The Business Case for Data

What is the business case in social housing?

At a recent conference I was shocked to find that many in the audience no longer liked using the term ‘Transformation’. Their justification was that too many transformation projects had failed, so staff had become disillusioned and indeed start to anticipate failure before a change program even began. In my experience, poor data is one of the primary culprits and unless data management transformation proceeds business transformation, transformation is doomed to fail or at the very least not achieve its true potential.

Within the social housing sector there are three primary reasons why this issue of better data management is not addressed:

  1. Too often software, systems and a patchwork of spreadsheets provide a barrier to getting data under control and providing a single version of the truth
  2. Executive teams lack the skills and understanding to resolve these problems and despite there being a strong feeling or even knowledge there is a problem, the solution appears too much of a challenge, so it doesn’t get addressed
  3. There is a concern that in solving the problem, ‘uncomfortable truths’ may be discovered

So why have we not addressed these? You may find my conclusion controversial.

The Business Case

Talk to any sales expert and they will tell you that the most powerful business case tends to address not organisational desires, but personal desires. You need to consider those you are trying to convince and ask “What’s in it for them?” and “What are the consequences if they don’t conform?” This may appear odious, but it should be central to creating the business case and indeed then achieving adoption across the entire organisation. Ignore this advice at your peril!

On the basis that for change to succeed it needs to be ‘Led from the top’, how do we appeal to the personal desires of senior executives in order to convince them that best-practice data management must be a top priority if they want to achieve their objectives?

What’s in it for me? – The Benefits

Data quality and integrity is fundamental to the achievement of the hottest topics currently troubling Boards and senior executives. These include:

  • How do we put the customer at the heart of everything we do?
  • The Social Housing White Paper 2020
  • The NHF Code of Governance 2020
  • Post-covid working
  • The new draft Safety Bill
  • Data/Cyber Security

Good data, along with the insight it provides, is fundamental to all of these. It is crucial to protecting your income streams; creating efficiencies; empowering staff; measuring and demonstrating value; and improving the lives of both your customers and colleagues; and importantly, making the job of management easier. Basing decisions on reliable information reduces mistakes and lessens workload and stress. Ask yourself if you would rather make an important decision on gut feel or reliable information that will stand the test of scrutiny? The answer should be simple.

What are the consequences if I don’t conform? – The Risks

Poor data and insight can ruin reputations and careers. In the worst cases, it can cost lives and there should be no greater motivation to get things right than this. For me, the most stressful moments of my career have involved sitting around a board room table trying to get agreement on a decision that is substantiated by data that not only am I not confident in, but neither are those that I am trying to convince. Poor data and insight causes wasted time, stress and inefficiency, so leading to poor working conditions and substandard customer service. From the Regulators perspective, a quick review of downgrade judgements will tell you that almost all downgrades are related to poor or inaccurate information. Indeed the Regulator has stated that “Good quality data forms the cornerstone on which all other assurance of compliance is based” (Consumer Regulation Review 2020, Para 2.7, Page 9). The Regulator also states that “We consider failure to manage data integrity to be indicative of a poor internal controls assurance framework. Failure to provide accurate and timely data that meets regulatory requirements will be reflected in the judgements” (Sector Risk Profile 2021, section 3.29). In summary, senior executives need to address data integrity as a matter of urgency and it needs to be done now.

One of the challenges I raised was that the solution often appears too much of a challenge, so it simply doesn’t get addressed. This may have been true a few years ago, but a new breed of automated data management tools, that never sleep and constantly alert you of arising data quality issues, are now available. I believe their use will swiftly become the norm rather than the exception. Indeed, again quoting the Regulator, “Boards must have assurance that data integrity is appropriately managed, including ensuring adequate quality controls and robust audit trails are in place, identifying critical data and Information Asset Owners, establishing process maps, and implementing appropriate software solutions such as error detection.” (Sector Risk Profile 2021, section 3.28).

The business case for better data management is not only compelling, but the answer is clear. If an organisation is serious about achieving its objectives; if it is intent on looking after its customers and ensuring they are safe; then it must address data integrity. Data management and the ability to make decisions based on reliable data and insight, must be at the heart of strategic thinking. Those that practice this will flourish and demonstrate the highest levels of efficiency, not to mention be a great place to work. These organisations should be able to provide immense social value, swiftly recognising and prioritise those that need their help most.

My thoughts on pitching the business case based on personal desires and insecurities may be controversial, but just ask yourself what motivates you to make a decision? With access to the right information, you will be able to maximise what you achieve and minimise mistakes for the benefit of yourself and others. If you have ever wondered why you come to work in the morning, then this should be it.

Colin Sales

CEO, 3C Consultants Ltd