Housing boards must improve their data competency

Housing boardrooms need to have frank conversations about data standards, treating them on a par with health and safety, writes Peter Luke.
A portrait of Peter Luke is commercial director at the social housing data management company Illumar. He is smiling at the camera and is stood in front of a grey background.

Over the past year, people have talked about data like never before. Government slogans such as “data not dates” and media coverage on the power of data in a pandemic have begun to open up a subject that was previously seen as specialist and technical.

But even if everyone is discussing data, and more people recognise its value in our personal and business lives, there is still a big gap around knowledge, understanding and use.

I’ve worked in social housing for many years and this data competency issue is definitely relevant to my sector. Increasingly, it’s not just a lack of data management expertise in operational teams that poses a risk, but the lack of capability at board level too.

Although many social landlords describe themselves as data-led, the reality is that debating what the “red, amber, green” status of KPIs says about performance (rather than the lineage or context of the underlying data) is still perceived by some housing leaders as being “data-driven”. And rather than being core to an organisation’s strategy – something to be steered and scrutinised at the top table along with financial performance, workforce development, customer service or health and safety – data is still passed, in many cases, to the IT team to lead.

Improving board data literacy would mean that data policies and systems are driven by strategic intent rather than technologists – leaving the technical team to resolve the technicalities. It would also mean proper examination, by business leaders, on data validation processes. As a recent RSL health and safety report by the Welsh Regulator said, “If the data is not accurate, how do you know you know what you think you know?”

The consequences of poor data integrity are well known in the sector. Governance downgrades often cite decision making that is not consistently supported by accurate data, or the need for a landlord to undertake work to improve data quality, or ensure they have sufficient capability and capacity for this work to happen quickly.

Part of the solution, I believe is a frank conversation in housing boardrooms about the asset management strategy for their data. A board would not accept varying standards of health and safety in their organisation, yet many do accept different data standards, something that directly affects health and safety levels.

Here are some practical ideas on how to tackle this issue:

Learning and development: Determine the baseline of data competency within your board, asking housing leaders for candour. Where are their confidence gaps? What data topics do they want to know more about? Webinars, workshops and case studies can all help with understanding and skills development, increasing familiarity and sparking inspiration.

Challenging perceptions: Data is often seen as something “in the weeds” that isn’t part of mainstream business strategy or daily operations. But in practice, a housing organisation can only be data-driven if its people really get the importance of good quality information and its processes and technology enable data accuracy. Board members must lead by example, making the topic of data accessible for all by repositioning and opening it up. Internal comms, training and development are important tools here.

Creating the right culture: There needs to be a strong environment of data management strategy, governance and infrastructure in place, where functional leads across different departments – from asset management to finance, care and support to HR – own data quality in their area and regard it as vital to business operations. This culture can be supported with enabling technology that provides insights and feedback to these departments rather than them just feeding a corporate data machine.

Questioning data lineage: Examining where data has come from, how it is stored and how certain conclusions are calculated is important. Yet many boards don’t ask enough questions, with some asserting they have confidence in their data without evidencing a clear understanding of how they obtained assurance on its accuracy. The messy business of scrutinising the lineage of data through an organisation must become a more regular feature on board agendas.

As more housing leaders use data to gain greater insight into their properties and tenants, potential mergers or building safety risks, they must ensure the right knowledge and understanding is in place. As the Regulator of Social Housing said in its November 2020 sector risk profile, “it is essential that boards have the appropriate skills to understand and challenge the broad range of information and advice they receive”.

Peter Luke is commercial director at the social housing data management company Illumar.

Image: Peter Luke, commercial director at Illumar. Credit: Illumar.

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