Incoming: What About Data?

January 1, 2018
By Terry Halvorsen

This is my first article as the new author of Incoming. I want to thank AFCEA for the opportunity to write this monthly piece, and I hope I will continue the tradition of offering thought-provoking articles on timely topics important to the information technology and communication community. I also want to thank my predecessor, Maj. Gen. Earl D. Matthews, USAF (Ret.), for his work and excellent contributions that were informative and certainly advanced thinking on a wide variety of issues. Well done, Earl.

Let’s jump in and talk about data. Data is the engine driving the new economy. The world’s most successful companies today are data companies able to quickly exploit data and turn it into decision-quality information and intelligence. These companies are able to extract data from various sources at a speed that allows them to influence the marketplace to competitive advantage. They turn digital exhaust into dollars by combining data in ways that produce value for their internal use or for their customers.

My own wake-up call about data and its possibilities started with the realization that I was hearing voices while walking near my Washington office. After a minute of being concerned about my overall mental state, I figured out that it was my watch talking to me. It was telling me I was near an upscale market and that I probably needed some of my favorite food items, and it was right. The retailer had calculated in real time where I was, what my favorites were from my buying history and that it was time for me to purchase again. I think that is pretty impressive, and as I became more interested, I found more examples around consumer-based marketing data targeted to me that was exceptionally accurate. Then I began to think about how we could apply this to government and other businesses, and I wondered what the keys were to doing this.

One of the keys is certainly technology and the right investments in analytic tools that can look at structured and unstructured data. When I look back on my time in government, we could get the technology. We could buy the tools. It was sometimes difficult to get the investment dollars, but in the end, tools and technology were accessible.

Tools and technology are the easy parts of what enabled this scenario and the data to provide a high-value return. The other factors that really unlock this value are more complex and require a deep understanding of your data architecture. (Yes, I used the architecture word!) To deeply understand your data architecture, you first must have one. Your data architecture must be aligned with your business processes. To align your business processes, you really need to understand them, and this understanding must include questioning the value of every part of your business processes and mapping the data supply chain for each part of the process. You must be ready to challenge every part of your current business processes, to continually question whether those processes have been disrupted by internal or external factors and whether you should intentionally disrupt them.

We must be willing to examine and change our business processes as much as or more than we are willing to change or apply technology. As I reviewed my own experiences, I think I too often focused on the technology and, in the end, delivered a solution that probably improved delivery of a bad answer, or at least failed to deliver a better answer. I hadn’t invested the time to understand the business processes that produced data. Did they or could they support the business outcome I wanted? I hadn’t looked at the security of my data supply chain. Was my data really coming from an authoritative source? What processes had produced or affected it along the way? Could I map my data to the business value proposition I wanted to deliver? What was it really costing to get the data, and how much of it was actually able to influence a business decision? How did my systems and processes actually support data quality? Were the data streams I was integrating really the right ones to integrate?

These are just some of the questions and relationships we must consider. Most business organizations, both government and nongovernment, struggle to expend resources on this level of in-depth analysis about data and their complex relationships with business processes.

How does your organization stack up when you think about these questions?

Your thoughts, comments and challenges are welcome.

Terry Halvorsen, the chief information officer and an executive vice president with Samsung Electronics, is the former U.S. Defense Department chief information officer. He also has served as the Department of the Navy chief information officer.

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