The three tests for data capabilities

  By Andy Youell   - Friday 07 June 2019

We are constantly urged to be better with data; aspirations swirl around higher levels of service, greater insights, predictive analytics and targeted public information. We buy into the idea of doing better but how do we define and measure that?

In 2015 I launched a project in the HE sector around data capabilities; a toolkit to help HE institutions understand and improve standards of data management and governance in order to unlock those benefits that we all strive for. At the heart of the toolkit was a self-assessment process built on the capability maturity model which provides a detailed analysis of capability levels from a number of perspectives. We need to understand where we are before we embark on our journey to our desired destination. The toolkit is still available on the HESA website and I would recommend it to FE colleges since the fundamental challenges and aspirations are consistent across the sectors. However, if you want to get a quick sense of the relationship that your college has with data then I think there are three broad questions that can help you assess where you currently are.

Test one: talk about data

In my work on data strategies and capabilities I often find that cultural issues are key to unlocking changes in the way organisations deal with data so my first question is about the type of conversations that take place involving data. Is data seen as a problem and a burden or is it spoken with in more positive respectful terms? Is there confidence in dealing with data or is there a tendency to perceive it as a technical issue for less-senior staff to deal with? These conversations can say a lot about where the organisation currently is and about the willingness and capability to change the relationship to one that is more positive and fruitful. You can tell a lot about the attitudes to data by listening not only to what is being said but by the language and tone of the conversations that take place.

Test two: eliminating the silos

The second question is about the way that data responsibilities and operations are structured in an organisation. High-performing data organisations will have a coherent organisation-wide approach to issues like data governance, data architecture and data quality. The lack of a coherent approach to data issues will lead to the establishment of highly-siloed data operations with inconsistent specifications and quality and with high levels of duplication. Data from other silos will not be trusted and there will be more time spent discussing whose data is right rather than what does the data actually tell us.

Test three: accuracy is key

The final question, and for me something of an acid-test, is the use of spreadsheets. Of course everybody uses spreadsheets; they are quick, simple and highly flexible for moving data around and building simple models. However, in some organisations those quick simple models that have been developed on spreadsheets end up becoming critical systems and with global error rates on spreadsheets estimated to be 88%, if your college is using a spreadsheet for anything that matters, you’re probably getting it wrong. The question therefore is not whether you use spreadsheets – or even how much you use spreadsheets – but how you use spreadsheets and the extent to which you are critically dependent on them.

A final thought on these questions. In my work with institutions I often find that there are significantly different perspectives on the levels of data capabilities in different parts of the organisation. If you have answered these three questions, maybe try them out on colleagues from different parts of the organisation. Sometimes the difference in perceptions can uncover valuable insights to the issues around our relationship with data.

Andy Youell has spent over 30 years working with data the systems and people that process it. Formerly Director of Data Policy and Governance at the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and member of the DfE Information Standards Board, he now works with further and higher education providers as a strategic data advisor.

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