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Digital business puts data and data ownership atop CIO agenda

It's time for CIOs to fast-forward to the past, says Harvey Koeppel. In the digital business world, IT is once again all about the data -- and data ownership. Koeppel offers eight ways to keep pace with the times.

Data ownership (an important subset of knowledge and data management) has been a fundamental discipline within the domain of information technology from the inception of the industry. In the beginning (1950s), what we now call information technology was then called data processing and later (1960s) updated to electronic data processing. Note the continued emphasis on "data." The term information technology came into vogue in the 1970s, mainly as a reflection of the industry's then-unprecedented capabilities to capture data, store data, retrieve data, transmit/communicate data, and most importantly, to manipulate and transform data into a higher-value asset -- information. Forty-plus years later, we still call ourselves the information technology (IT) people.

Let's recap this introduction -- a bit unorthodox perhaps for a prologue, but please bear with me.

"Data" became "information" and "processing" became "technology." My point is, the way we think about what we do has actually devolved -- we have replaced the clarity of a noun-verb descriptor (data processing) with the ambiguity of a noun-noun construction (information technology). How do we know where the action is? (Thanks to all my friends in marketing who invent these terms and to my second-grade teacher Mrs. Rief, who introduced me to grammar, hence her nickname "Mrs. Grief.")

But fear not my avid and not-so-avid readers and friends -- help is on the way. The world of digital business (adjective-noun -- uh oh!) changes everything (gulp).

Digital business unplugged

"Digital business" is most often defined as the confluence of social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) technologies. One of the big things I find oddly missing from this definition is the real-time nature (and inherent value) of the data that is most often the object of SMAC technologies. Perhaps the marketing folks did not like the sound of "SMACD." Who knows, maybe Digital Business 2.0 will be defined as "SMAC-RTD?" But seriously, what is consistently missing from our conversations and therefore our understanding of this brave new world of digital business is the "fast-forward to the past" focus on data.

This enhanced focus is important for many reasons, not the least of which is its impact upon data ownership. In fact, the implications of this expanded perspective are so profound that I believe that we, as an industry and as a society, are at an inflection point. We are rapidly moving from a world where IT was all about the programs (the technology), to a world that is (once again) all about the data. Digital business is transforming why, who, what, when and where business is conducted, not because of the programs, many of which are free or cost 99 cents, but because of the massive amounts of data that has become available in real time. And the data is not just about processing transactions in the back office (data processing); it is about: who/what we are, e.g., animal, vegetable, mineral or machine; how we are (current state); where we are (current location); and what we are doing now (current activity). And all of this is available, not just as of last week or even yesterday -- but it is available now, and now, and now, and … you get the point.

Just as the 1970s leveraged technology to transform data into a higher-valued asset called information, we are now leveraging technology to transform information into knowledge, and knowledge into insight, and insight into action -- e.g., receiving a real-time discount coupon, a real-time adjustment to your exercise routine, a real-time adjustment to the route that you are taking to work, an automatic re-order of groceries at the appropriate time, etc. And the sum of these transformations is the real definition of digital business, clearly driven by the data and not the programs.

Everything old is new again -- sometimes 

When looked at in this light, the idea of data ownership becomes simultaneously more easy to understand and more difficult to establish the right principles, policies, methodologies and procedures around managing ownership rights and privileges. In one sense, you could say that data is still data –sure, there are some new sources and there is certainly a lot more of it, i.e., "big data" (SMAC-RTBD). The same management practices, methods and tools should still apply. Right?

Alternatively, perhaps we are being a bit cavalier about the new sources of data, especially when the source is your physical being or your spoken words, or the steps that you have walked to get from your office to your favorite coffee place. When your smartphone or some wearable device is monitoring and reporting your health condition or your geospatial movements to some unknown destination in the sky, do you own that data, does the unknown destination in the sky own that data, is it shared between you and the unknown destination in the sky? Or perhaps because it passes through the airwaves, should it be treated as within the public domain and therefore owned by everyone? When your car sends information about your driving habits to your insurance company, is that data owned by you, by your insurance company, by your car manufacturer, or perhaps by your bank because they own your car until you pay off your auto loan? All good questions, unfortunately with few universally accepted explicit answers.

We are rapidly moving from a world where IT was all about the programs (the technology), to a world that is (once again) all about the data.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Worldwide Web, was recently quoted in The Guardian as saying, "The data we create about ourselves should be owned by each of us, not the large companies that harvest it …. By gaining access to their own data, people could use it with information about themselves from other sources in order to create 'rich data' -- a far more valuable commodity than mere big data."

A pioneer is the guy who is first on the line, with the arrows in his back …

Clearly, as technology executives, we are once again in that familiar yet still uncomfortable place where the technologies that we build and deploy create conditions and questions that are far ahead of the legal, regulatory, cultural value systems and ethical/moral standards within which we live, work and play. We must, however, continue to innovate and drive sustainable business value while ensuring that we are doing the right things for our enterprise, customers, shareholders, business partners and other stakeholders. Here are eight ways to keep up and perhaps even stay a bit ahead of the curve:

  • Make sure that your house is in order with regard to current best practices for knowledge management; data management; and data ownership policies, procedures, methodologies and tools.
  • Determine whether a centralized or federated model is most appropriate to your enterprise and periodically review the efficacy of what you have implemented.
  • If your enterprise operates within a highly regulated industry, e.g., financial services, healthcare, critical infrastructure, etc., ensure that you and your team are well informed about current regulations and keep abreast of changes to regulations and compliance requirements in a timely manner.
  • Establish and maintain good working relationships with regulators, external auditors and examiners, and engage them in conversations regarding data ownership laws and policies that may be in the pipeline, to get an early start on what's coming your way.
  • Establish and maintain good working relationships with your internal auditors, risk management and compliance teams. Share the substance of your conversations with external regulators and auditors with your internal teams. Work collaboratively with them to identify, draft and implement new policies and procedures, as you jointly deem appropriate.
  • Participate in industry forums and discussion groups that are focused on data ownership specifically within the digital business space.
  • Ensure that your existing policies and procedures regarding customer and employee data, especially personally identifiable information, are up to date and clearly articulated and well understood.
  • Ensure that your customers are clearly informed and regularly educated with regard to what information your enterprise stores about them, how their data is used internally, and with whom it is shared externally and for what purposes. Provide customers with as much choice as possible, e.g., the ability to selectively opt in or opt out of specific use cases involving their data.

Let me know what you think. Post a comment or drop me a note at [email protected]. Discuss, debate or even argue -- let's continue the conversation.

Next Steps

Read more of Harvey's columns on the CIO role in helping their companies make the leap to digital business:

Why digital business is not your father's Oldsmobile

The road to digital transformation is paved with SMAC technologies

Learn about the relationship between digital business and BPM

Dig Deeper on Digital business management