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Data and trust are now intertwined

Increasingly brands are recognising that it's important to manage customer data in a trustworthy way, and that being trusted with customer data is also a source of competitive advantage. Leaders who aspire to build trusted brands need to make the way they collect, use, manage and ‘steward’ data a strategic priority, aligning business goals to both governance plans and changes to skills and culture.

We take data infrastructure and trust too much for granted

Our digital worlds depend on data. Whether it’s checking bank balances on an app or setting prices for a new product, our personal and business decisions are informed by data-powered websites, tools and apps. And, the companies and tools we turn to when we need to make decisions are those we trust to give us the results we need.

Surveys show that only a minority of consumers trust retailers, social media companies and big tech, when it comes to sharing data. But the services they provide give quick results – whether it’s the best way to travel to a location, or getting groceries delivered online.

Even if we don’t always trust in the motives of those companies, the utility of their services will often trump any hesitation we may have about using them – let alone what might be buried in the terms and conditions of a free service which most of us never read or fully comprehend. (See ‘Give up your firstborn child? Most people don't read terms of service agreements).

This is the troublesome pact of reciprocity we have with many digital services: exchanging personal data for their insights or for services on offer. Which makes the concept of trust an interesting one.

Do we develop and build trust online in the same way as we do in person?

Are we entering a new age where companies will lead with trust more than utility?

What if we could both trust in the results we get and trust that the company or service provider involved is using the data they hold about us properly and ethically? Would that encourage more people and companies to work with us?  Business leaders across the world increasingly seem to think so, and they’re taking steps to turn their companies into brands that are trusted with data.

From UK supermarket chain Co-op to global advertising group WPP, significant strategic efforts are being made to move beyond simply using data as a way of powering new insights to using data in ethical ways that consumers, regulators and customers judge to be both socially valuable and responsible.

The people leading these efforts are often chief data officers or chief digital officers (CDOs), transformation leads and digital product or service owners. Making it happen involves developing data strategies that are not just a plan for data governance, but a plan for changing how a company works; how people think and behave; and the practices which underpin all of that.

Which is why forward-thinking CDOs and their teams now place as much emphasis on developing their people, processes and ways of working with data as they do on ensuring regulatory compliance – to help avoid harmful impacts and any associated reputational risks.

If recent signals in big tech are anything to go by, the biggest brands and businesses in control of much of our data are scrambling to embed new functionality in their platforms to stay ahead of regulations and market reforms in attempts to both build trust and stay compliant.

Many leaders are now going beyond that – actively developing new products, services and even companies whose entire focus is building trust in the way data is used.

Data assurance has always existed, but, as we move into an age of machines and start to devolve decisions, we need to know we can trust the underlying data used by artificial intelligence models.

Hurdles to overcome in building trust

Often, business data strategies are just a plan for how to manage and govern data assets and policies, in particular to avoid data breaches or regulatory problems.

These governance-focused data strategies tick the compliance box, but tend to neglect the other critical elements of data infrastructure, in particular, people, skills and practices.

When it comes to building a brand that's trusted with data, businesses need more than just reliable data and regulatory compliance. They need people who have the capability to use data in ways that meet their needs, satisfy their customers, and avoid harmful impacts.

Businesses need a culture and ways of working that use data effectively, and they need confidence that data will meet their specific needs and that the organisations involved in collecting, accessing, using and sharing data on their behalf are doing so in trustworthy ways.

Many corporate organisations buy data with little or no clear line of sight about its origins and ‘black box data’ presents real risks...

How to get started?

Business leaders who are successfully achieving strategic goals, such as developing a trusted data brand, are generally doing a decent job of aligning two things:

  1. Business and organisational strategy: how their organisation plans to improve their performance in the face of competition and how people play a critical role in this
  2. Data strategy: developing a data infrastructure and culture in their organisation that enables the execution of tactics to deliver on the overarching business strategy

Data infrastructure is critical

When thinking about data strategy it’s important to recognise that data infrastructure isn't just about technology. Data infrastructure includes:

  • data assets such as identifiers, registers and datasets
  • standards and technologies used to curate and provide access to those data assets
  • guidance and policies that inform the use and management of data assets and the data infrastructure itself
  • organisations that govern the data infrastructure
  • the people, organisations and communities involved in contributing to or maintaining it, and those who are impacted by decisions that are made using it.

What do data strategies that help build trust include?

To make progress, we’ve identified a range of considerations that are critical for business leaders to integrate into the development and execution of their strategies.

Data assurance

Data assurance is the set of processes that increase confidence that data will meet a specific need, and that organisations collecting, accessing, using and sharing data are doing so in trustworthy ways. Assurance of data and data practices is really important for organisations to build trust, decrease risks and maximise opportunities.

Building literacy and skills

Data strategies that are overly focused on governance often neglect people. When data projects fail to deliver results, in the majority of cases it’s because issues with people and processes haven’t been adequately addressed. Improving people’s data literacy skills can help support the successful delivery of data projects and culture change. Here tools such as our Data Skills Framework help leaders think through the data literacy of their workforce.

Embedding data-informed decision-making in culture

When people talk about data culture what do they actually mean? In a business context culture is the set of values, behaviours and ways of working that govern how things get done. Data culture is how things get done to ensure that data is used effectively to get results. And, in most cases, getting results means making better and more timely decisions, informed by data. This often requires shifts to a culture where decision-making is no longer made by hunches or by the highest-paid person in the room.

Operationalising data ethics to avoid harmful impacts

Businesses need to develop data-informed products and services that make an impact while protecting people’s privacy, commercial confidentiality and national security. This means that in addition to effective governance, leaders need to ensure that they and their teams have identified potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity.

The ODI advocates for and supports putting in place practices that ensure the way data is collected and used is trustworthy and ethical. Our primary method for supporting that process is helping businesses apply the Data Ethics Canvas across their business. This often involves training workshops and individual certification to help teams and decision makers better understand the domain and how to use the tool, along with establishing processes and governance that integrates data ethics into decision making, planning and development.

Developing open and trustworthy data ecosystems

The ODI has long advocated for and supported an open culture, where data infrastructure is as open as possible; data literacy and capability is accessible to all; and open innovation can flourish.

Building such an open and trustworthy data ecosystem is beneficial to both businesses and society. Opening and sharing data can help companies increase revenue, reduce direct costs, and improve efficiency in operations.

A changing landscape of consumer and citizen rights – and expectations over privacy and data portability – requires businesses to improve how they access, use and share data.

Moving to a more open approach can build trust but this needs careful planning, with a focus on an organisation’s entire ecosystem.

Data landscaping tools, such as data ecosystem mapping, help leaders to explore the multiple roles that organisations play and their relationships with others. Data maturity assessments help to examine how well a business is meeting those roles.

And, don’t forget data governance

Good data governance is critical to ensure that people and systems have access to the data they need, when they need it, following the correct sets of policies and in line with relevant regulations.

How the ODI can help

The ODI works with people, companies and governments to make data work better for everyone. We deliver on that vision by providing training and advice, and by making tools and resources to help.

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