Staying in control

The Business Continuity Institute

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‘Big Data’ no longer seems sufficient to encapsulate the wealth of data at the disposal of most companies. Charles Boffin discusses how organisations and their BC professionals can keep on top of their information

To what extent have most companies lost control of their data and how has this happened?

Companies have focused on the security and robustness of individual data sources for many years now, but inevitably where data crosses organisational boundaries, there is often a lack of ownership. This is driven by a number of things, including: silo mentality, complexity of interrelations, legacy systems, loss of corporate knowledge, as well as a lack of strategic initiative to ‘join up the dots’.

The loss of control is often directly proportional to the size of the organisation. The more complex the organisational framework, the greater the challenge and the more likely that there is a fragmented situation.

Equally, mergers and acquisitions for fast-growing businesses exacerbate the challenge. As the business focuses on rapid growth and developing its footprint in a given market, the eye is taken off the ball as far as support processes and managing data is concerned. This is further complicated by the fact that new acquisitions mean new data sources, new challenges for integration and new rules regarding data ownership and corporate governance. The end result is that data management across the group often falls even further down the corporate priority ladder.

Ultimately, I would say that this is not an operational issue, but a strategic one. Businesses who see the big picture understand the need for effective data control. It is a future issue which impacts very much on today.

What are the primary stumbling blocks to managing the flow of data within an organisation?

Technically, building bridges is very feasible in isolation; but the main challenge is to build a structure which is flexible and can react to the needs of a fast-changing business. Many organisations tend to build for today in this particular area. I can very quickly tally up the names and numbers of global organisations who have tried to build their own solutions and ended up consigning huge investments to the bin, when it all falls flat.

The other main issue is to avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket. I can see a very real danger that BC and resilience as a specific corporate rigour becomes subsumed in the wider ‘risk’ basket. In practice, this then leads to decisions which frustrate BC practitioners – for example, risk software being adopted to manage BC activity, where it is patently not fi t for purpose or capable of delivering the real benefits required. This is an entirely false economy.

How much does the structure of the organisation influence its appetite for data management?

The structure of an organisation is less of an issue – the principal factor is the strategic recognition by the executive of the need to manage data. When assessing this ‘recognition’, I ask BC managers a number of simple questions, including: Who in your business has an organisational wide data set that shows the connections between business, IT, property, people and suppliers that can be prioritised by what’s important and when? Is this updated from reference data as it changes? Who can produce reports from this in an instant as opposed to spending weeks collecting information to answer one question? What if reporting tells you answers to questions you didn’t even know you needed to ask? How useful would this be in helping making strategic business decisions? Can you slice this information by your strategic business products and look at it end-to-end?

The end result is always the same – a resounding ‘yes’ in support of the need. But that’s where opinion divides – those who push ahead and those who struggle to obtain executive support. So appetite is all about people and decisions, not corporate structure.

How complex a task is mapping the data environment within your organisation?

In theory it is straight-forward; in practice it is complicated. As ever with data management, it is not so much the structure and inputs, but how the outputs are managed. So, we have the structure in place, we have robust data sources, we have a means of up-dating and verifying data accuracy. What now? The issue is then about outputs and how they are used in a very practical way.

And this is where, I’m sad to say, that many BC software solutions have missed the target big time in the past. I have seen overly-complex dependency maps that require a PhD to make sense of the outputs. I have seen systems that just cannot export key data – full stop. You have to actively engage with organisations in this process of outputs and reporting. What data do you need, where and how? How important is the use of GIS and how would you use this in a practical way? What about mobile?

In short, start from an end-point of requirement and build to this. This is the same with any strategic journey – there needs to be a future vision to guide you.

What in your view are the pillars of an effective data management strategy?

As just mentioned, the fundamental is to build to a goal by starting with a long-term view and then construct a sensible route map. This means not trying to do everything at once. It means that having 90% data accuracy now with the promise of 100% in the future is far better than not starting the journey in the first place because it is considered too complex or too great a challenge.

Aside from the fundamentals of any strategic journey – such as planning data flows with effective linkages; updating from core reference data; having a single view of all data; engaging with data source guardians; and having flexible reporting outputs linked to business needs – be it data management or any other corporate imperative, there is one other aspect which I think is somewhat unique to the BCM space. That is the unplanned opportunities that appear. Developing this macro view of the corporate universe opens up possibilities that may not have been considered to-date. One such example in financial services in the UK and Europe is the Recovery and Resolution Directive, where a pan-organisational database driven by BC providers supports the development of the directive framework.

Where does software fit into the process?

Software is purely a means of aggregating and managing data – it is the practical application of software in this context that is important. Software is the enabler, providing the picture and showing where there are issues that need to be addressed and gaps that need to be filled. The role of software is to sit above golden source data in a layer that can then be manipulated and provide functionality and information that is just not available in each silo.

But this all relies on the intellectual input of the BC practitioner. There is something of a symbiotic relationship – each relies on the other to be truly effective.

Data management is not simply about having the right systems in place. How important is the process of establishing related roles and responsibilities in this context?

 A very good point. Often there is no principal owner of all data sources within a business and how they interact with each other. Each data source or operational area may have well considered processes in place – for example, procurement for suppliers, property for premises, HR for people etc. However, this all falls down when the challenge faced is to try and link these together. And this challenge is often tactical rather than strategic – for example, in response to a specific business need rather than a global owner recognising the commercial strategic need to have this fully joined-up approach.

And where does the BC practitioner fit into this process?

One of the greatest revelations to me over the past years is the fact that BCM software has the potential to create a view of a business that is found nowhere else in the organisation. And, as I mentioned earlier, in the vast majority of cases there is no principal owner of this complexity of data flowing around the business.

This is where the role of the BC specialist comes to the fore. They are in a unique position as they need this helicopter view from a practical perspective if they are to be successful in their role. Often I see BC managers having to cope with a structure which patently does not deliver this view of the organisation. In my opinion, this is something of a time-bomb waiting to go off. There is a game of Russian Roulette being played here – who will be the first to be faced with an incident where recovery is a failure due to the inaccuracy of data contained within plans or a lack of understanding of what is required to link together core elements in a business?

Charles Boffin is CEO of ClearView Continuity.

Continuity coverThis article first appeared in the 2015 Q2 edition of Continuity – The Magazine of the Business Continuity Institute. To download your free copy, just click here.