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Data governance committee project pays off for Blue Cross

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City turned to data governance and business knowledge stewards to improve customer data.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City had a real data governance problem on its hands a few...

years ago.

Due to mounting pressure from competitors, the well-known insurance provider realized it needed to get better information and self-service capabilities to its customers, including its insured members, employer groups and healthcare providers, many of which were still getting information primarily through paper-based reports.

But getting there required that the organization first create a data governance team that consisted of both business and IT professionals charged with coordinating data integration, data cleansing and analysis functions, Darren Taylor, vice president of the organization's information access division, told attendees at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) conference here.

As a result of the data governance team's efforts and an ensuing data warehousing and analytics project, Blue Cross and Blue Shield is providing cleaner, more current and more consistent data to both internal decision makers and external customers, Taylor said.

Business knowledge stewards key to success

One of the major themes of Blue Cross's continuing data governance project is accountability; and, to Taylor, that means achieving the goal of turning data into a true asset for the business side of the company. That's why Blue Cross's data governance committee includes what Taylor calls "business knowledge stewards" who represent different business units within the company.

The business knowledge stewards at Blue Cross provide the comprehensive business knowledge to manage information as a strategic asset, and they focus on the way business understands and uses data, Taylor said. They also promote the consistent use of information across the enterprise and assist in identifying the business needs that drive information access requirements.

A good business knowledge steward has a thorough understanding of business functions, the ability to work effectively with people from a variety of business units, an understanding of how business uses information either across the board or in a specific subject area, an understanding of the company culture, and the ability to effect change, Taylor said. He added that a good business knowledge steward is also one who is respected within the company's business community.

[Business knowledge stewards] really need to be champions of data management, Taylor said, to go back and almost sell the subject to their organizations by saying, 'You know we need to participate in this project because we're going to get this out of it.' "

What the future holds

Three years into the data governance projects, Blue Cross has reached the point where many customers can find the data they need through interactive, analytical dashboards that pull data from the companies newly implemented data warehouse.

Looking beyond 2007, Taylor said his firm is looking at ways to make the dashboards more predictive in nature. For example, he said, if there are certain targets and benchmarks that the company is looking to hit, the dashboards will alert specific users if there is a trend taking place that could thwart those goals.

More importantly, Taylor said, his firm is looking at ways to use the dashboards and data warehouse to actually improve the health of patients.

"We're becoming an advocate for patients as opposed to just a health plan that pays claims," he said.

Data governance message catching on

The importance of properly governing data is being realized well beyond the walls of Blue Cross and Blue Shield's Kansas City offices. TDWI surveyed 116 data professionals and their business sponsors at an August conference and found that the majority of organizations are actively embracing data governance.

The drivers behind this trend cover a wide range of issues, including compliance with internal and external regulations, business intelligence initiatives, sales opportunities, mergers, and corporate or IT governance projects, Philip Russom, senior manager of TDWI's research organization, told the attendees just before Taylor took the stage here.

Russom went on to explain that the goal of most data governance programs like Blue Cross's is to enable an organization to treat data as an asset -- but getting there requires many sweeping changes. For example, he said, thorough data governance initiatives generally require organizations to transform data, data management technology, who owns the data, and how the organization uses the data.

With so many changes going on, it's extremely important that organizations form a data governance committee or board that is staffed with both business and technology people, similar to the one employed by Blue Cross.

Russom added that when executed on a broad scale, data governance becomes a part of almost all data management practices, including data quality, integration, administration, architecture and warehousing.

"Data governance has to be a kind of collaborative hub," Russom said. "There's a lot of different roles that have to come together and talk about how [we are] using data. Are we following certain regulatory regulations? Are we using data in compliance with what our partners want us to do? [And] are we following through with certain security policies? Governance can help with that as well."

The way to a knowledge steward's heart

At the end of the Blue Cross presentation, Taylor was asked how he initially went about getting his organization's business knowledge stewards to take on the additional responsibilities of that role.

"They have to know that something good can happen because of their efforts, either for them personally, or for their department, or for the company," Taylor said. "[And] you have to buy them lunch."

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