Busy people often see their interaction with data as transactional; it’s provided by a system that they may input into, but there’s a missing connection to their role in curating or owning the data, or what it could really do for them. To have real impact, people must engage holistically with data, building it, owning it, understanding it and improving it.
Over the past two years Sovereign Housing has embarked on an ambitious ‘data observability’ odyssey to improve our processes, systems and data, with the overall aim of transforming how data is engaged with and used by our staff. It’s been an exciting experience, and we’ve learnt a huge amount along the way.
Identifying our key data assets
While we’ve invested strongly in data across Sovereign, there are only ever finite resources. Good data must be prioritised and focused in the right place, delivering the right impact. Taking a customer and asset approach guided how we identified and mapped critical data elements across the business, and helped us to identify the associated risks and problems. From this, we created a visual heat-map of the areas to be addressed and prioritised; for us, it was building safety and compliance followed by assets to support our bold asset management strategy.
‘Data message bingo’
Cultural change is famously difficult, but our experience is that it can be propelled by the enthusiasm of people throughout the organisation when they buy into the potential of cultural change. Our executive board understood both the need to address data issues and the consequent role of data in our long-term plans. The board has been a powerful sponsor, getting behind our strategy from the start, building data into our corporate plan, and sending the message that data is everyone’s responsibility. This advocacy became so strong that our team played ‘data message bingo’ during our ‘EB Live’ all-staff webinars.
Constantly selling the concept of data alongside recruiting data champions and data stewards across the business got the data message out but moving from reporting to an action-led focus with real-world outcomes moved the dial, with an appreciable impact for early adopters.
The momentum of success, supported by a Microsoft Azure and Power BI platform, made progress so much easier. As our teams saw the benefits, a virtuous cycle increased people’s engagement, leading to better data and better outcomes that others in the business could see. In 18 months, the number of Sovereign people empowered to engage with and use data has massively expanded from fewer than 50 people to over 750.
With more people using data, we increased our staff training and updated all job descriptions with responsibilities around data ownership and stewardship. Mandatory data awareness training for all staff has underlined that our people all own data and have responsibility for it.
Making it easy & making it work
While we’re making good progress and we’re seeing cultural change, the risk remains that the original enthusiasm and excitement can diminish if people’s experience is that it makes their working lives harder. We couldn’t have built the cycle of success that drove the project through if word had spread that our strategy was slowing the business rather than supporting it.
Bringing in Microsoft Purview’s capabilities as a unified data governance solution to help manage and govern data has been a vital tool in making data easy for our people. Power BI is used to consume the information rather than teams building offline in Excel. Our people now have a single window to access data with an intuitive, search engine-style experience.
By giving data users a holistic, up-to-date map of our data landscape with automated data discovery, data classification, end-to-end data lineage and a central data dictionary, our people have been able to easily access valuable, trustworthy data that they can easily understand and put to work.
Maintaining proactivity, even when things are going well, has proven critical. At no point can data teams just sit back and wait for people to tell us that there’s a problem. Using data through Purview means we can see if people are using reports; this helps us gently find out if not, why not. We can also see what data points people are searching for most often to see what they do and, more importantly, don’t find.
The same proactive approach has helped us to be confident that the large increase in data hasn’t led to a decrease in quality. Creating data quality focus groups for data stewards alongside the central data team has been very effective in identifying where data quality isn’t as good as we would like. And because it’s a collaborative effort, people aren’t defensive; once we know there is a problem, it opens the door to run a root-cause analysis, with our core team working closely with the data owner(s) to implement remedies. Something as simple as adding a drop-down box or some additional training has made a huge difference in many cases.
Data is controlled, catalogued and designed into all solutions, whether system or integration, old or new. By creating a data architect role, we’ve proactively understood any new systems, to enable integration and in-built quality functionality. This role has allowed us to constantly consider how we can build in ways to make our people’s lives easier while also improving data quality. Again, functions such as drop-down menus and auto-complete ensure we can access the data for central use and link across other systems.
As an example of our focus on data quality, around 14,000 of our customers’ mobile and 13,000 of their home phone numbers had a space or words after them. This not only prevented automated messaging but also meant we couldn’t identify a customer from their inbound call so the customer’s information had to be taken each time, adding time and effort for everyone involved.
The phone numbers are now fixed in the source systems, so we can identify customers when they call and immediately pull up their accounts on-screen. We now continually monitor these so if any numbers go onto the system in the wrong format, we send alerts for these to be amended. From our experience over the past 18 months, including for critical building-safety issues, these alerts have worked brilliantly to prompt people and make it easier for them to get the data, and the action, right until it becomes a habit.
The opportunities from data within housing are enormous and never ending. The power of success means that our team and the whole organisation wants to maintain momentum and find the next opportunity.
With the right basics and a strong strategy now firmly established, we’re confident about actively exploring how data management can help us to maintain our proactive approach and give our customers a better experience in their homes.
Claire Hyland is the data and analytics director at Sovereign Housing.