May 20th 2020 – By Anna Cotton

Refocused attitudes to data management during Coronavirus

Originally published at Raconteur and The Times Newspaper

Companies must reassess their approach to data management in the coronavirus era, as shifts in working practices and business processes transform how they protect key information.

We are living in truly unprecedented times, of this there is no doubt. With governments around the world enforcing lockdowns and social distancing, the change to our work patterns is as obvious as it is disruptive. Businesses continue to investigate how best they can extract the most value from existing resources as possible; to do otherwise is economic suicide. With arguably the most valuable resource for the vast majority of 21st-century businesses being data, utilising its potential has become more critical than ever. But has the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how organisations are approaching data management?

First consider the orthodox ways in which data management varies, not only between market sectors but also within organisations.

“Vertical markets such as retail, media and finance, have been using data intensively for many years and as a result benefit from a more data-driven approach to decision-making than organisations such as local government,” says Craig Lodzinski, chief technologist for data and emerging technologies at IT infrastructure and services provider Softcat.

Although there’s no doubting there has been something of a seismic shift towards understanding the value of data, Lodzinski says: “the world’s most popular data science tools remain Microsoft Excel plus pen and paper.”

He’s even seen these orthodox methods used in businesses with otherwise very mature data science capabilities.

But the pandemic has certainly highlighted the shortcomings of these approaches, chiefly in the clarity of information.

“As the conventional work environment is turned on its head,” says Lodzinski, “so the ability to ensure data is correct and can be understood in the same way by all stakeholders is of critical importance.”

However, it should be borne in mind that pandemic behaviours are not necessarily great indicators of long-term data management trends.

“Whether it is the human or machine or a process in general, they are all operating under external influences and situational demands,” says Frank Casey, group vice president, data centre and hybrid-cloud global traffic management, at technology services provider NTT.

By way of example, COVID-19 has turned the traditional notion of a customer relying on data captured from multiple sources on its head. They now buy what is available rather than what is wanted; essentials over desirables. Which means, with traditional physical channels no longer in use, many organisations are reporting “massively reduced and skewed daily data volumes, and no longer have access to rich and deep interaction and transactional data that they relied on for decision-making”, says Casey. Indeed, even the cognitive models developed leveraging interactions through physical facilities are no longer relevant in these times, he says.

What this means is new techniques are emerging to predict client behaviours, techniques that nimble businesses can exploit by “going beyond organisational boundaries, leveraging digital channels and mining social data”, says Casey. 

There is much to be said for the argument that every organisation is a data business in 2020. The problem, according to Danny Reeves, chief executive at data discovery software firm Exonar, is:

“The trading environment has within a few weeks been completely transformed by COVID-19 and along with it the data that was previously valuable may now be useless”. Equally, previously overlooked data stored within an organisation may now be the source of “substantial benefit in the new normal”, he says. 

There can be no doubt business as usual within a remote landscape peppered with virtual collaborations heightens exposure to cyberthreats and regulatory compliance scrutiny.

“Now, more than ever, data governance is a high-tension stress point for corporates,” says Greg Mason, co-founder and chief technology officer of the Forensic Risk Alliance. “Yet they are compelled to keep operating at the same level as if they were under normal circumstances.”

The new normal that working from home brings has certainly meant connectivity and security are playing into the legitimacy of data-management strategy more than ever. “With so many employees suddenly thrust in what may turn out to be permanent work-at-home scenarios, many companies are discovering they are ill-prepared to secure and control so many possible attack vectors,” says Bradley Shimmin, distinguished analyst at technology consultancy Omdia.

A mitigating factor is most organisations already have the tools and technologies that are capable of securing data access, even those historically wed to a centralised workforce, says Shimmin.

“Collaborative platforms like Google G Suite and Microsoft Office already support a concept called zero-trust access, where users gain access through multi-factor authentication via device-specific security checks,” he points out.

And most corporate apps, even those not running on public-cloud platforms, such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, make use of similar zero-trust capabilities. “Below those, down at the data level, databases and data-driven apps have long used strong encryption at rest and in motion to ensure data remains protected as it moves across corporate boundaries for consumption by users and applications alike,” says Shimmin. 

As Philip Miller, co-founder and director of data visualisation specialists Solidatus, reminds us, security departments need to accept that people will demand more unconventional access to their data now.

“Things that might have only been available under certain access conditions now need to be used from home. It is critical to make sure the right people have the right access to data,” he says.

Without the luxury of conversations with decision-makers by the office coffee machine, data management needs to step up to prevent a slowing down of processes. “Automation and shift left [DevOps] style approaches are more vital than ever, with data lineage and mapping procedures paramount,” says Miller. 

The sheer volume of data has changed almost every enterprise landscape and operating practices that put privacy at the heart of data management strategy can no longer be optional. François Rodrigues, chief growth officer at encrypted collaborative solutions company Adeya, concludes: “While the COVID-19 pandemic is upending business as usual, enabling the secure collaboration and communication for employees has never been a more business-critical issue.”