Image credit: Caley Dewhurt/ODI

How leaders can develop a data strategy that addresses global challenges

Thu Jul 1, 2021
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If you’re a leader who wants your business and your community to benefit from the opportunities that shared data offers you may need to advocate for thinking differently about how your business governs and uses data. 

The pandemic has vividly brought to life the value of shared data infrastructure. Sharing data is informing decisions – like where and when to implement lockdowns, and making things like COVID isolation and test result apps possible.

And it’s not just part of our pandemic response. Sharing data helps leaders improve operations, open up new markets, develop innovative new services, and build new business models. Sharing data is helping businesses make valuable contributions to tackling global challenges like climate change. 

If you’re a leader with responsibility for ensuring your business and the community you serve makes the most of the opportunities that shared data offers, you may need to advocate for thinking differently about how your business governs and uses data. 

This new thinking needs to embrace how you develop and execute your data strategy. Traditional governance-focussed data strategies might help a business maintain control, but too often it stifles the development of a thriving data ecosystem.

Don’t worry it’s not about unbridled data sharing 

Whilst shared data ecosystems may offer opportunities for innovation and insight, they also need to gain people’s trust. Without trust, people withdraw support, stop contributing data, or don’t apply new insights.

Fear of the reputational impact of poorly managed data sharing is often what holds businesses back. So this is where you could step in with new ideas and a new strategy.

Developing a data strategy that’s more than just a plan for data governance, will provide a clear basis for directing the development of an effective shared data infrastructure whilst building confidence and trust in a new and rewarding direction.

Shared data infrastructure – the heart of pandemic responses and new ways of working

Consider for a moment how individual Covid-19 status data, location data, and venue check-in data is used in the UK to alert people to test and self-isolate after a close encounter with someone who has the virus. And, how together that aggregated data is used to make decisions about vaccinations or surge testing. 

Enabling both individual and strategic decision making requires a data infrastructure that supports quick and efficient data and insight sharing. And for everyone involved to trust that infrastructure.

Business leaders that build increased data sharing into their data strategies do so for a number of reasons. From gaining insights and making better decisions that improve performance, to addressing sector challenges, encouraging innovation, and increasing trust.

Data sharing needs to be focused on these kinds of strategic outcomes. Data sharing also needs to be supported by data infrastructure, and that means developing a data strategy that shapes a more open and shared approach.

Crucially, as we saw in the pandemic, for a shared data infrastructure to be effective it needs to be shaped by a strategy that focuses on building trust and confidence. Not just data and systems.

How shared data infrastructure creates value

Shared data infrastructures consist of data assets that are supported by people, processes, and technology.  They’re developed in ways that support business goals whilst helping to manage risks and maximise opportunities. 

A strong shared data infrastructure creates value by increasing interoperability and collaboration, improving efficiency and productivity, and allowing companies to become more agile and adaptable and readily able to tackle challenges that cross organisational boundaries. 

One example of this is Open Banking, which standardised information held by banks, opening up data and using open APIs to allow third-party developers to build new applications. It’s led to smoother interactions for banks, better consumer choice, and a range of new services. 

Engineering and shipping are two more industries that have benefited from a strong, shared data infrastructure.

In the engineering sector, Arup recently opened up data from building sensors and worked with innovators to develop new ways of monitoring building assets.

And in the shipping industry, HiLo Maritime Risk Management used shared data from across companies to gain insights and provide recommendations that helped ships operate more safely. 

Sharing data to tackle global challenges

Planning and implementing a shared data infrastructure can also help in tackling global challenges including Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. They were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by 2030.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is calling for companies to have a clear understanding of their SDG impacts, and to understand how to integrate them into their business agenda. 

Data sharing is a great way to accelerate your organisation’s efforts to become both more efficient and more environmentally responsible. From collecting and sharing data about emissions generated by businesses in your supply chain and manufacturing processes, to putting in place steps to mitigate them, to tracking energy usage and efficiency in your buildings or collating information on waste in order to reduce it. 

Data strategy is not just for Chief Data Officers

Tackling climate change is just one example of an SDG your business could address through better data sharing. Getting started is a challenge that will need the support of your entire leadership team.

Many of the problems faced by companies in tackling SDGs alongside their own objectives come from a lack of integration. A global survey by WBCSD and DNV found that in many companies, the SDG agenda is managed by sustainability, communications and CEO departments. But not embedded across the entire company. There is often a lack of clarity about the business case for SDGs, and a lack of coherence on policy, leading to a lack of interest.

This is where data strategy has a critical role to play, and why it can’t just be the priority of your Chief Data Officer (CDO). There’s potential for you to work across your leadership team and maximise opportunities through efficiencies generated from better data practices, whilst addressing SDG-related challenges. Leaders need to work together to define a data strategy that moves beyond risk-based governance. 

C-suite leaders need to work with CDOs, Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and strategy leads, to create a data strategy that’s focused on developing strategic data infrastructure. A plan that encompasses creating shared data assets, improving data standards, building trust, and improving skills.

Developing a data strategy for shared infrastructure

Your team won’t share data if they lack confidence and knowledge and if leaders are worried about reputational risk. 

Today, people have high expectations of responsible, ethical data handling and want to avoid reputational damage. Moving towards open and shared infrastructure requires thinking about things differently in each area of infrastructure. This is why, as a leader,  building a shared data strategy needs to include putting in place practices to ensure that you assess, implement and demonstrate your business’ trustworthiness with data. Only then will staff, customers, and community accept your contribution of shared data to help solve problems and tackle strategic development goals.

The Open Data Institute has developed ways to make it easier to create value from data while maintaining trust, by ensuring that your organisation can provide assurance that data is suitable for others to access, use and share and that you have robust data governance practices in place when using data from third parties. 

As well as ensuring you’re developing responsible, ethical data handling practices, you’ll also need to consider your data assets. Ask yourself:

  1. What identifiers, registers, and datasets are needed?
  2. What standards and technologies are needed to curate and provide access to those assets?
  3. What guidance and policies need to be in place to inform the use of the new shared data infrastructure?
  4. What kinds of training and support are needed for the people involved in using, governing, and maintaining this shared data infrastructure?
  5. What guidance do you need to give to people or organisations impacted by your data infrastructure, or the decisions made using it?

A checklist for shared infrastructure data strategy

In using open and shared data to achieve both your business goals and meet community impact targets such as SDGs, consider this checklist:

  • For your business or SDG strategy what insights and datasets are required to make decisions and monitor progress? 

  • What data assets does your business need to deliver and support the products, services required by your approach? What standards govern them?

  • What systems and tools are critical to tackling your goals and SDGs? Are they fit for purpose? Are they adequately resourced?

  • What policies and processes govern how data should be used in your business to support your goals and SDGs? Who is responsible for shaping policy and how are decisions made about changes? 

  • How might current policies and processes need to change to improve progress towards your business and SDG goals?

  • Where do critical datasets sit on a spectrum from open, shared to closed? Where should they sit? 


Register interest for one of the limited places on our roundtable: Data strategy and leadership literacy for data-informed sustainable development

In September (date TBC) we will be running a roundtable discussion to explore the strategies and skills leaders need to build data infrastructures that deliver both organisational and societal value. Register your interest now if you’d like to contribute to the discussion.