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How to avoid and break down data silos

Silos may serve a valuable purpose down on the farm, but when it comes to your business, data silos only spell trouble. A data silo is a collection of data held by one group within a company that is difficult or impossible for others throughout the company to access or analyze.

Data silos can exist or emerge anywhere in your company, from marketing and HR to accounting and finance. These siloes impede those from other departments from having ready access to data and information that could benefit their work in myriad ways—and improve performance and results for your entire organization.

The high-level damage done by data siloes is two-fold. First, they gum up efficiency by adding time, effort, and frustration to the process of getting important information. Second, they hold your company back from reaching its full potential by masking the many untold opportunities that could emerge from a culture in which data flows freely from department to department, allowing for greater collaboration unearthing deep actionable insights. 

If you can establish ways to avoid data silos from developing as well as breaking down those that exist, it can be a game changer for your company, driving greater efficiency, collaboration and innovation that can provide a clear competitive edge over companies that remained mired in siloes.

For example, SurveyMonkey CIO Eric Johnson talks about the “secret sauce” that IT professionals should be thinking about that would unlock survey data from siloes and find ways to leverage it across the organization in creative ways.

“Once you think about all the information you are gathering from employees and customers, you can also think of interesting ways to start applying it into growth and sales opportunities,” Johnson says. “Wouldn't it be interesting if you could bring together all this disparate information you're gathering in a way that makes sense for the business?”

Interesting indeed, and possible if you take the actions necessary to break down silos and prevent them from emerging in the future.

Deeper Dive: Read more from Eric Johnson and other Momentive thought leaders’ Success tips from CIOs.

Without effective data governance your company is destined to play an endless game of whack-a-mole when it comes to data silos. They pop up as fast as you can hammer them down. While that might prove fun in the arcade, it’s frustrating and soul-sucking in a business environment in which people are trying to get things done in the most efficient and effective ways possible.

Getting to the root of data silos requires a clear assessment and changes to your data governance approach, putting in motion policies and processes for assuring that existing data is shared more easily, while also creating a proactive guard against fresh siloes forming as new technology gets introduced into your company.

The path to more effective and nimble data governance includes creating or updating your data governance framework, auditing your data, and then making sure that there is consistent awareness and buy-in across your organization to avoid pockets of data hoarding, as well as reaping the cultural and business benefits of a more strategic and effective data governance model.

While the process can prove challenging, the payoff is substantial. In many organizations, individuals in certain departments have long since stopped even trying to access siloed data that has proven difficult to retrieve. By breaking down silos, you not only free your data to reach its full potential, but also energize your employees to leverage data to do their jobs better, and generate new ideas for greater efficiency and innovation.

Supercharge survey data: When it comes to survey data, SurveyMonkey offers easy-to-use centralized account controls that help you manage data and users, and comply with data governance policies. This allows you to stay in control of how survey data is collected, accessed, and used while ensuring it’s shared across your organization.

A key first step toward establishing better data governance is to conduct a data audit. In simple terms, a data audit means locating the data that exists in your company, and then digging into the siloes to get a clear picture of what data already exists – and the size and scope of the problem you have in terms of data silo issues. 

The data audit process can have benefits beyond simply sizing up your problem. It can also unearth potential low-hanging-fruit opportunities as individuals in different departments get their first glimpse at data that could benefit their work if they only had ready access to it.

Here’s how to conduct a data audit in 5 steps:

1. Find out what you have: You can’t move forward until you find out what data you have within the organization. List all of the data assets you have, including such things as survey data, customer information, purchasing data, online shopping cart data, email data, and any other data sources.

2. Locate where data is: Now that you have a grasp on what data exists, you need to know where it lives. Launch a scavenger hunt through the organization to explore all systems—both existing and old—to locate where your data is housed.

3. Talk to data owners: Getting the full picture of all of your data requires that you interview key people who have been charged with overseeing different buckets of information. This not only assures that you find all the existing data and where it lives, but adds vital context to how it is being used—and how it might be more readily shared.

4. Organize and rank: Now you can set to organizing all of the existing data, and prioritize what is most valuable so you can create an action plan to support your new data governance model. Not all data is created equal, so it makes sense to focus first on the most valuable information most likely to benefit from greater sharing.

5. Assess your data is being used: Once you have completed steps 1 through 4, you can figure out exactly how the data is being used on a daily basis. This helps make clear if key data is being underutilized, or if there is too much reliance on less valuable data.

Once you have greater visibility into your company-wide data, where it exists, and how it is being used, you are positioned to develop an effective framework for data governance that will provide consistent guidance for those managing data throughout your organization.

