The Rise of the Data Strategy

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data strategy x300by Jennifer Zaino

How much thought have you given lately to your Data Strategy? Not to what technologies you will use to process large data sets, or what cool new data sets you might acquire, but to how you are going to efficiently exploit the right data to drive the business forward?

Such a discussion had legs at the recent CDOvision conference at Enterprise Data World (EDW) in Washington D.C. Kenneth Viciana, Equifax VP, Enterprise Data Strategy, spoke at the event about his role leading the Enterprise Data Strategy team at the credit reporting agency. His team began with a mission to transform the vague notion of Big Data into the more concrete objective of using relevant data to deliver valuable insights aligned with corporate goals. As mentioned in this earlier article, Viciana explained that Equifax is directly trying to monetize and productize its data assets – key reasons for not just quantifying and cataloguing data but for driving a true corporate Data Strategy.

“What feeds into credit scores and credit reports is a lot of data,” Viciana said – people’s salaries, the model of car they drive, the businesses with which they are involved. The message from the top down at Equifax has been to leverage this wealth of data, with appropriate governance standards in place, to generate revenue. The company’s CEO, he noted, was the one to characterize Equifax as a data insights company, putting that top exec “right in the firing line [when it comes to finding] observations in data” that the company can put to work for its own benefit and that of its customers.

Those data insights, he said, must support strategic use cases such as understanding customer challenges and market needs, and enabling innovation in products and services – even as the data itself must be evaluated for its appropriateness to realizing those ends. The banks Equifax works with, for example, often want to expand their footprints, cross-selling products and obtaining households’ complete credit business. “We have rich data access to that 360-degree view of where customers are doing their banking, where their loans are, so we can work with a specific bank to show how they are doing against their competitors,” Viciana said. These days, he even accompanies sales executives on their calls to share what Equifax’s data shows.

“Some basic segmentation really tells the story,” he said, regarding pairing its data with Business Intelligence solutions to help customers like those banks understand where they are and aren’t winning – with that coveted millennial audience, perhaps – and what steps they can take to advance their agendas, such as adding new risk profiles to their lending portfolios.

In the Spotlight

The Data Strategy function also has moved from its role as a Center of Excellence supporting business units, to a key player in driving revenue targets by pushing data innovation forward. Putting it in that position further justified the company’s investments in Big Data and its appointment of a Chief Data Analytics Officer, under which the Enterprise Data Strategy team functions. “We are looked on to show opportunities and value and bring ideas to the product people versus their coming to us,” he said. “It’s exciting because we are more at the front line of things” rather than working in the background, primarily focusing on Data Management.

That’s a recent evolution, he noted, commenting that “Data Strategy used to be an IT architecture type of topic” focused on points such as data normalization, standardization, processing, and so on. A few years ago, he said, people who were asked what their Data Strategy was might have responded “Hadoop.” That’s not an answer that works anymore:

“Hadoop is not a Data Strategy,” he said. “It enables a Data Strategy. We built our R&D environment in Hadoop and it is working great. It lets us scale. But that’s not our strategy. We are trying to generate ROI from our data, and its [role is only to] enable that.”

That data comes from a carefully selected pool, as well. Equifax of course has a lot of internal information, but there are always new data sets to consider for the value they may provide. That data has to prove itself worthy of acquisition, which requires that it has real value to the business. Equifax has, for example, looked at a geolocation data set in the past, Viciana said, but as nice as it was, he and his team had to conclude that, at the time, it wasn’t a fit with its more financially-focused business.

There’s a formal process in place to make recommendations to the business about whether a data asset is worth investing in, he said, and it requires being able to have good answers as to why the data is needed, how it will be acquired and integrated, and what its value is from a corporate Data Strategy perspective. “We don’t want to be complacent and just be set with what we have, but rather evolve and build our foundation of data.” he said. “We are conceptually trying to enable growth through differentiated data.”

It’s always valuable, he said, to be able to quantify the value of data-related efforts, too. Equifax does that in part through logically classifying its data and how it intersects with its products in an interactive BI tool, so that there is clarity about how products were or were not using each data asset. “Now we are adding what we spend for data and the revenue we generate,” he said, to understand whether it’s worth spending a certain amount of dollars on a data asset that has generated fewer dollars on the revenue side, and to be able to articulate the time to realizing value from data to the organization. “At the end of the day, you must quantify and show value in your program, which is where we are,” he said.

One thing to have great care about is Data Governance as an organization such as Equifax looks to proactively find value in data and identify opportunities from it. Data Governance is the key both to maximizing data usage and protecting assets. “We are the trusted stewards of data and we have to protect people’s personal information,” Viciana said.

There’s also the possibility of getting more creative in marketing use cases, with consideration being given to leveraging data in other ways, such as bundling data sets and related analytics within a BI solution and making that available as an SaaS offering. “We are always thinking of new distribution channels to get insights into our customers’ hands,” he said.

Viciana said he loves when Equifax’s CEO talks about the value of data insights to the financial community, as it’s a big driver for the company’s growth. Indeed, some audience members seemed impressed that the data insights strategy the company is following had its origins in (and strong support by) its top business executive. There were calls for more business leaders to think more about information when they are contemplating about their own corporate strategies, and concerns that it’s impossible to have an effective business strategy unless a strong information strategy is coupled with it.

CDOvision session moderator Thomas Redman, president of Navesink Consulting Group, also commented that companies like Equifax play it smart in distinguishing themselves from others with a Data Strategy.

“Strategy 101 is to compete in ways that you are different,” he said. “Distinct data is yours, it’s not a commodity and it doesn’t walk out door. So the promise is to unlock value in that data.”

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