A quick Google search seems to reveal if you manage People, Process, and Technology you’ve got everything covered. That’s simply not the case. Data is separate and distinct from the things it describes — namely people, processes, and technologies — and organizations must separately and intentionally manage it.
The data management message seems a tough one to deliver effectively. Data management interest groups have hammered at it for years, but a sometimes preachy and jargon laden approach relying on data quality train wreck stories hasn’t generally loosened corporate purse strings. Yes, financial companies’ data-first successes in the 1990s paved the way for the ’00s dot com juggernauts, whose market capitalization stems largely from innovative data management. Yet, we still have huge personal data breaches at some of our most trusted companies, and data scientists spend the bulk of their valuable time acquiring, cleaning, and integrating poorly organized data.
The first steps are often the hardest, so here’s a short, no jargon, big picture guide to getting started with effective data management in three steps:
Step 1: What data do you need?
Every organization needs information. The first step in managing data is to understand what information you need about the things you manage as a business and how they relate to each other.
Let’s use as an example a specialty garment manufacturer. Some of the things it manages include garments (its product) of different garment types, which I’ll call garment items, customers, orders, suppliers, workshops, and so on. Relationships among those things might include: customers order garment items, a workshop produces a garment item, a customer orders garment items, and many more.
This kind of thinking is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. Steve Hoberman’s excellent book Data Modeling for the Business explains this perspective and provides a complete step by step process. Remember that this is about the business, not technology: as you think through what information your business needs resist the temptation to catalog the data in your current systems.
Step 2: What data do you have and where is it?
Now you can look at your current systems and take inventory based on the list of data that you need to run your business. Which system houses data about customers, orders, items, etc? Are there cases where more than one system stores data about the same things? Are there missing links, where needed information is simply missing?
Step 3: How secure is your data?
Knowing what data you need and where it lives, now stop to review how safe your data is. For each of the key concepts resulting from step one, describe its security requirements. Should it be accessible to the general public, like the street address of your offices? Only your employees, like your garment inventory? Only specific employees and system admins, like customer names and addresses?
In this step it is important to understand laws and regulations affecting your business. For example, I know of one business that wasn’t aware one of its services was subject to HIPAA regulations, under which mishandling of customer data can result in jail time for individuals involved.
After understanding the security requirements of your key data groups, review how each of your systems secures the data and who has access.
This process provides a broad, high-level, sketch of current data management. While it won’t be detailed and may not be very thorough, it will reveal overall patterns and will likely point out high priority problems and opportunities. It will also provide a framework for more detailed planning and goal setting, and provide experience that makes more detailed data management less foreign and more accessible — the jargon will start to make sense.
How long should the broad-brush study take? The point is breadth rather than depth, so I recommend time-boxing. A good way to estimate is to count the number of interviews the small team will need to conduct, and time it that way. An organization with, say, five or so key leaders and 10 major systems to review would require about 20 interviews or group discussion sessions. I would expect a team of three to be able to work through interviews, research, and write-ups in 6 or 8 weeks.
With an understanding of what data you need, what you have, and how secure your data is, you’ll have a basis for setting business priorities for data management, and starting to manage data along with your people, processes, and technologies.