A solid data governance framework helps make standardize rules and ownership protocol clearer and more uniform while creating a better structure for data throughout the organization.

Effective data governance can be a powerful tool to break down silos, and on an ongoing basis, help prevent silo creep, which can occur when certain departments tend to become lone wolves who are hesitant to readily share data. A sound governance framework provides clear guidelines for those working in your company. Beyond that, it also goes a long way toward enhancing the value of data itself. Some of the key benefits that can be reaped by better data governance include improved:

  • Data consistency: Data is collected, stored and shared in a more uniform manner.
  • Data quality: By creating consistency, the quality of data continuously improves.
  • Data accuracy: Standardizing your data governance framework leads to more accurate data, allowing employees from throughout the organization to use it with confidence.

Deeper dive: 4 ways surveys support data-driven decisions.

At many organizations, individual departments have made technology upgrades over the course of time. And while those systems might have met a specific need for say, HR, they might not be compatible with the system put in use by Accounting. These individual systems create the silos of data that stand in the way of greater collaboration and efficiency.

The key to combating this is developing a technology infrastructure that is a more centralized network, in which all users are connected to a central server that stores complete network data and user information.

Centralizing the technology infrastructure of your company will allow for data to flow more freely across the organization and improve data access for employees busting data silos along the way.  

As an added benefit, centralizing your technology can reduce costs over time, as well as boosting productivity for your IT team because they don’t have to service a range of different technology systems.

Incorporating universal tools and dashboards into your technology infrastructure can improve employees’ ability to access and share data. Universal tools increase ease of use for users across your organization. Meanwhile dashboards make it easy-to-access real time data in a range of formats so people throughout the organization have greater visibility and the ability to use data in new and useful ways. These tools reduce the learning curve for users throughout your organization, increasing the likelihood that they will rely more on shared data to do their jobs more effectively.

To truly leverage the data throughout your company it takes more than identifying and breaking down silos. You need to find a way efficiently and automatically draw insights from that data. That’s where integration comes into play.

To use an analogy, let’s visit the symphony. Now picture individual buckets of data as musicians while the entire orchestra making beautiful music represents the integration. Examine how making integrative tools a part of your technology infrastructure can make exchanging and sharing data a seamless and even automatic process.

Integration allows you to draw from key third-party sources to provide an even more robust data picture. For instance, SurveyMonkey offers tools to help you integrate survey data into your favorite apps and business systems you already use.

Automated survey data integration adds context, color, and sentiment to data in apps and CRM systems. This process can take you from simply relying on data to tell you “what” happened, to getting clear insight into “why” it happened. This puts you in a strong position to fully leverage integrated data to support a full range of activities throughout your business.

For example, you can better understand your prospects by integrating survey data in Marketo, HubSpot, or Oracle® Eloqua to enrich leads. You can improve lead quality by scoring and segmenting leads based on survey responses, and use that segmentation to create more personalized campaigns. The result is stronger customer relationships that will lead to increased conversions and sales—and a more loyal, valuable customer base.

Silos are often a symptom of a larger issue—a culture problem within your company. Organizations that have created discipline around creating a data framework or have not emphasized the value of collaboration, often end up with departments not working well together, that leads to a lack of data sharing, and in some instances, even specific departments hoarding data because of competitive motives that exist within the company culture.

These types of environments can be detrimental, not only to fostering a more creative and collaborative culture, but also holding back your company from reaching its full potential because siloed data isn’t being leveraged in the most effective ways.

Changing company culture takes time, but it can happen. But a focused effort on breaking down data silos and finding ways to share data and information in ways that are mutually beneficial can help facilitate positive adjustments in company culture.

In short, breaking down data silos can also break down some of the barriers that may have negatively impacted your company culture. You can work toward eliminating silos and improving communication and collaboration by:

  • Encouraging cross-department communication and sharing. 
  • Fostering a culture of collaboration with training and learning opportunities about preventing data silos.
  • Rewarding employees that enable and contribute to collaboration and the sharing of information. 
  • Emphasizing communication and the sharing of data in the company strategy to help set the standard, which can help avoid data silos from building up.

Industry experts agree–data success relies on business and IT partnerships. According to NewVantage Partners, organizations that are successful in developing a data culture–where data is embedded in decision-making–have strong alignment between data, technology, and business professionals.

Data silos are clear roadblocks to the success of your business. Getting rid of them can make a huge difference in both your company’s performance as well as your corporate culture.

IT leaders can add real value by working with key stakeholders throughout their organization to seek out and destroy data silos—and create an ongoing governance framework to prevent them from re-emerging.

 SurveyMonkey Enterprise Solutions can help make it happen.

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