Data might sound technical, and it’s easy to get lost in tools, statistics and models. Yet in our work at HighMind we noticed that the human component, particularly strategy and governance, is just as important if you want to effectively use data. Everyone, from business intelligence experts to data scientists, from customer insights teams to IT, need to be involved. Which is why we spoke to Luc Machiels, principal engineer and founder at ZX Computers (and ex-BNP Paribas Fortis), and our own director Elke Horrix about data governance and strategy.

At HighMind we help organisations solve data problems. So our job naturally involves a lot of listening to the needs of organisations and their executives. During all these talks we noticed an interesting communality.

Many of the data-problems organisations face aren’t just technical problems, they also involve strategy and governance.

Some quotes from recent meetings we had:

  • “we are a big organisation, but we are lacking a clear vision for our data.”
  • “different teams work with data, and the entire thing is quite a mess. There is a complete lack of alignment between business intelligence, customer insights and IT.”
  • “we don’t know how to organise this. Is it a job for IT or for business?”

Data is clearly not only about technology, but also about aligning your organisation. Nevertheless, this issue is often still underestimated in favour of the technology-aspects of data. Which is why we decided to explore data governance and data strategy in this blogpost.

Data strategy

So what is data strategy and data governance? According to Luc Machiels, they represent some of the key components of a data-driven company. “First, because data requires us to formulate a strategy, as it’s causing major changes in the way we do business. Second, because it requires a more organised data governance approach, because you need to be able to find and use data. And finally because it requires new technologies.”

Data strategy is the first, higher level, layer of engaging with data. It refers to thinking about how data can fit into the entire organisation and how it can serve business needs. Businesses today are often confronted by digital native competitors, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, which drives them to become more data-driven. But these actions are rarely coordinated on a company-wide strategic level. Which in the end leads to failure.

“To be successful in a new environment you need to think about data in a strategic way. You need to ask strategic questions like: what does it mean for our business? What is changing in the competitive environment? And do we have all the competencies that are required?”, explains Luc.

Elke Horrix adds that today most companies still don’t focus on the bigger picture.  “A lot of people tell us that they’re starting a new ‘data project.’ But when asked how it fits into a broader data strategy, the question usually remains unanswered or does not go further than platitudes like: ‘we need to become more data-driven.”

Data governance

Data governance on the other hand involves getting your data under control and being able to effectively exploit it.

Today data governance at many companies is still lacking, with data spread out across different departments and across a variety of systems. Often nobody has a complete view of all the data floating around and legacy systems from the 1980ies co-exist with new tools.

“Before being able to properly use data, you need to have it under control. Finding the data you need in a large organisation remains a difficult thing to do. They are often located in different systems and sometimes we even lost their definitions”, explains Luc.

“It’s as if you decide to renovate your house to be a state-of-the-art smart home. But only after you started the renovation you realise you’re not sure on what kind of foundations you’ve built”, says Elke Horrix. “That’s why data governance is so important if you want to become more data-driven and exploit your data assets.”

This of course doesn’t mean that the technology-side of data is useless. You need technical systems and tools, as well as the technical skills, to gather, store and exploit data. Yet strategy and governance are still key to generate value from data.

Data regulation and competition

So why is it so important to invest in strategy and governance at this time? Two forces stand out: regulations and competitive pressure.

New regulations like GDPR makes data governance very necessary. But scandals like Cambridge Analytica also show what can happen if you don’t have proper control over your data.

“For regulatory reasons today it’s essential that companies regain control over their data. Companies record a lot of personal data, so they need to keep a ‘tight grip’ over it to comply with the law”, says Luc.

But there are also other pressures to change, with data becoming a key competitive advantage for companies. “If you want to use data properly as a business you need to control it and have a vision for it”, explains Luc.

How to get started?

So how to get your data under control and working for your business?

The first step is always to just begin. These are often long processes, particularly in large organisations. So just getting your experiments off the ground is always a good step.

Just start and experiment”, recommends Luc. “What you certainly shouldn’t do is wait. Nobody is going to sell you a finished, plug-in solution in a few years, you really need to get started now. So start small, because you will not get it right the first time, and work your way up from there.”

Using external expertise can be useful here. Experts can help you develop a data strategy and develop that into an effective data governance framework. They can help you discover and explore existing data sources and integrate those into your business. That way you can get a clear data approach off the ground much faster.

Which is, of course, something we hope to do at HighMind. “We don’t want to be the next consulting company that steps in with a nice theory, a beautiful framework and a good-looking slide deck”, says Elke Horrix. “We strongly believe in working with experts who lived through these types of projects, who have had their share of trial and error and who understand the internal complexity of a company. There’s not just one road that leads to Rome, as they say. We want to be side-by-side with our clients, and be flexible for them.”

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