Some thoughts around Data Management

Data? What data?

Every single day your organisation generates data. And that data can hold the key to your future. So it’s vital you take the time to understand the data your organisation holds. So here’s some thoughts around data management for you.

But what should you do? where do you start? and is there any real benefit to all this? Just getting an accurate view of what data you hold and where is exists can send you running for the hills. It’s also not always easy to justify the time and potential cost to create a plan covering data management. Potentially discovering issues may not be welcome if an organisation seems to be trundling along just fine.

It’s understandable if your organisation prefers to not rock any data boats. But you should understand if you don’t manage your data boats properly they will start sinking and could your entire operation with it.

This is the basic point of good data management. Accurate, reliable data can support your organisation. Bad data will sink it. So here’s some thoughts around data management to help you take a look at, and get to grips with, your data.

Data Management starts from the top

You will struggle to get interest in a project if your senior people view it as low value. It’s vital that any work you want to do in improving data management avoids this. Showing senior stakeholders the practical benefits of the work involved will get support, but the aim here is to get active involvement. If your CEO is making the request – and gets regular updates on progress to encourage ongoing participation – then staff will be more inclined to engage and help deliver a successful project.

Training makes the biggest difference

As you will readily know, data inputted incorrectly is instantly useless. And if your colleagues do not know how to use applications that require data input, they are likely to input information wrongly. Educating staff how to provide data correctly is an easy win. That doesn’t mean taking them away from work for hours or days at a time. Step guides delivered via email, breaking down the training into bite-size pieces, are hugely popular. Giving staff the chance to tell you where they think they need training lets you plan how to help them.

Everyone is a data manager

That may sound a bit glib but it’s largely true. So many of your colleagues contribute data, either primary or secondary, so their role is crucial. Your aim here is to not just provide training to staff, but to also build a culture of data excellence.  When staff understand why it’s important to think about how they create and manage data, and their legal responsibilities when doing so, you will find the majority will quickly up their game and help to ensure your data management becomes more straightforward and compliant.

Clarity improves consistency

Incorrectly inputted data is not always due to the user. Your applications may be using badly phrased descriptions or formats that are confusing. Here’s an anecdotal example. One application I trialled had a field called ‘Born’. I can of course assume this means Date of Birth. But it could mean place, particularly as the field was a single line text type. It turned out it was indeed the Date of Birth, but the data I put in was wrong anyway. I used the UK input format – Day, Month, Year – when the app wanted the US format. So the data is of no use.

So it’s critical that the fields are very clear in terms of what is required and the format. Where possible, field validation can be invaluable in ensuring the data is consistent. Making sure your colleagues understand what fields are and how to input data correctly into them is key. But, where some fields are evidently badly labelled or formatted, reporting this to the vendor can help them improve their application for you. While we’re on this point, asking them to include help icons to explain fields will further reduce inaccurate or false data being inputted.

Know your sources

Data doesn’t just come from a wide variety of sources – it also lives wherever it can find a home. There will be the known locations of your data, such as application databases, which will be easy to list and analyse. But you will also need to go through laptops, phones, network servers, remote servers, USB sticks too. And don’t forget filing cabinets, desk drawers and paper trays too. It’s easy to forget the amount of data held in hard copy.

The point of this is to find out what sort of data you hold, the quality of that data and how it is managed. You may well end up with a long list of data sources, which can be off-putting. But it will also give you a stronger idea how your organisation operates and whether there are some practical issues holding staff back from doing certain tasks. And most importantly, you can then deal with the next tips below.

Reduce your data silos

It’s very easy to just take a copy of some information and store it locally. Your colleagues will often do this to make a task more convenient, or undertake work faster. Sometimes it’s little more than a digital comfort blanket – a person holding a spreadsheet containing information because they’ve always done that.

It’s very, very important you reduce the places data can reside for four major reasons.

Age: Do you really need a spreadsheet last viewed over a year ago? Or a paper file now ten years old? Of course, sometimes there are regulatory reasons for retaining information, but there are also common sense and regulatory reasons to archive or destroy information. Patient data is of course a very good example here.

Data duplication: where the same information is held in multiple locations, how do you know which source is correct and the others obsolete? Using the wrong data will give you poor insight which can badly impact on the service you provide to your customers.

Time: trying to control multiple sources of data takes a lot of time and effort, and simply not necessary. Rather than try to keep many plates spinning, look at which can be removed altogether, freeing up time and resources for other important tasks.

Security: Data that is spread around can be misused or taken by another party without your knowledge or consent. And if that information contained personal data, you will be failing GDPR legislation. Data breaches trash customer confidence and are a bigger cause of organisations going out of business than fire or flood.

Regularly audit and report

Data management is a little like gardening. If you don’t keep on top of the work involved then it will quickly become tiresome. A good tip here is to break things down a little and rotate objectives. For example, you could hold mini-audits every quarter, but they don’t have to be the same criteria. One audit can focus on archiving paper files, the next audit would be to remove duplicate data from a specific location. However, you should make sure there is a core set of tasks for every single audit making sure you meet legislative requirements around the likes of GDPR.

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