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Serving the greater good: why data hoarding impedes corporate growth

Organizations and employees that keep their data to themselves are increasingly being called on the carpet. Here's what you can do to help your corporate data deliver value to a wider audience.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

In his two-volume oeuvre, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the philosophy of individualism displayed by Americans who were nevertheless keen to practice shared sacrifice for the greater good. “Self-interest rightly understood,” de Tocqueville called it. Whatever your views on whether “self-interest rightly understood” persists in the American culture today, one could certainly argue that it’s alive and well in American corporations.

As awareness of information as asset moves up the management hierarchy, managers and practitioners alike have begun noticing that the phenomenon of “data hoarding” is being rewarded. Those who practiced data hoarding refused to share their data with anyone outside their immediate coterie with the wan and misguided assumption that “knowledge is power.” Keeping that knowledge close to the chest, the thought was, would guarantee them a better political hand.

But data hoarding had even more to do with accountability – specifically the lack thereof. By sharing my data, the subconscious thinking went, I’ll have to cop to it, errors, invalid values, empty fields, and all. Keeping your data was the safe thing to do, akin to not giving your teenage daughter the car keys on Saturday night. The cajoling, the threats, even the slammed doors were simply the price you had to pay to avoid the risk.

Nowadays, people I would have never predicted are sharing their data, and happily. A Vice President of Marketing at a large financial institution who had heretofore been notorious for not “opening up” his data mart and the rich historical customer behavior data inside it has recently done an about-face. “It’s just so much easier,” he told me recently. “I’ve found that if I share my customer data, it’s easier to convince my colleagues to share theirs. Now I can see outstanding loans for my customers. I know if they’re homeowners. I can tell if they’re ready to listen to a line-of-credit pitch.”

The V.P. had suddenly acquired access to data from the bank’s loan system and its deposit system. Owners of the trust system had started to play ball. And the V.P. of Marketing – who was measured based on total deposits under management as well as sales uplift – was a changed man. He’s not only come out of the data closet, he’s waltzing around from room to room.

Telephone company employees are notorious for not sharing data with one another. This has to do with how they’re organizationally structured – “I’m responsible for my own product line, get lost” – as well as how individual departments and managers are measured. Voice services people don’t see themselves gaining much capital by sharing information with data services people. The walls that divide product lines can often be the same ones that impede revenue growth.

The fact is, releasing your data can serve a greater corporate good. At phone companies, voice line people who share data with data line people can help deliver newly integrated information that might indicate whether someone has a propensity to buy DSL. Up-selling is a major issue in corporations irrespective of industry or market segment. If an insurance policy holder has automobile insurance and homeowner insurance, an umbrella liability policy might make good sense. Sears figured out that when people registered their appliances, they had a higher likelihood of buying service contracts for other appliances as well. And that’s something to think about if you’re measured on dishwasher revenues.

Those who chock this up to human nature are on to something. People simply won’t change until the cost exceeds the benefit. So the question, “What’s in it for me?” needs to have a viable, believable answer that drives cooperation and rewards change. People need to be motivated to share their data.

Our job as data professionals is to not only proselytize the benefits of sharing data, but establish the structures and processes necessary to grease the skids. It’s one thing to admonish our business colleagues to “Release Your Data!” Heads will nod. And nothing will happen.

It’s an entirely different thing to provide them with the mechanisms and processes with which to share their data. Here are some steps to consider taking while systemizing the notion that data – corporate asset that it is – belongs to everyone.

  • Appoint source system data stewards. I’ve written about this role in the past and it continues to emerge as pivotal. The teams that own your operational systems – your loan origination, your billing, your inventory system – need to establish a data expert who is knowledgeable about data and available to help.
  • Provision metadata. Data sharing is pointless if there is no explanation of data’s meaning, its lineage, its point of entry and its provenance.
  • Recognize key business processes, especially those processes where master data is critical. In high technology or consumer packaged goods companies, a product that exists today might not be for sale next week. Thus, managing a product item master becomes paramount to the sales process.
  • Establish data management as a service (not a profit center). Too many well-meaning CIOs see data management as another way to reduce costs. True enough, but before you try saving money with data management, try providing value first. Unfortunately, most CIOs are measured on budget management, and too few are willing to provide data management as a service, let alone understand what it is. This brings me to…
  • Find a business leader who gets it. I suggest finding a business sponsor by digging up a recent project whose scope has been reduced because the data wasn’t available. “We couldn’t manage our sample drops to physicians because we couldn’t get the right data in a timely way,” a pharmaceutical company executive recently confided to me. This guy was a willing sponsor for an upcoming master data management effort that promised more timely, integrated data.

The challenge here is to stop treating data the way we’ve been treating it: as an afterthought of the project plan; as a by-product of the new ERP package; as a courtesy, not a responsibility.

Democracy in America set the stage for a wider debate about society, religion, governance and finances. In 1836, the esteemed Academie francaise awarded it the coveted Montyon prize, establishing de Tocqueville as a luminary in an already bright constellation of intellectuals. Like data, de Tocqueville has gone in and out of fashion. Like data, he’s been studied, debated and heavily researched in an effort to understand his impact and effects on the wider audience. And, like data, he’s never been more popular than he is right now.

Jill Dyché

Jill is a partner co-founder of Baseline Consulting, a technology and management consulting firm specializing in data integration and business analytics. Jill is the author of three acclaimed business books, the latest of which is Customer Data Integration: Reaching a Single Version of the Truth, co-authored with Evan Levy. Her blog, Inside the Biz, focuses on the business value of IT.

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