Putting your data to work

Published on
6 min read

The turbulence of the past year has posed many challenges for across all sectors, but it is also triggering a rapid shift in approach for many. According to the results of a YouGov survey we commissioned in early 2021, many organisations are taking a fresh look at how they manage their data.

But the results show that over 50% of organisations lack an understanding of what data they have, or are unsure how they can best use it. In our experience, organisations that are data-savvy have a much greater impact than a comparable operation that does not leverage its data. We see every day the way in which the big technology companies and telecoms providers maximise the information that they gather from numerous micro-transactions. Daily interactions with large numbers of customers, not all of them involving money, generate a mass of data. Being smart with data involves strategic thinking about what data is collected and how it is used.

Customer and service user control is moving up the agenda. Apple, for example, is reported to be pressing ahead with the introduction of new privacy features to enable user opt-out from tracking and ad targeting. It is becoming increasingly important for organisations to build their own customer or user databases (or at least select their chosen databases carefully), based on transparency, accountability and, where appropriate, consent.

In this article we consider what steps an organisation can take in order to maximise the power and potential of its data assets.

Is every organisation driven by data?

Let’s turn to goods supply businesses to provide case studies.  The product or service a business offers is only part of the story. A supplier of high value consumer goods, for example, will focus investment on R&D, product development, design and marketing, but may not see data collection and analytics as a core activity. They may be missing a valuable opportunity. Effective data analysis has two functions. Maintaining a close and productive relationship with each customer (using data that is about actual or potential customers) enables the business to provide responsive customer service and upgrades. It also enables it to understand and extract value from accumulated data – that is, any data, not just data about people but also about ergonomics, machinery, engineering etc.).

This is not just for tech organisations. We regularly now see examples of “bricks and mortar” businesses that have a highly sophisticated online offering, and these are the business that are not just weathering the pandemic and economic storm, but achieving outstanding growth: true resilience. Their online operations not only enable a tailored service to be offered to the user, but also enable collection of data in an organised way. Of course, the underlying product or service is what the customer is primarily interested in, and this needs to remain the core focus. However, a modern business needs to address the customer interface with increasing agility to avoid being left behind.

Persuading leaders to allocate investment for data development and analytics can be a challenge, but, we suggest, it is a priority that cannot now be ignored.  The heavy reliance on technology that has resulted from pandemic lockdowns has brought the usefulness and value of data to the fore.

The customer journey

Whatever organisation you are in, mapping the customer or user journey is an important first step. Without this analysis, data can simply accumulate without any clear way to maximise its value. What’s more, failure to manage data collection up front is likely to mean that customers are not told the full story about what their information will be used for or by whom, and the subsequent use of their data may be unlawful.

Careful planning can help you to minimise the obstacles in a transaction to oil its progress, while enabling you still to acquire carefully chosen data. And your customer or user terms, privacy information and purchasing processes all need to tie together around the journey.

A coherent approach to privacy issues, with appropriate cookie and data protection notices and policies, are far more likely to build trust. Your customers and users have come to expect this and may be put off by anything that appears to be incomplete, disorganised or untrustworthy.

Who do you hire, and how?

Getting all of this right requires the right skills. Even for an organisation that recognises a need to develop a customer/user journey and data analytics, identifying and engaging the necessary talent can be a challenge. Are you looking for a project leader or for skilled developers? Will you need to hire a team? Can you outsource the work? For smaller organisations upskilling existing team members may be the best option. These individuals will already have a good understanding of the wider needs of the organisation and can bring in specific skills where required.

We see many organisations turning to their web interface provider and relying on them to develop and provide a suitable solution. The trust is often misplaced – the web developer will not necessarily go beyond an immediate solution to think more broadly about the data you need to acquire in your wider business, and the price they give you will be for the design and technical work.  Expect generic, off-the-shelf or reused compliance solutions rather than anything that’s lawful and effective for your data and organisation.  An even greater problem can arise where you decide to move supplier, either because you identify additional needs or have outgrown the offering your current partner can provide. You may find that data or systems are not readily transferable, and that you cannot move without substantial rebuilding or data conversion and database re-structuring.

If you really want to make data part of your business, and rely on genuine expertise to make the data work hard, then outsourcing is one option.  If you do outsource to access data analytics talent, then make it a priority to address upfront (at the start of the relationship) issues around what functionality you need, how it will be provided, compliance and control.  Be sure to set it down in writing, and use the protection of a formal contract: outsourcing relationships are complicated.

Some may choose to reach out to tech platforms, trusting them to provide a ready-made marketplace and data solution. While this can provide a quick and easy route to market, organisations can find that they are giving up a huge amount of control and access. Your chosen tech platform will act in its own interests, including in relation to the data that it chooses to collect, and will use the data it generates to maximise its own visibility and attractiveness. The interests of its stable of customers and users, including you, are important but definitely secondary.

Build in compliance

A thoughtful approach to building and deploying data needs to keep an eye on current and forthcoming compliance issues. We have mentioned data privacy and cookie policies – these are a clear must-have for interactions with customers and users.

Depending on the type of operations you have, other types of regulatory compliance may come into play. For some, the platform regulations will apply. These require fair treatment where an online platform service facilitates interactions between business users and their consumers.

In certain sectors, like transport, utilities and digital services, the NIS regulations on cyber security may be relevant. These set minimum requirements for cyber security in selected sectors which are considered, by law, to be “essential”.

Forthcoming legislation relating to online harms and the use of artificial intelligence may become relevant and is worth keeping in mind. Users of computer systems might not even realise that AI is in play, but could still be caught by obligations where there is an EU dimension to their offer.  AI also triggers special rules under the GDPR.

Steps to take

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