Writing a data strategy - part one

By Martha Horler   By Martha Horler   - Thursday 02 May 2019

Across the higher and further education sectors there is a growing interest in data strategies, with many blog posts and articles on their importance. But how do you go about writing one? I have spent some time over the last month putting together my first data strategy, and I will share with you how I went about writing it.

A data strategy means many things to many people, but in essence it is an objective and set of principles designed to achieve a long term aim on what you want to do with your data. In short, “Strategy is a fancy word for coming up with a long-term plan and putting it into action” (Ellie Pidot). It can help you act consistently to any issues that come up, and can set out how you want to deal with issues such as data quality, access, ownership and security. A well written data strategy should allow your staff to understand why they do what they do, and how they should be acting without needing constant guidance.

As with any strategy document, the key is preparation. You need to undertake a thorough assessment of where your organisation stands in relation to the rest of the sector, your strengths and weaknesses, and what regulations or projects are coming that could change things. Use any tool that you think will help you in this – this might be a SWOT or PESTLE analysis, Five Forces or Four Corners, whatever tool you are comfortable using to assess the internal and external environment.

The next step is to have a conversation with your senior managers. Key questions to ask are:

  • What questions would you ask if you had any data you wanted?
  • What don’t we know about our staff and students that would be useful?
  • How do you want the organisation to change over the next 5/10 years?

The answers to these should help guide you on what the priorities are in your strategy. It can help your analysis to identify three key things your team/organisation will do with data, and 3 things they will not do. Stating what you will not do can be difficult, but it is likely to be an incredibly helpful list when talking to those outside your team.

Another source of information is your organisation’s mission or values statement. If you are able to pick out a number of strands from this that you believe data can help support, this can be a powerful way to get buy-in from senior teams for your data strategy. It’s also worth asking whether you are currently doing anything that doesn’t support your organisational strategy – if so, should you still be doing it?

Before starting to write your data strategy, you will need to consider who you will need input from. In this current information age, data is everywhere, and it likely impacts on most areas of your organisation. All these members of staff are therefore stakeholders in your strategy and can bring some important insight into how it should be used. Creating a working group from a number of different areas, both academic and professional, can ensure that all areas are represented in your strategy, and can also be vital in ensuring engagement with the final document.

In part two of this blog I will discuss how to start writing your data strategy and suggest some sections you might want to use. I hope to show that it can be a worthwhile exercise, and not be as difficult as it may first seem.

Martha Horler is a Data & Compliance Manager and a member of the SROC Steering Committee. She has spent over 10 years working in higher education, much of that with data and information systems. She has a particular interest in raising data literacy across higher education, with the aim of making data more accessible to both users and senior managers. Follow her on Twitter @thedatagoddess

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