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The processing of data cannot be prioritised highly enough

Businesses should approach data in the same way that they approach budgets and employees. Data processing is key to safeguarding any business against disruption and digital crime – as well as being key to innovation.
In the coming weeks, DI Business will be focusing on the digital society of the future – and the importance of digitisation to the individual, the business community and society at large. A series of articles will appear in the Win the Future magazine which is published by Mandag Morgen for the Confederation of Danish Industry. Some of the world’s sharpest minds give their unique perspectives on digitisation.

The work businesses do on processing data will be key as the digital transformation takes place and makes all business dependent on data in real time. This requires leadership across the board: visions, policies, organisation and control.

“If you were running a restaurant and data were your raw ingredients, would you be good enough at utilising those raw ingredients for running a healthy budget in your kitchen and ensuring profits? Would you be able to cook innovative dishes that excited your guests?”

This was the question asked by Gwen Thomas who co-founded the Data Governance Institute in 2004 and has written several books on the subject as part of her work on the institute’s DGI Data Governance Framework.

She currently works as a corporate data advocate with the International Finance Corporation, an organisation working with private sector companies in the World Bank Group.

Her own experience comes from the financial sector where the overall processing of data has become more and more critical as valuables can now no longer be exchanged directly for physical coins or gold.

You have to know the origin of all data. Can you trust the source that has produced the data? How should you yourself process and store data?

According to Gwen Thomas, all businesses need to make decisions about how to process data in order to ensure the value of their use of IT, minimise costs and complexity, manage risk and handle ever more legislation and regulation – although the scope and institutionalisation of data processing, of course, depend on its complexity.

Only when the work on data has been mapped in policies and handled in processes, can businesses start to think in terms of purchasing and selling data. Policies, or governance, are necessary in order to ensure that data are really being used to generate value. Otherwise things become too random.

See also: Historical growth boosting the technological revolution

The biggest management error in the processing of data

“The biggest management error in the processing of data is to think: the IT department will take care of it,” says Gwen Thomas and emphasises that she is not against IT departments, but her point is that data and data processing should not be kept isolated in the IT department.

Both those things belong at operational level across the business and strategically with top management.

“Decisions on working with data are very different to decisions about acquisition and use of technology. Technology decisions follow a pattern that can be organised although this is not necessarily easy. Data decisions are different because the company’s data are not found in a system,” she explains.

“In order to make decisions on data processing, the many concealed data points across the organisation have to be identified – in order to map the risks and opportunities that data offer, the opportunities for using data for new projects or sales and risks such as the leaking of confidential information about people, products and businesses.”

Data should be processed completely in line with the company’s other resources such as capital and employees, believes  Gwen Thomas.

That is why this is about traditional management of data and the value of data should form part of any company’s accounts.

“Imagine a shop full of tins. If there were no labels on the tins, staff would have to spend all their time guessing what was in the tins. In the same way, data has to be organised and labelled so that they are easy to store, retrieve and reuse.”

Outsourcing lulls people into a false sense of security

“Data processing is basically all about documenting company data. Think of LEGO building blocks: if you want to use data for anything, they need to be standardised and it must be possible to integrate them well into an infrastructure with other data. That is the way management should be thinking about company data,” believes Gwen Thomas who worries that many managers do not even understand what the processing of data really involves.“

One of the problems is outsourcing which very easily lulls people into a false sense of security in terms of data processing. Because even if you are on top of outsourcing service levels and deliveries, people do not focus on the data points required which can turn out to be vital to a company’s work with its data.”

This type of conflict handling is precisely where Gwen Thomas’s work with data processing started – and the economic boom from 2003 to 2008 sent that work into overdrive.

“When the economy started to run fast after the dot.com crisis, many shortcuts and quick-fix solutions in documentation of data production and use appeared. My belief was that if we did not start to focus on overall processing, we would encounter many more problems with lack of documentation 10 to 12 years down the line – which is where we are today.”

She was spokesperson at DGI Data Governance Framework. Since then, Gwen Thomas has helped to create data processing programmes at the Federal Reserve System, Sallie Mae, Disney World and American Express.

Work should already be in full swing

“Ideally, all organisations should already be in the process of managing data processing right now – by working to build up strategies or because they have already implemented models that are being used and developed. Young employees who enter the job market today expect organisations to be on top of their data and would not dream of setting up new projects and solutions without having the required documentation in place.”

So although Gwen Thomas in general worries about managers’ lack of focus on data processing, time is working in her favour. She does not believe that it will be difficult to move forward:

“Any organisation doing just a little bit more than financial control is already in the process of doing the work. But it is not enough just having a group of analysts or a taskforce in place: data processing is simply a part of good management.”
Five tips for Danish businesses:
1. Make data processing part of good management practice.
2. Data processing must be rooted politically in top management, built up in the project organisation and managed across the business.
3. Ditch expensive consultants – organise data to ensure that management gains knowledge about concealed data points across the organisation.
4. Think in terms of standards for the organisation of data: production, collection, storage, application.
5. Easy integration is vital in the processing of data: it must be easy to divide data into internal and external data and it must be easy to find and use third-party data.
It is not enough just having a group of analysts or a taskforce in place: data processing is simply a part of good management.”
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PUBLISHED: 12/7/2016 LAST MODIFIED: 12/7/2016