Get Responsibility for Data Out of IT

As companies devote increasing time and energy in gathering massive quantities of data, many neglect a critical first step: Get most responsibility for data out of the IT Department. I've reached this conclusion after years working with clients — both on the business side and in technology — carefully observing the ways data help organizations create value, as well as in discussions with other experts (I've won at least a few over). And a recent academic report concurs.

Since this step flies in the face of most current practice and may seem counterintuitive, I want to explain carefully. First, it seems obvious enough that one ought to put management of data (or anything else for that matter) as close to the action as possible. The two most important moments in a piece of data's lifetime are the moment it is created and the moment it is used. Most of these moments don't occur in IT. They occur in the trenches, when a salesperson signs up a new customer; in middle management, as a group struggles to understand and improve market share; in the analytics group, when a data scientist is seeking a new discovery in big data; and in an executive's office, as she works the numbers to decide whether now is the time to add staff. The really interesting and important moments for data occur in the business, not in IT.

In a somewhat different vein, management responsibility should lie with the parties that have the most to gain or lose. Business departments gain mightily when they create new value from data. In contrast, IT reaps little reward when data is used to improve a product, service, or decision. This point is increasingly relevant in light of the increasing penetration of data into every nook and cranny of every business department.

Nor does IT feel the pain when the data is wrong. It is the business that bears the consequence of poor decisions, increased costs, and angry customers. As I've explained before, the only way to ensure data is of high quality is to create them correctly, the first time, at their points of creation, in the business.

Many companies, implicitly at least, hold IT responsible for data quality. They've set IT up to fail. IT doesn't control those moments of creation. It can't modify a substandard business process. All IT can do is identify and (sometimes) correct errors. Difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and non-value-added work that yields mediocre results and doesn't get at the root causes. IT should avoid it like the plague!

Almost tautologically, IT is most effective when focused on technology, including infrastructure technologies, enterprise and other systems, and tools. Data is far from its sweet spot. It is not surprising that they bury responsibility for data deep in their bowels. Indeed, I often find a company's top data person is a data architect, tasked mainly with ensuring that data don't compromise their technology.

None of this is really news. Early computer programmers coined the now-famous expression "garbage in, garbage out" to characterize the attention they gave data. Taken together, these points fully explain why my business-side clients have taken their data programs so much further. An important study conducted by the professional association Data Management International provides further confirmation. In over half the organizations participating, at least three levels separate the head of IT and data management. Worse, only about one in six data groups (15%) were judged successful. But the sharp drop, from 43% in the early 1980s to 15% 25 years later, is the headline result. IT has proven itself no "friend of data."

Most people and companies don't think deeply enough about where responsibility for data should reside. I find most people blithely assume, "If it's in the computer, it must be IT's responsibility." By that logic, responsibility for people would reside in Facilities Management. After all, people do their work in buildings.

This rather simple example betrays a larger point. Different kinds of assets, people, capital, technology, and data demand different kinds of management. You don't manage people assets the same way you manage capital assets. Nor should you manage data assets in the same way you manage technology assets. This may be the most fundamental reason for moving responsibility for data out of IT.

Part of my motivation in getting responsibility for data into the business is to free up IT to do what it does best. The needs for technical capabilities to acquire, store, deliver, and protect data are growing too rapidly to justify IT diffusing energy on a role it can't perform well.

The larger motivation is to get responsibility for data where it belongs. So where is that? I've already made clear the critical roles played by nearly everyone, as both data creators and data users. This point, and the work to affect those roles, leads to an interlocking system of accountabilities at the individual, departmental, and corporate levels. I'll take each up in turn in later posts.

For now, take step one. Get responsibility for data out of IT.

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