Data custodians: Eye on the protocol

What does it take to be a data custodian?

With nearly 30 years in the market research industry, we know a thing or two about being the “keeper of the data.” In fact, in some client relationships, our team members have greater project longevity than any client-side staff member. We are sometimes the only ones with the critically important historical view of the origins of a project and its protocols, which puts us in a unique position to serve clients in a role that we love: that of data custodians. 

What is a data custodian, you may ask? A data custodian is a vital role, especially for large companies with many products, many markets, and multiple agencies managing their research. If the data doesn’t match up, that data is meaningless for making essential business decisions. A data custodian protects the integrity of market research projects and the quality of the ensuing data. This involves monitoring every process, checking all fieldwork to make sure it is being undertaken correctly, and reviewing outcomes to ensure there are no anomalies with the data. 

For example, many large global brands face a new complex reality, which can include multiple agency partnerships operating in multiple markets, along with many different products, brands, and goals. This means that you need a globally actionable protocol so that everyone involved has a common language to speak when analyzing data, and opportunities, across markets and product categories. This poses many challenges that can be managed with the right data custodians in place. This role can help ensure that all markets align their local research and reporting metrics to a global standard, to obtain globally consistent results to stakeholders who are evaluating performance. 

In my case, as Global Protocol Director and Audit Manager for Infotools, one of my key projects is a large global tracker that is conducted in 90 markets. My role has emerged from our expertise and experience in finding, resolving, and preventing data quality issues. As a data custodian, I can address challenges such as: 

  • Unexplained data fluctuations and jumps in the data
  • Discrepancies between actual business results (e.g. sales) and claimed behavior (e.g. survey data)
  • Lack of transparency on sample consistency and management
  • Lack of resources to effectively and efficiently manage complex / large projects or change in agencies
  • Managing changes in local field agency and marketing needs without breaking global protocol

Data custodians need an acute awareness of how everyone is implementing the project. My team is the centralized hub for research methodology best practices, ideally preventing impact on data quality or compliance by suggesting efficient solutions before they occur. If a protocol is protected every step of the way, not only can companies uncover better insights, but also avoid wasted time and money spent to gain useless data. 

How do you become a data custodian?

It certainly helps if you have a long-term engagement with a project, especially if you are involved from the outset and in the design stage of a project. The closer you get to the project design, the better equipped you are with the knowledge needed to function in the role of data custodian.

Many of us don’t have that luxury and are engaged post-design. However, don’t despair. There are steps you can take to familiarize yourself intimately with the project’s genesis. This knowledge will give you a foundation for “cracking the whip” when it comes to ensuring everyone is following a specific protocol. Here are some questions you should ask in this situation: 

  • What was driving the project in the first place? 
  • What are the umbrella business objectives that the project supports? 
  • Who is using the data, both internally and externally?  
  • How long have they been doing it this way? 
  • How do markets differ from one another, and why? 
  • How often do you need to get the data? 
  • How flexible do you want your tool to be? 
  • What is the methodological approach to the project? 

Your job as a data custodian is to remind everyone involved in the process - from the brand managers to the data collection agencies to the top-tier stakeholders - of WHY the project exists in the first place. This means that everything that is done will uphold these foundational objectives. By doing this, you can prevent end-users of the data from becoming frustrated. 

For example, someone may want to find out the answer to a question that the protocol or tool was not designed to answer. You must keep in mind what the goals of the project are, and not ask for information that the data will not give you. This is especially important in a tracker scenario because the data will not match up. Data custodians can help their teams avoid these roadblocks by being the person that all involved parties must run work through before taking any action. 

Be open to change

It’s no secret that our industry is changing at lightspeed. Being a data custodian can seem like a role that is anti-change. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If data custodians are anything at all, they are ANTI bad data and ANTI bad outcomes. If someone involved in the project is venturing out of a prescribed protocol, then one of your key jobs is to find out why. You are protecting data quality, so if data quality can be improved by changing the way you do things, then part of your job is to uncover that improvement and make it part of the protocol.

As an example, if one of the partners I work with wants to make a change that is outside our agreed process, they run it by me. If it makes sense and bolsters the original goals of the project, then I will discuss it with the global offices to make the change universally. I must be ready with my bank of knowledge about the protocol to make the right decision about whether or not to make a change like this as well. 

Change is also pushed to the forefront with new technology. As new data collection methods become more widely available - such as new media and social listening - you must be flexible. There are new ways to collect dependable data to achieve reliable outcomes. As a data custodian, these approaches also require firmer quality checks that are quite different from those applied to more traditional methods. You must take a step back, adapt, and strike a balance between traditional and new methodologies that complement each other. All this while always keeping an eye on the business objectives that form the foundation for the entire project. 

In short,

Being a data custodian can be a gratifying job, especially as you begin to see the direct influence that this role has on achieving quality outcomes. There are a few key things to keep in mind on your path to becoming the “go-to” person for the team, including a deep understanding of the project’s foundation, goals, and protocols. This role will soon become indispensable to the project and guide the insights that will help your clients or company to succeed.


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