What is a Data Strategy?

About ten years ago, I was phone screened for a job that I had applied for – the person interviewing me asked me what I thought made up a good data strategy. At the time, my job was very focused on building out an enterprise data warehouse and our daily conversations were about slowly changing dimensions, handling nulls in the system, accounting for time zone differences, etc. So these are the things I answered with. After the interview, I Googled “data strategy” to see how close my answer was and, well, it wasn’t close at all. I didn’t get a call back.

My career and focus have grown a bit since then, but over the years I’ve still struggled with defining what a data strategy is. Everyone says we need one, but what exactly is it and what does it include? I still don’t have a perfect answer, but I’d like to think I have a better one now than I did ten years ago so I thought I would start a series focused on what I know and see how it goes. Hopefully it will encourage some conversations and be a lesson for all of us.

To start with, what is a data strategy? Dictionary.com defines strategy as “a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result.” To have a strategy you must first have a goal. To execute on a strategy, you need to do three things:

  • Define where you are now
  • Define where you want to go
  • Build a plan to get there

Most of the documents I’ve seen labeled as data strategies in my career were focused on the technical aspects of data – storage, platform architecture, data privacy, data flow, data retention, data governance, etc. Others that I’ve seen were about org structures and people. Technology and org structures are important considerations, but they aren’t the goal. A robust data strategy needs to start with the business problems it is trying to solve and the business value it wants to deliver on:

It seems simple, but it isn’t. To start with, who in your organization defines the business strategy for data? It’s often not just one person or even one department. And a strategy isn’t something that is built and then left alone, it must change and evolve as your business changes and evolves – so the people defining your business strategy need to continue to have an active role in it over time.

Let’s dive into business strategy further in the next article. In the meantime, if you have some examples of good data strategies, I’d love to see them so please add a reference in the comments.

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