What’s your data strategy?

Pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica © Sustainable Agriculture Network
Pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica © Sustainable Agriculture Network
Don’t have one yet? You are not alone. On average, less than half of a companies’ structured data is actively used in making decisions – and almost no unstructured data is analysed or used at all. To make matters worse, 80 per cent of data analysts’ time is spent finding and preparing data, according to cross-industry studies cited in a recent Harvard Business Review article.*

If this is the state of affairs in business, can we really expect sustainability standards to be doing better than this? Yes, we can and we should. Getting effective data strategies in place is even more important for credible mission-driven sustainability standards than for your average business. Providing information and assurance about sustainability performance is the business of sustainability standards.  We cannot do this without data. 

Standard systems are already sitting on a lot of data, but much more could be done to get the most out of the data we manage.  Big investments in data management are complicated by the resource constraints standards face:  a data strategy with clear priorities and choices is a must for standards today.

With this in mind, ISEAL and its members are actively working to put our limited resources to work towards an ambitious vision: being efficient, data-driven, and results-focused; using data and information to provide a near real-time understanding of performance and risk; creating measurable value for users and clients; and providing the incentives and support needed to drive sustainability improvements over time and at scale.  

To support this vision, ISEAL’s innovations programme and the ISEAL Innovations Fund have an explicit focus on data and data management this year.

Getting started on your data strategy

If you’re thinking about a data strategy, here are two ideas to help you.

Think data and information: Ultimately, we are after information that can drive decisions about how to improve sustainability performance, provide insight into supply chains, or improve the effectiveness of a standard’s requirements.

But to get to useful information we first need to think about strengthening data basics – digitising data so that it can actually be used and building a data architecture that determines how data will be collected, stored, transformed, distributed and used. Getting to a consolidated repository and registry of all basic data that your organisation collects, and ensuring consistency and regularity in the collection and cleaning of this data, is a critical foundation for transforming that data into information for different needs.

Investing in these basics isn’t sexy, but having a consolidated system with reliable, usable data can reduce costs on data preparation and overlapping data collection and analysis efforts, and will provide the raw material for creating valuable information.

Decide on the appropriate balance between defense and offense: The authors of the Harvard Business Review article, cited above, argue that organisations must choose between investing in defensive and offensive uses of data. Data defense, they say, is about ensuring the integrity of your data and about using data to minimise downside risk (risk of fraud, theft, non-compliance with regulations). Data offense is about using data to support business objectives such as adding value for clients and growing revenue. Data defense is generally best served by more standardisation and consolidation of data; data offense may require more flexibility and more customisation of data and data analytics.

Both defence and offense are important for standards systems – ensuring the integrity of assurance and impact reporting systems, and providing new services and solutions to meet user needs. Deciding on the right mix for your organisation today is a critical part of building a data strategy.

Upcoming ISEAL activities in this space

To take part in the discussion around data, join us at the 2017 Global Sustainability Standards Conference Community Day. This will be an opportunity for ISEAL members and subscribers to come together to discuss innovative data use and take part in the first session of the data skills lab.

Also, this month, read about new opportunities to work on location data and spatial data analysis and review and comment on the draft revision of ISEAL’s Assurance Code – the ‘Information Management’, section 5.2, of the revised draft outlines basic elements of a data management system for the assurance process.

And don’t forget that current and upcoming rounds of the ISEAL Innovations Fund’s grants will provide opportunities for ISEAL members and their partners to invest in both data defence and offense.

  • Small grant round four (currently open) has a focus on integrating new data sources – combining the data from certificate holders that standards already manage with other data sources provide new insights or to strengthen your monitoring and evaluation, assurance, or complaints systems.
  • Small grant round five (August to October, 2017) will have a focus on offensive initiatives that will add value for standards’ users and decision makers. These might include turning existing data into dashboards or visual representations of performance to help senior management or field staff make specific decisions or to guide organisations in coming into compliance with standards.
  • Large grant round one (October to December, 2017) will focus on initiatives that help standards systems move towards a more real-time tracking and checking of compliance and sustainability performance among the entities covered by their standards. These could be defensive initiatives that help ensure the integrity of existing assurance systems and compliance assessments by adding new on-going sources of information to supplement the traditional annual site audit. Offensive initiatives that create new services, products, or analyses focused on more frequent or real-time tracking of performance would also fit in this grant round.


*Dallemule and Davenport, HBR May-June 2017