How to Empower Your Organisation with Timely Insights with UNSW’s Chief Data Officer
Chief Data and Insights Officer, Kate Carruthers, work collaboratively across UNSW to execute their data and information strategy to deliver business outcomes.
Kate explains how the first step towards effective data management starts with ensuring cybersecurity, risk management, and privacy within your data governance policy.
Leaders can gain executive buy-in and organisation-wide trust by securing quick wins that display the scope and capabilities of your enabling and collaborative function. A critical part of this is speaking to your stakeholders and understanding how you can solve their problems.
As a result, UNSW has been able to calibrate courses based on the most highly engaged with reading materials and launch Power BI dashboards for their executive leaders.
Kate, can you tell us about your role at UNSW?
My role at UNSW is the Chief Data and Insights Officer, and I have broad responsibility for data across the entire organisation.
I’m responsible for data warehousing, business intelligence and analytics and data and information governance.
Well, it’s interesting because one of the things that ADAPT found from its research last year about how organisations need to survive or prosper in the new world is the need to be a data-driven organisation.
But I look at a university. I look at lots of different faculties, lots of different power groups. How do you get a coordinated data strategy for an organisation like that?
Well, you start 10 years ago. All jokes aside, it’s a collaboration and a collegial experience.
You need to sit down and talk to people and get them to understand the importance of data.”
Because a lot of people haven’t thought about it, but one of the reasons I shifted over to data from my traditional IT role was because I can see that data underpins the digital transformation that we’re undergoing right now.
That’s the key driver for digital transformation and that any organisation that masters’ data and the power of its data and information will survive.
But part of the challenge with data is there’s inconsistency in data.
What’s a data definition to one faculty would be a different interpretation to another.
How do you get the common ground that you can harness data collectively?
Well, that was the thing that I start first started with six years ago. I started with data and information governance.
Before I even tried to consolidate platforms or do anything technical, the first thing I did was start to define a data governance policy, start to have conversations about what does data ownership means and have all those conversations.
We did that for four years before we wrote our first data strategy.
But the implication was that people weren’t aware they were custodians of data, and it was almost a by-product of what they did.
Were you having to educate them on what the value was in what they were holding?
No, it didn’t. That was the interesting thing. These people know that they are the custodians.
What I did was empower them and by writing proper policy that the Vice-Chancellor and everything blessed.
I gave them a real role. They were finally able to say, no, you can’t have that data, or yes, you can have that data.
They were grateful that they were being supported finally because they cared about looking after their data.
Data custodians want to look after their data, and they don’t want to lock it up, but they want to make sure it’s used responsibly.”
ADAPT research showed that being a data-driven organisation was valuable to get organisations through the lockdown because they gave people some context of where they’re working the outcomes they sought from them.
You invested six years ago. Did you feel that it blossomed in the lockdown, or do you feel it was making traction before this came along?
We had real traction before. Six years ago, we started down on our data and information governance journey.
At the end of 2018, we started writing our first data strategy with broad consultation across the entire organisation.
We decided that we were going to consolidate onto a single platform as a service data platform. We were two years into that project when COVID hit.
We were already in the cloud. We were already cloud-enabled, and we already had agreed on ways to share data and stuff.
We were well-positioned to just keep doing what we did by going home.
Can you share some of the benefits that happened that you gathered from that during COVID?
By having all the data in one place, we can now query across the silos.
For example, the library has long wanted to look at the student data and match it up with their data about who’s going into the library, who’s accessing books.”
They want to make sure that that that it’s matched up and shared only with people in a safe and an aggregated way so that they can’t disclose anyone’s personal borrowing history.
Still, we can now give teachers real insights into what bits of their readings students are reading. They’ve never known that before.
Now they can tell that reading is landing, that one nobody’s looking at that one. That’s something that we’ve never been able to share with our teachers.
Now they can calibrate their courses based on that data.”
We’re only just now able to make that available to them.
Now, Kate, you’re talking about something six years.
How do you maintain executive support, engagement over a journey that long?
Because of what I also hear from you, this isn’t finalised. This is going to be an ongoing journey. What metrics measure its effectiveness?
How do you garner regular ongoing support for it?
I tell you that I thought this was a two-year project when I took it on. Then I was like, it’s a five-year project. Now I’m like, it might be a ten-year project.
We have a data governance steering committee that has broad representation at senior levels across the organisation.
We propose a work plan to them at the start of the year, and they tell us if they support it, then we action that work plan. We develop that collaboratively with our key stakeholders across the organisation.”
We deliver ambitious work plans every year. We deliver continuous improvement. We don’t try to make things perfect. We launch stuff and then improve it.
That’s an important part of how we progress stuff and just keeping ourselves accountable.
Because we’ve got a written down work plan and be like have, we do that? No, well, we better get started.
