosen especially because of their knowledge and influence within the business. Utilise them. If you don't have a network of Data Stewards and Subject Matter Experts within your organisation, it would be a worthwhile exercise to identify and involve them.

Create and sustain a 'Strategic Data Forum' that meets on a regular basis to discuss how strategic business goals can be supported by data. Again, we need to have a clear understanding of what data we currently have within the organisation, identify any gaps that need to be filled, and ensure a roadmap exists so that we can track activities and objectives.

There are also a number of other challenges that should be addressed within the forum, for instance:
  • How are data sources communicated to the business community?
  • How will our current technical infrastructure be able to cope with any additional data requirements?
  • Is strategic data currently produced by a 'cottage industry' on an unreliable server - do we see that this needs to move to a more strategic platform for business continuity, scalability & increased governance?
This is it(erative)

Like any strategic exercise, this isn't a one off. This is an extremely iterative process. It will grow and adapt based upon the strategic goals of the business. You may find that what is deemed as 'strategic data' will be re-defined further down the line, but the important thing is that you have the people, and the process in place to manage change.


Phil Simon said...

Good post, mate.

One of my pet peeves is when people focus on strategic data to the detriment of the non-strategic data.

Yes, strategy is sexy but what happens if an organization's transactional data is in shambles? Employees can't be accurately paid. Financial reports are a mess.

I'd argue that shoring up non-strategic data should be a precursor to going after the strategic stuff.

Phil Wright said...

That's an interesting point Phil. Leaving the operational data in a poor state, while chasing the strategic nuggets probably won't breed a culture of confidence and trust in data within the organisation.

Julian Schwarzenbach said...


I'm inclined to agree with Phil S.

It is probably better to start with one of the less bad data areas (and possibly a smaller area) and improve the quality of both the strategic and operational data in this area. The success gained from this will both give a morale boost and will also help demonstrate the benefits of data quality improvement. This should make it easier to improve other data areas.

Having said that, it is still important to discriminate between the transactional data (which is probably less widely used) and the strategic data (which is likely to be used elsewhere).


Phil Wright said...

From a data quality improvement perspective I completely agree.

The challenge comes when we're talking about getting appropriate buy-in, funding etc. In terms of raising awareness and gaining C-level support for a DQ exercise - are we more likely to get funding for:

1) an exercise to clean up the state of transactional data (something that, sadly, we've lived with for the past 5 years)?
2) an exercise to clean up the data that is required to support a strategic goal of the business?

Dylan Jones (Editor of said...

An interesting post Phil.

A few years ago I put my techie hat on and figured out a way of addressing something similar to this, albeit at a more local level.

We wanted to prioritise our data quality efforts so the obvious place to start was the 20% of data that made up 80% of all transactions and information requests.

The solution was to monitor database access logs and parse the statements submitted. This gave us in-depth information into which tables and attributes were being accessed, what times of the day, what user groups, the type of activity etc.

It was really quite surprising to observe the footprint and gave us far more focus for the data quality assessment that followed.

To do this at an enterprise level of course is impractical which is why your advice above makes perfect sense.

Nice post as ever Phil

Phil Wright said...

Dylan - monitoring the footprint & looking at table/attribute usage is a great approach. It's similar to how at a higher level, monitoring BI reporting usage can tell you a lot about what is "hot" and what is "not". I think that this kind of knowledge, and knowing the true value of data, is essential.

Sheezaredhead said...

If someone where to ask me what it would look like in a perfect world, my answer would be (from the top down):

- Start with corporate objectives
- Then identify the strategies to support those objectives
- Then the processes required to support those strategies
- Then the 'must' have and 'nice' to have data required to support those processes.
- Each has a direct line of sight to the corporate objectives.

This would eliminate the noise (effort/buy-in/inefficiencies) that usually takes place when teams/groups/projects/programs/ try to align at the bottom (data) or 2nd lowest level (process).

Phil Wright said...

A sensible approach. I wonder how many information providers are unaware how/if the data they provide supports corporate objectives?

I've seen many 'farms' where information providers churn reports/data sources out to the business, without questioning why it's needed, if it's duplicated, if a different source would actually better suit the need etc.

An interesting communication challenge.

Rob Drysdale said...

Good post. I agree with Phil Simon that both the strategic and operational data are important, but as Jill (sheezaredhead) says if you start with the corporate objectives you should be able to catch it all.

The most important part is that it must meet the needs of the business and align with the business goals and objectives. Of course in my mind, running the business and keeping it going is number one and this is where you capture the need for the operational data. The strategic and growth strategies can really help you figure out what else you need and what you can cut down on.

I have seen organizations that capture too much "nice to have" data even when it costs them quite a bit to do it. This is especially troubling when you can see that it will never provide the return that it is costing to get/keep it.

Phil Wright said...

Rob - thanks for your input. I really like the "help you figure out what else you need and what you can cut down on". This is certainly one of the aims of the 'strategic data forum' I mentioned, aiding the business to gain a more definitive set of data for their requirements, while ensuring the removal of duplicate/redundant/unused datasets.

I too have seen organisations capture too much at high cost, and little return. I think that this will (rightly so) become a dying activity over the next few years, with emphasis on tangible ROI.

Sid Richardson said...

I often find that a good method / or starting point for identifying strategic information is to listen to how the business people speak on a daily basis. They talk about customers, products, locations, departments, employees, etc. This approach might help provide some insight on what they consider (perhaps known to the IT crowd) as strategic data.

Maybe a definition is required on what constitutes data as being strategic in nature and have agreement on the definition, to help prevent the debates that may ensue. i.e. Frequency / rate of change, data volatility, volume of dataset size, usage points across the organization, critical Vs "Nice-to-have" etc..

Perhaps an open invitation to the business communities / data consumers to your forum might be worth considering also?

I've been considering a method of attaching weighted values to individual data elements within in internal structure of databases, so that the cost of information provision can be determined for an organization at any given point in time. But perhaps this is for a separate post(?)
Great post.

Phil Wright said...

Sid, Thanks for your comment. Great insight. The open invitation to the business community/data consumers is a good idea, and above all an opportunity to find more enthusiastic and knowledgeable data stewards/advocates/SMEs..

The cost of information provision point you make is something I've also starting looking at, i'm sure I'll write more about my experiences with this in the future, but I'd be keen to collaborate in the meantime.

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