Taking back control of the data silos holding your business back
Data silos can contain conflicting information, leading to misguided strategies and poor decision making
Organisations make key business decisions on the basis of what they know, and what they know is derived from analysing their data. To enable the best decisions, data has to be accurate and reliable. But there are still organisations out there with data silos, which by their very nature can be anything but accurate and reliable. These silos often contain duplicate, out-of-date, or otherwise dangerous data.
Added to this, maintaining two or more data sets on the same topic uses time and technology resources an organisation could more fruitfully channel into other work. It’s time to purge the data silos and stop them from ever coming back. Doing so, however, involves hunting for silos across the breadth of an organisation and implementing measures that address the cultural deficiencies that let silos flourish in the first place, all of which is easier said than done.
What damage can data silos do?
There’s widespread agreement that data silos are a bad thing. “There can be no debate,” insists Dave Williams, consulting associate director for leading data consultancy Dufrain, Dave Williams. “Data silos are the scourge of the modern company.”
Chief among the problems they raise is the lack of centralised control, he tells IT Pro. Without strong governance to ensure the data an organisation holds is accurate and up to date, data silos are simply repositories that can lead to ill-informed decision-making.
“Silos can deeply impact the decision intelligence of any organisation,” agrees Janet Bastiman, chief data scientist at Napier and chair (data science and artificial intelligence (AI)) at the Royal Statistical Society. “Without a single holistic view, decisions may be taken without full information,” she elaborates. “More importantly, updates may not filter to all silos, meaning that duplicate data can be in different states.”
How to identify data silos
If you think your organisation has no data silos, are you absolutely certain? Have you checked everywhere? Well, you might be surprised, Williams suggests. “Data silos are typically created in business areas when a centralised data platform is either too well governed to accept disparate business data, or where an IT team is too disinterested to incorporate data together because the corporate value is considered low.”
There can be other factors at play too, such as business units thinking they have some kind of advantage if they maintain their own data. This can be born from a sort of psychology of competitiveness that has its roots well outside the technology, in the overall way business units view each other – as competitors rather than collaborators.
Whatever the reason for the existence of silos, finding them can be tricky. Just asking around isn’t always going to be enough. Some tech-based sleuthing might be able to identify large files such as spreadsheets, the owners of which can be quizzed. But if this approach is taken, Bastiman offers some sage advice. “The individual who does this must have clear authority from the executive team to have access to sensitive silos,” she says. This is especially important if there’s already a competitive, perhaps antagonistic, vibe between business units.
Indeed, former chief data officer (CDO) for Network Rail, as well as CEO and co-founder of Carruthers and Jackson, Caroline Carruthers, tells IT Pro technology isn’t the ideal tool for hunting down data silos. told IT Pro that technology isn’t the ideal tool for hunting down data silos. ”I’d argue hunting data silos doesn’t really need any sort of technological method,” she says. “Tech can do whatever you want it to if you put your mind to it, but data silos themselves are fundamentally people problems.”
Preventing data silos is better than ‘curing’ them
Once data silos have been identified, the next steps are to remove them and prevent them from appearing again. This too, for Carruthers, is a people thing, not a technology thing, and the responsibility often lies with the CDO. “A CDO’s role here is to understand why data silos exist in the first place, as they’ll have happened in the first place because some employees thought they were needed,” she explains. “Fundamentally, you can’t wipe out a silo without putting something better in its place, and you can’t put something better in its place without first understanding the need.”
Williams is also clear that workplace culture really matters, and has a key role to play in preventing data silos from reappearing once they’ve been eliminated. “Once all data silos are identified and broken down, companies must rethink their cultural and technological processes to protect themselves from data silos popping up in the future,” he tells IT Pro. He proposes the promotion of the development of “collegiate ways of working to ensure everyone is working from the same one true source of data”. Once such a regime is in place, he continues, “culture and technology must work together in lockstep to affect long-term change”.
Developing and maintaining a collegiate, collaborative approach to work, using cloud-based data systems, might take time. But there seems to be general agreement that data silos arise as a result of certain ways of working and are prevented by the adoption of others. In the end, then, data silos are a technological solution to what is very much a human situation. Change the situation – eliminate the data silos – and make better business decisions, too.
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