Data capability: a call to action

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Although the phrase ‘Data Capability’ is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon of strategists and policy wonks, the ever-increasing focus on data-driven solutions – for everything from improving student retention to the TEF – puts our ability to handle and manage data higher up the policy agenda than ever before.

I have written previously about the challenges and opportunities in this area and the extent to which the data capability agenda is being recognised and analysed by the Government and by bodies like NESTA and UUK. The recent consultation by HESA on proposals to redesign and rationalise the sector’s approach to data collection once again shines a light on the extent to which data that underpins core business processes can be routinely transformed into data suitable for business intelligence and external reporting. The massive developments in technology over the past few decades have raised expectations about the value and efficiencies that can be unlocked through the intelligent use of data.

But people and organisations often struggle to keep up with this pace of change and capabilities in this space – both personal and organisational – are increasingly critical factors in this debate.

HEDIIP has been actively pursuing the data capability agenda since 2014. We have developed a Data Capability Toolkit which sets out a process to understand an organisation’s current level of data capability and identify priorities and opportunities for improvement. Unlike many of the other data initiatives, the HEDIIP work has focussed on the foundational layers of data management and governance.

The toolkit includes an on-line self-assessment process and through this we have been able to harvest a rich dataset that describes the sectors data capability. This, combined with feedback from nearly 170 delegates on a recent round of training seminars, has been analysed in a report that HEDIIP has published today.

The report describes how data is often duplicated in silos across an institution without coherent, organisation-wide management or oversight. This undermines the quality of data that drives the (sometimes significant) investments in Business Intelligence and results in more time being spent discussing whose data is correct than considering what the data might actually be telling us.

Perhaps most worryingly of all is the difference between how institutions appear to perceive their standards of data handling and the evidence that suggests how it actually happens. We talk the talk, but we are not walking the walk.

What we now need to do is change our thinking about data. Far too often data is seen as a problem; something that goes wrong, causes cost and unnecessary burden. We need to move our thinking on to recognise that data is an asset – just like money and buildings – that needs organisation-wide management and governance in order to deliver its true potential.

But this isn’t easy. Unlike managing money or buildings, data is a relatively new professional area. The technology has evolved so quickly that we don’t have a broadly-accepted view of what good looks like, nor do we have a widely-recognised framework of professional training and qualifications to equip our workforce. We are all – to a great or lesser extent – finding our way through this world, one nervous step at a time.

The response to the publication of the Data Capability toolkit has been extremely positive. The initial set of training seminars were fully booked within days and the training programme was expanded over the autumn to end up at more than double its originally planned size. We have mobilised an army of data professionals across the sector and equipped them with the tools to make a real difference. Now is time for a broader call to action; the development of strategies that genuinely recognise data as an asset and treats it as such. With so many data-related changes emerging across the landscape now, a failure to engage with this agenda is likely to leave institutions struggling with data problems for years to come.

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