Three ways to build on DISA’s strong data strategy

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Throughout 2022, we’ve seen the federal government continue to place an emphasis on the importance of data and its role within the decision-making process for mission-critical operations. In addition to various agency plans that outline a strategic approach to data management over the years — including the Defense Department’s Data Strategy in October 2020 and the Labor Department’s Enterprise Data Strategy in April of this year — the Defense Information Systems Agency recently shared its Data Strategy Implementation Plan, or IPlan, which defines a modern approach to information architecture with a key focus on data management.

The plan aims to dismantle organic data silos and encourage integrated network capabilities, thus improving functionality in the agency’s management systems, while embracing DoD structures and strategies.

It will also guide how the organization will manage and exploit data as a critical asset, highlighting the evident value of implementing modernized cyber architectures in the public sector, which ensure that decision-makers can collaborate using interoperable and secure data networks.

There are a few areas that could impact the outcome if they were called out more explicitly, including C-suite alignment, setting intermediate goals and workforce development — all of which are essential to planting a data-centric approach for any agency.

C-suite alignment and coordination

C-suite alignment throughout any information technology-based process is critical for mission success, especially when discussing an enterprisewide data strategy. A strategy or plan would greatly benefit from further clarification on how to navigate the responsibilities between the chief information officer, the chief information security officer and the chief data officer in order to build a successful, data-driven culture.

Role clarity is essential here. While the plan mentions the three titles, it implies but does not encourage collaboration between them. And while each agency has its own relationships, these three positions need to be in sync to meet mission objectives effectively.

Defining intermediary goals

The IPlan is ambitious and lists out goals and initiatives with 2023 deadlines; however, it would help to better define those that are essential for a strategic plan rollout, or offer guidance on what’s needed for effective implementation in the long term.

The plan does outline final goals and objectives, looking at where agencies should strive to be at the end of this data journey.

Intermediate goals keep an organization’s team aligned throughout the process — and most importantly on the right path toward success. Regardless of the agency, all aspects of an organization’s data strategy goals should be clearly tied to data-driven outcomes that directly support missions.

If results and progress aren’t measureable, they don’t exist; there’s a need for clear benchmarks and methods to track the implementation process for immediate feedback and understanding. While setting clear, measurable, data-driven goals is vital, without the proper workforce and organizational culture, meeting them can be tough.

Workforce development to support a data-centric approach

The IPlan’s goals have a fairly aggressive 2023 timeline, but as it stands, DISA needs to ensure it has the staff and expertise to accomplish its mission. As the DoD has moved to a more data-centric approach regarding plans and strategy, we’ve learned there aren’t enough cyber and data trained professionals to perform necessary functions.

As recently as five years ago, these plans and data-specific roles did not exist. Now there’s a law on the books supporting the position of a CDO. While it’s encouraging to see DISA prioritizing data through the implementation of data strategies and plans, a path to creating a more data-savvy workforce is necessary. Now that organizations are trying to be data centric and make data the core for more informed decisions, the need for a workforce that’s trained in these technologies is vitally necessary.

Overall, DISA’s IPlan is a solid step forward for guiding internal data practices, providing insights and goals to guide them in reducing data silos while managing and exploiting data as a critical asset. With a clear understanding of data and a trained and developed workforce, DISA will be able to provide informed insights to senior leaders that they didn’t have before. Setting clear, measurable intermediate goals and benchmarks will allow an organization to stay on track with its data initiatives.

The long-term goal for any organization serious about making progress with data is to establish a data-driven organizational culture that begins with leadership. Alignment at the C-level is crucial to ensure success in advancing data usage in government.

Also, digital transformation must become more efficient; it’s about seeing how few resources can be used to achieve a favorable outcome. This is why data is key to successful transformation.

Understanding how data can be used to make informed decisions based on factual evidence and increased visibility will propel an organization’s mission and lead to reduced resource spend.

Rob Carey is president of Cloudera Government Solutions. He previously served as principal deputy chief information officer for the U.S. Defense Department.

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