But Kate, I see people listening to this thinking six years, five years it’s daunting.
How do you start a journey like this?
What are the quick wins that give confidence to the executive to keep this going on this journey?
The very first thing we did was found a project that had a data governance problem. A project had been running for two years, and it seemed to be stuck, and it couldn’t progress.
I talked to them and discovered they were having definition problems, and they didn’t have a way of agreeing on definitions. That’s a data and information governance problem.”
That was the start of what we need to work on.
We came up with a sensible definition so that the programmers could code the solution. They got over that hump because of data governance.
By that, I hear where there’s friction about data, that’s a chance to come in and see we need a more consolidated view.
That became then when people were understood that we’d been able to help this project unblock. People started coming to us, saying we need help too. Can you help us?”
Now we’ve got a central repository of all our definitions that we keep adding to. We have embedded data, data practices and data governance steps in the project methodology.
I bring cyber to the table; I bring privacy to the table. I bring risk management to the table.
What we’ve done is we’ve managed to get all of them plus records management embedded in the project management process so that all the relevant people that need to be consulted to make things streamlined for a project are engaged right from day one.
But I hear you take a more holistic view of data.
Don’t think of it transactionally. Think of all the implications of data, like security, privacy because those can be touchpoints that engage the rest of the organisation.
There’s no point in keep looking after your data if you’re not keeping it secure. Data security is fundamental.”
That’s why I talk to all those people. I very much talk about it as a team effort because it takes IT, it needs cyber, it needs privacy, it needs risk management, and everybody needs to be there.
We’ve all got a part of the puzzle, and no one has the single one answer.
Was there an ‘aha’ moment where you say, we are a data-driven organisation where you’ve realised that you’ve gone from being a preacher to you had all converts.
The thing for us was when we launched. We launched a bunch of Power BI dashboards off our new data platform in mid-2019. We changed our term structure that year.
We couldn’t look at our historical data. We only had that year. It was so different when people started to use that in meetings to frame their discussions, and very recently, one of our deputy Vice-Chancellors.
Because we don’t have a data literacy problem in many places, you have data literacy problems. Ours are all scientists, and they know data.
We’ve got digital literacy problems because many of our senior leadership are boomers, and they don’t think to go digital-first. They want to see things on paper.
This deputy Vice-Chancellor has been looking at our Power BI dashboards, and he’s discovering interesting things in them and even found a bug the other day, which he was chuffed about.”
That kind of engagement has taken a couple of years to make happen.
But as you said, one of the things people tell me is the hardest thing about dealing with academics is dealing with extremely bright people who have intellectual curiosity who will challenge you instinctively.
How did you get through those things to get these outcomes?
I have the extra advantage that I, too, am an academic. I’m a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Engineering.
I can speak to them. One-on-one as an academic, as well as the Chief Data Officer for the organisation. That’s always the thing that I say to them.
We’re not trying to make your life difficult. We’re trying to enable you to do what you need to do but to do it safely.”
But you’re an inveterate networker. You tell me that, how important was it?
Was it one-on-one conversations over coffee to get the stakeholders in line with your vision, or did you cultivate champions that help cultivate it for you?
It was all the above—lots of cups of coffee, lots of conversations with people, listening to their problems.
Because if you understand their problems, then you can formulate things that you want to do that meet their needs, which delights them, which is pretty good.”
Then bring them together into groups to understand that everybody has similar problems, and we can develop broad. Because what I’m trying to do is develop solutions at scale.
To me, it’s no good to just solve something for one person, although that’s nice.
What’s important is to solve things across the entire organisation. We’ve got tens of thousands of students. We’ve got between five and ten thousand staff depending on how you count them. We’re quite a large organisation.
In some ways, people feel that’s daunting, but I get the feeling you think that’s new territory to conquer or something like that.
There’s megalomania, take over the world.
Every organisation does live by its data. What they typically struggle with is being able to get access to data at the time that they need it.
One of my goals is to deliver people the information they need to do their job without asking for it.”
The data they need should just turn up in an informative form at their doorstep, and that they shouldn’t have to go scrambling around looking for it.
That’s a success.
It’s a journey, not a destination. You’re never finished.
Well, it invites the question, then what keeps you going? If you’ve been doing this for about six years, you’re starting to get traction with it.
You told me part of it is to reach it, broaden the scope, involve more things. Is there anything else that draws you?
I’m loving that my team are growing. My team were turned on their head in 2018. I said you’re all experts at this legacy platform.
I need you to just throw away everything you know and jump in to learn a completely new platform from scratch.
Now they’re all gurus. They’re running that independently. There are no consultants on board to help us anymore, and they’re doing it perfectly.
They’re coming up with innovative ways to deliver value to our customers, which just absolutely makes me thrilled.