Can ‘data driven’ be learned, or is it ‘in the DNA’?

SAS outlines the three steps to becoming truly data driven


18 Dec 2018

Most of us occasionally stand back and marvel at the meteoric rise of businesses succeeding in the algorithm economy. Not only are they steeped in data decisioning, it’s in their DNA. True, they are fortunate to be born of big data and in the advanced analytics era, but what if you are not so fortuitous? This could be the case in the public sector, where most organisations’ core processes were built in the pre-algorithm era. So, what should you do? Carry on with traditional business models and approaches to data use, or try to acquire the same mindset – the same data-driven mentality – as the digital generation? And even if the latter is possible, how can you achieve such a huge cultural shift? 

I believe the public sector has the potential to become far more data driven than it is today. Not only because it will help to deliver far more efficient services, personalised experiences and support, with better outcomes for citizens and organisations, it will also help them to meet the expectations of citizens for the fast, digital, personalised services that they enjoy in their lives as consumers. What needs to happen then, in order to become data driven?  

The three steps to becoming truly data driven

There are a few essential ingredients required in become truly data driven. I’ll outline them briefly in theory below, before looking at how to make this ambition an everyday reality for every public sector organisation. 

Firstly, it must all start with exploring every possible means to collect more data, including new types, that could help you to understand better the citizens and organisations you serve. The first question to ask is this: is the right data available?  

Secondly, once you have truly tapped into big data – and some of this might come from collecting IoT data from the environments in which your department operates; some of it might be generated by the digitalisation of services – this data must be accessible. In other words, if you want to design a culture where data is your people’s first thought rather than an afterthought, you must make it easy to access. This means that data cannot be locked up in silos, and infrastructure must be put in place to make data accessible from the CEO to senior responsible officers through to frontline service staff. Slowly but surely, as you promote the infrastructure in place to make information accessible, you will stimulate a mindset change; a culture where the answers to almost every question can be extracted from data. This reliance on data is clearly one of the core tenets of truly data driven businesses born into the analytics or algorithm economy.   

Thirdly and most importantly, public sector organisations must play catch up in the realm of ‘ability’. This is about accessing the best possible data science and analyst skills to work with data in order to extract far more value from it. The public sector must find a way to compete for skills with the commercial sector. If you don’t, will you be able to access the deep data insights that can drive service efficiency, transform citizen outcomes, and improve the satisfaction and work-life balance of employees? Particularly those in the emergency services and health and social care professions. Will the public sector be able to underpin all decision-making with advanced analytics and automate many activities with artificial intelligence in the same way that truly data-driven businesses do? Probably not. 

So how can this last critical step be achieved? Naturally there will be an element of ‘buying talent’. However, this is untenable in the long-term considering the budget restrictions public sector departments continue to face, especially as data science salaries continue to increase at a healthy rate. Can technology come to the rescue? Are there any analytical capabilities that can help to attract data scientists into the public sector? I believe the answer to that is yes. And that’s because I think data scientists are innately creative. 

Exploration and experimentation motivate people in these roles. Therefore, any analytical platform that can provide the freedom to achieve this while allowing data scientists to build models and run analyses in the coding languages they love, will help you to attract talent. Of course, from a governance and ethics perspective public sector organisations will require that platform to underpin all activities with robust security, governance and ethics frameworks, powering all output with best-in-class analytical techniques to ensure fairness and quality are at the fore. 

Is there an analytics platform that provides such a combination of attributes? I do know that SAS has successfully incorporated all these elements into its core offering. They are today working at the heart of many public sector organisations, such as the DWP, HMRC and the MoD. They also provide wide ranging education programmes that ensure data scientists are equipped to generate the maximum possible value from an investment in SAS technologies, which are open source compatible.

My feeling is that becoming truly data driven is eminently possible, it just requires superior access to available data, but most importantly, it requires mindset change supported by the best possible skills and technologies. And it requires action to be taken today. 

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