Is your data an asset?

By Andy Youell   By Andy Youell   - Monday 25 February 2019

Colleges collect and process vast amounts of data every year; learners linked to courses, qualifications and funding mechanisms; timetables, learning resources, assessments and exams. Remove the data and your college would probably grind to a halt.

Our relationship with data can be complex and frustrating. We need it; often we depend on it; but we find it bewildering and frustrating. It is the key to unlocking analytics and insight, but we often find it a burden and a challenge; we strive for data quality but often conclude that the data is wrong. Or, more likely, somebody else’s data is wrong.  

We often say that data is an asset. On the face of things that is an obvious assertion to make. We understand the potential of data to enable a seamless learner experience and give us valuable information. But our relationship with data often tells a different story. Given our dependence on data and the many aspirations we place on it, I often find that organisations don’t seem to treat their data like a valued asset.

Numismatics is the study of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money and related objects. I find the comparison between money and data very powerful in helping organisations think about their data. It is believed that money tokens emerged as a replacement for simple bartering transactions around seven thousand years ago. Formal currencies, often linked to nations and empires, evolved over millennia and today money is critical to the functioning of states, societies and global trade. Today we have a deep understanding and respect of the value and importance of money. We give our children pocket-money and teach them to value it and to make rational decisions about saving and spending. Organisations employ finance professionals to manage money and to ensure that the appropriate layers of control and accountability are delivered. We don’t question the idea that money is precious.

Of course, there are differences between money and data. Money is scarce and there is a linear relationship between amounts of money and power. As technology becomes ever more cheap and powerful, we arguably have too much data; as far as data is concerned it’s not how much you have but what you do with it that counts.

However, the basic comparison between the way organisations look after these different assets is telling. Are there comparable levels of management and governance? Are the professional skills recognised and respected in the same way? Are the roles and responsibilities defined in equally clear terms? Does your college take a strategic approach to the management of data and of money? Do you have a data strategy that sits alongside your financial strategy?

Of course, money is not the only other asset that colleges depend on. We employ HR professionals to ensure our people are managed and supported; estates professionals look after our buildings and IT professionals ensure that the technology that hosts our data is functional, robust and secure. The approaches we take to the management and governance of these assets can all provide useful insights and comparisons to how we manage our data.

I find it strange that our relationship with data tends to be characterised by ever-increasing aspirations for the value that data delivers and yet we often treat data with a paucity of respect that would be unheard of for other organisational assets. If we don’t redress this balance, then data will continue to frustrate and disappoint us all.

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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