Making the case for Data Transformation

Chief Information Officer Dan Simms and Chief Data Officer Monica Jones share a look at how the University of Leeds is transforming how it uses data.

Employee Survey | Fantastic opportunity to give us your honest thoughts. March 2023

Dan Simms, Chief Information Officer

Why data matters

My first experience of a major ransomware attack was in 2017, when I supported a global law firm as a consultant. It taught me how critically important data is to an organisation.

Just imagine, for a moment, a situation where every desktop, laptop and server computer has been wiped in a 15-minute period. That is exactly what happened. 6000+ desktop and laptop computers and thousands of servers, all gone in a matter of minutes. 

The attack didn’t just impact the documents people were working on – it wiped out things that often aren’t even thought of as data, such as electronic diaries. People came to work the next day and didn't know what to do next. There was no magic option to 'reboot' to get it working again. It took months to recover the main business services. Some services took years and some were never recovered.

Just imagine running confirmation and clearing without access to Banner or any student data. It's the same for most of our core business processes.
That experience taught me that data is the lifeblood of an organisation. Data powers the decisions that we make every single day. Without access to data, organisations grind to a halt.

Data is also central to us delivering positive outcomes:

  • Student success: Data can help identify at-risk students, intervene early to provide support, and improve overall student success rates.
  • Research: Data is critical for research activities at universities, enabling researchers to analyse large datasets, identify trends, and make informed conclusions.
  • Strategic decision-making: Data can inform strategic decision-making at a university, such as identifying areas of growth, improving student retention rates, and optimising resource allocation.

So, it only makes sense that data should be a core part of the University’s Digital Transformation, along with a renewed focus on cyber security.

Getting started

When it came to working with Monica on our Data Strategy, we felt the obvious place to start was to aim to empower students and support research. 

Of course, there were regulatory and operational considerations too – from gathering statistics for the bodies we need to report to, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), to the need for linked up corporate systems to enable day-to-day functions around the University.

Because of the myriad collections of systems of various ages and the various ‘pockets’ of data around the University, the need for a unified data strategy was clear to help ensure that, as an organisation, we could be consistent and secure in the way we collected, stored and accessed data.

It quickly became clear that, as well as a strategy, a team and a cultural shift were needed to start to move the University away from seeing data as a burden towards seeing it as an asset – and then unlocking its value to the community.

In the early days of developing the strategy, Monica and her team spent a lot of time consulting with colleagues across the University to identify the foundations required to underpin the data strategy. This resulted in us having a clear approach to data quality, data ownership and governance and how we integrate our data and cyber security strategies together.

Data is a key component of a wider ecosystem – encompassing research, learning and teaching, professional services and beyond – rather than something to be viewed and handled in isolation. 

Whilst IT Services is facilitating the creation and delivery of the Data Strategy, data is not ‘owned’ by IT Services. As we roll out our new Data Strategy, we will implement new governance, quality and ownership structures to help us maximise the value of our data.

Fifteen to One | Monica Jones. December 2022

Monica Jones, Chief Data Officer

People and collaboration

The Data strategy aims to help remove cultural, behavioural and structural boundaries. 

To do that, it is ultimately about partnership across the university – colleagues across the community own bits of the strategy to deliver – IT simply enables that delivery.

That said, as the strategy was being developed, we quickly recognised that we would need a team to help provide guidance as well as implement the changes it would outline.

Or – as I put it to colleagues at the time – when it comes to large-scale transformation programmes, “if it’s not someone’s day job, everyone’s a bit too busy for change management.”

We were aware of the need for a diverse range of voices in the new team, and previous difficulties in attracting people to tech roles at the University, so I worked with HR colleagues to take the opportunity to spearhead a new hiring approach. 

I aimed to be accessible to potential new recruits throughout and ran group drop-in sessions online where people could attend and find out more about the roles. We were also able to attract a diverse range of applicants though the various events run with partners like Women in Data.

I’m happy to report that the approach was a success. At one point during recruitment, there were 112 applicants for just two data analyst roles.

It's now the day job of several people to drive this data transformation forward, and key partnerships around the University – such as with the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics – are in place.

Taking a moment to reflect – and look ahead

Myself and Dan were privileged enough, on Tuesday 18 April, to be able to provide a look at how the University is transforming how it uses data as part of Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities UK conference.

It was fantastic to be able to share with others in the sector how far we’ve come as a community – and given them a glimpse of what’s still to do. 

Of course, this is a long process. Reaching the end of the strategy’s roadmap won’t mean that it is ‘done’, but simply means University will be in a better position continue to innovate and collaborate on the collection and use of data. 

Data needs to be useful, trustworthy, and accessible if it is going to turn from a burden into an asset, and everyone has a part of play in making that happen. We’re making progress, and any success of the Data Strategy is a shared success for the community. 

Read about some of these recent successes in our Annual Review, and find out more about our Data Strategy on

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