by Laurie Clarke

“Data is knowledge, which is power” – 2018 CIO Summit panel discusses putting data at the heart of business strategy

Oct 09, 2018

Credit: IDG

As part of the recent 2018 CIO Summit, three leading UK CIOs discussed the role of data in shaping business strategy at digital-first companies, the difficulties data silos present and how best to break them down, and the opportunities presented by new technologies.

The panel of Julie Pierce, Director Openness, Data & Digital at the Food Standards Agency; Norma Dove-Edwin, Places for People Chief Data and Information Officer and Kevin Gibbs, CIO of Greenwich Borough Council, were discussing the themes with CIO UK Editor in Chief, Edward Qualtrough and fielding questions from an audience of CIOs, IT directors and senior technology execs.

How is the use of data changing within your organisation? Julie Pierce:We’re set up to be an organisation that is open and transparent about what we do, and we drive for openness and transparency on behalf of the consumer throughout the whole of the food system. We also believe that data is at the heart of achieving that openness and transparency. We’re seeing data in all of its different guises as an opportunity to get a better grip on what’s really happening in the food system today.

Kevin Gibbs:Clearly, data’s important to me both in terms of how we deliver our services and get information out in terms of service provision, but it’s around how the organisation does its work.

Our undertaking is about how you bring different business aspects together, in a political environment, and you use that information for decision making.

Norma Dove-Edwin:We have grown through M&A activity. We’re a very diverse business, because we do everything – there isn’t anything within the property space that we don’t do. We’ve grown through mergers and acquisitions, and so data is very important to us. We’ve now put it on the agenda at the heart of everything we do to understand who we are as a group.

There’s a huge lifecycle in terms of our customers and in terms of our assets, where we can buy land from, where we can partner with other joint ventures, what type of houses to build or flats to build, and what people actually want. We have a huge array of data that, at the moment, we’re not leveraging at the group level across all of our 25 different businesses. That’s my challenge.

How can organisations break down data silos and be more collaborative? Julie Pierce:We very much have those silos. I think I’m on a mission to seek them out and break them down.

I’m quite shameless as to how I do it, from naming and shaming through to looking at the opportunities, persuading, and cajoling.

Kevin Gibbs:I suppose the thing around breaking down the silos is, how do you turn it into corporate data rather than that owned by an individual, or by a department?

If it’s an asset, you can spend capital monies on it. You can use capital monies to invest, improve and look after it, but if it’s not actually sitting anywhere on your balance sheet, it’s not a corporate asset, and it therefore doesn’t have that profile.

Norma Dove-Edwin:I think culture and politics play a huge part. I wrote what I call the Information Brief, which was, in essence, inextricably linked to our business plan and our business objectives. There was no data strategy over here and a business objective and business strategy, they were interlocked and interlinked, so it was quite clear that if we wanted to deliver our business strategy, which was all about growth, our customer experience and our social value, that we needed information and we needed data to do it.

Data is knowledge, which is power. People don’t want to give it up very easily, because that gives them control. They produce their little reports, and they know what’s going on. They don’t like to share.

Many businesses today are making efforts to merge their data and business strategies into one, coherent company strategy. Where do the panellists’ companies fall on this spectrum? Norma Dove-Edwin: We try to make data very purposeful. There has to be a purpose for what we’re going to use it for, which comes on the back of a question, which comes on the back of a hypothesis, which is driven by a business objective, and the outcome you’re trying to achieve.

We can’t boil the ocean. I’m probably sitting on three trillion tonnes of data. I’m not about to go and clean it, cleanse it, and do anything to it, but as we roll through our objectives and our KPIs, we will then begin to clean it up and then serve and provide that, and then, eventually, you build your whole model out, and it looks great.

Julie Pierce: The possibilities are just boundless as to what can be done now compared with even five years ago. Some of it is around just showing people the art of the possible, showing them what can be done, and just getting their imagination flowing so they’re actually engaged and want to use the data.

What emerging data capabilities are you excited about? Julie Pierce:One for us is APIs, both internally and externally, and the other one would be blockchain – within the whole of the food sector rather than just for us as an organisation.

I’m as interested in the data across the whole planet. I’m interested in that data out there from the rice harvest in Thailand, and whether that’s telling me there’s going to be pressure on rice when it eventually comes back to the UK. The only way we’re going to do that sort of thing is if we have APIs and we have data standards such that we can link those disparate data sets together.

Kevin Gibbs:If you’ve got a child under the child protection register, and in that street, there are noisy parties and dog fouling, that child is more likely to die than if those things aren’t there.

How many social workers are going to look at the dog fouling record for that street? One, their data is protected, two, they don’t know that there’s that correlation. I think some machine learning around some of these real matter-of-life issues and bringing that data together much more effectively, I think machine learning is going to be the way that we get that information.

Norma Dove-Edwin:APIs are important for us for data sharing, but also because we have a lot of contractors, and we have a lot of vendors that we deal with.

What is the role of the CIO in pioneering open standards, open data, and open source? Julie Pierce:This is fundamental to how we work. To be open, you really need to have the standards to enable that. I’m driving for openness generally, because we believe it is the right thing. There are direct benefits both for ourselves, consumers, and businesses, and then, when it comes to standards, there are some things that I can – in my role as the regulator – mandate.

Gibbs:I think from a local authority’s perspective, it’s about data integrity. We know an awful lot about you, but sometimes, we need to know more, we need to have a much more intimate relationship, whether it’s around our public health duties, our social care duties, even if it’s just in billing and debt collection.

How do we passport that around so that we’re delivering better services at a lower cost? Integrity of that information is absolutely key. I think that’s our journey going forward.