Data underpins every part of an organisation. That makes it hard to manage and improve but powerful if you get it right.
Data science and technology give us tremendous new ways of understanding and managing information about people, assets and services, yet many housing providers struggle to realise the full benefits of their investments in new technologies, find that they failed to deliver or simply ran into the sand before being fully rolled out.
Data projects can be particularly challenging. Data suffuses an organisation, not just in terms of its technology and infrastructure but also in terms of how people talk and think about their assets, customers and services.
Data maturity framework
It’s useful to have a model to understand the holistic nature of data in an organisation. As an example, our data maturity framework considers seven themes of data in an organisation. These include tools, the data itself, how the data is analysed and how it is used. It also includes three people-focused themes: leadership, culture and skills.
Our framework was developed after research into hundreds of housing providers, charities and social enterprises; it is free for anyone to use under a Creative Commons licence.
Leadership and culture are absolutely crucial; our research has demonstrated a very strong correlation between an organisation’s data culture and its overall data maturity.
A mature data culture is one where questioning and experimentation are encouraged. A data mature organisation is one where it’s okay to come into work each day and point out what went wrong yesterday. That’s how organisations use data to drive improvement, but that doesn’t happen by accident; it requires concerted efforts by leaders and managers to encourage curiosity and exploration.
In reality, many organisations unintentionally drive questioning out of their culture, in no small part because moving to a questioning culture can be very difficult. For example, a classic psychological study from Harvard found that, counter-intuitively, more effective teams in hospitals seemed to make more errors; the study showed that more effective teams report more errors because in an effective team it is safe to talk about the things that went wrong.
To move from an organisation where surfacing errors is discouraged to one where it’s actively encouraged requires heavy investment, not in software, staffing and infrastructure but in management and leadership behaviours.
This isn’t to say that tools and technology aren’t important because they clearly are. The plethora of BI/analytics tools now available can be used to generate insights that were simply not possible before. However, housing providers will only realise the value of their investments in these tools (and in the analysts and data scientists needed to harness them) if they’ve already invested in their organisational data culture.
Investment in tools and culture isn’t the end of the story. Analysis relies on good quality, well-governed data. Conducting analysis won’t provide any value unless the insights are used by teams to change the way they do things. All employees may need new skills, not just in how to use the tools but also in how to think about and use data in their work.
The importance of data skills
All of this takes leadership. Our research also suggests that data skills are lacking from many housing providers’ executive teams. We can’t expect all leaders to also be data professionals but there are signs that leadership teams lack access to a strategic understanding of how data can affect their overall performance.
Before drafting the business case for that new analytics platform or fancy data warehouse, it would make sense to take stock of where you are against all seven themes of data maturity and make sure you have a plan to make progress on all fronts.
Ben Proctor is the innovation director at Data Orchard.