Data report

Charley Rogers speaks to data strategist Andy Youell about how institutions can make the most of the information at their fingertips without blowing the budget

Name: Andy Youell

Job title: Strategic Data Advisor

Twitter: @AndyYouell

As a strategic data advisor, what does your day-to-day look like?

I quit the full-time job last year to have a more varied and flexible approach to work so there isn’t really a typical day – or if there is, I haven’t spotted it yet. I do quite a lot of consultancy, mostly in the higher education sector, so I spend a lot of time working through data issues (management, quality, analysis, external reporting) on-site with HE institutions. I do a lot of speaking on data issues, so I often pop up at conferences and events in the UK and Europe. I also write for a few different publications and websites and I devour data and education-related material in the media and on social media. When I’m working at home I do the school run with my two young daughters; that has been one of the biggest wins of going freelance.

Data literacy is a hot topic at the moment. How can education institutions harness the data at their disposal to help regulate spending and get more for their money?

We need to think about data capabilities at both the organisation and the individual levels. For the organisation this means taking an enterprise-wide approach to the architecture and governance of data in order to drive out duplication and increase quality. I think it is very difficult for institutions to establish the true costs of their data operations, so there is often very little understanding of how bad things are and therefore how much better they could be. This is compounded by the fact that data is often seen as a technical and operational issue and so gets very little airtime in senior-level discussions.

The other perspective on data capabilities is the confidence and skills of individuals. I see far too many people shy away from data issues because they are seen as too complex and technical. We often discuss data using impenetrable language and esoteric concepts, which are a big turn-off for many people. Data is everybody’s issue and we need to get better at building peoples’ awareness and confidence around data if we are to get to a point where organisations drive real value from their data.

Is lack of budget a deal-breaker for data analysis, or are there ways to refresh the way data is handled in an institution without having to splash the cash?

Although most business decisions ultimately come down to money, I think questions of how organisations drive value out of data often don’t conform to the usual financial parameters. Technology is cheap and the rate of technology development (exemplified by Moore’s Law) means that ever-increasing amounts of processing power can be acquired for ever-decreasing amounts of money. Even the most ubiquitous data tool like Microsoft Excel can now process data on a massive scale. The challenges here are more complex than just money.

Only with a shared understanding of, and vision for, data, can an organisation move forward to build confidence and capabilities

When faced with the task of developing analytical capabilities I often refer to the study that the National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) undertook in 2015. They looked at the demand for data skills across various sectors of the economy and how organisations can best meet those needs. They landed on four key skills that are necessary to deliver valuable analysis and, perhaps unhelpfully, used the language of ‘unicorns’ to describe people that have that particular combination. The skills are domain/business knowledge, technical/systems skills, analytical skills and communication skills. In reality these unicorns are very rare (and expensive) and therefore organisations often build teams that cover these skills. So this becomes a challenge of people, teams and working practices rather than technology investment. To succeed at this you have to start with the fact that we’re in the people business.

If a university or school is looking to re-evaluate their data futures and the way they currently handle data analysis, where would you suggest they start?

It’s probably easier to say where not to start – and that is buying more technology.

In my experience the vast majority of problems that organisations have with data are rooted in a culture that does not understand, trust or value data…. or sometimes all three. So the starting point for a re-evaluation of data is to conduct some sort of organisation-wide conversation to surface the different perspectives on data, and to flush out the mis-conceptions about what data can and cannot do. Only with a shared understanding of, and vision for, data, can an organisation move forward to build confidence and capabilities.

The process of creating a data strategy can be a very effective framework in which to conduct this sort of conversation, and by agreeing (and documenting) how developments in data will support the broader objectives of the organisation, there should be a lower risk of future data developments not aligning to broader strategic objectives and to each other.

I think it is surprising that so many organisations still don’t have a data strategy. It suggests to me that they don’t see data as a key strategic asset or function like finances, people, estates or marketing. Sub-strategies set out how a particular asset or function will contribute to the achievement of an organisation’s broader strategic goals and there are very few things in business operations or business intelligence that do not depend significantly on data. However, unlike finances, HR, estates and marketing, I find it is often difficult to pin down a single point of ownership and leadership for data in an organisation. You can therefore argue that it is an issue of organisational culture and governance at the highest level.