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Laura Sebastian-Coleman, Ph.D., IQCP

Laura Sebastian-Coleman, Ph.D., IQCP

Data Quality Expert | Data Governance and Data Management Professional

Laura Sebastian-Coleman, Ph.D., IQCP, Data Quality Director at Prudential, has worked in data quality management since 2003. She has implemented data quality metrics and reporting launched and facilitated data quality working groups, contributed to data consumer training programs, and led efforts to establish data standards and to manage metadata in support of data governance goals.

Author of Navigating the Labyrinth (2018), Measuring Data Quality for Ongoing Improvement (2013), and Meeting the Challenges of Data Quality Management (2022).

Laura has received awards for her contributions to the Data Management Profession (2018) and awards for Excellence in Data Management (2018) and she received IAIDQ’s Distinguished Member award.

What attracted you to data management or IT, and why did you choose to pursue this career?

The path that launched my career in data management was not a straight one. After I graduated from college, where I had majored in English and History, I pursued a Ph.D. in English Literature and taught college for several years. That was going to be my career. But tenure track jobs were hard to come by. I ended up getting a corporate communications job that focused on “writing for the web” and then was hired into the IT department. After that company suffered losses related to 9/11, I was one of many people who were downsized. I landed a job as a data quality manager at UnitedHealth Group. Fortunately, the field was relatively new, so I had a chance to educate myself about it, and UnitedHealth was very supportive of training and development.

Once I got started, I was, as they say, completely into it. I find data inherently interesting. I am amazed at what we can see in data if we ask the right questions. This is one reason why I am passionate about improving data literacy. If more people can comprehend how to use and understand data, and if more are aware of the risks associated with the misuse of data, organizations can benefit from the value of data and use it to improve the overall quality of life.

What has been your greatest career accomplishment so far, and why has it been important to your career?

Given my commitment to data literacy, I feel very fortunate to have published several books and to have experienced being a production editor. I hope my work helps people better understand the nature of data and the challenges of data management.

Writing the first book, Monitoring Data Quality for Ongoing Improvement, feels to me like the greatest accomplishment, simply because by getting it done, I proved to myself that I could do it. Also, I am proud of the framework presented in that book. It is intended to be useful and, based on the feedback I have received about it, it has been useful to many organizations. Developing it in collaboration with colleagues at UnitedHealth was also a rewarding experience. I learned a tremendous amount from the process – especially about the power of collaboration.

Publishing Navigating the Labyrinth put a bow on that for me. The fact that the books have been well received makes them seem less like work.

My latest book, Meeting the Challenges of Data Quality Management, was in many ways more difficult to write than the other books, and in that respect, it feels like an important accomplishment. I will need to see what other people think of it, though.

As I said, publishing books has connected me with a lot of smart, interesting people in the field, for whom I have great respect: Danette McGilvray, Tom Redman, John Ladley, James Price, Nina Evans, Hakan Edvinsson, Katherine O’Keefe, Daragh O Brien, David Plotkin, John Talburt, David Hay, Steve Hoberman, Rajesh Jugulum, Anne Marie Smith, David Marco, Rupa Mahanti, Gwen Thomas, and Richard Wang among others. Their work has helped me understand different perspectives and kept me very engaged in the problems we are all trying to solve. It has also given me the opportunity to participate in the ongoing conversation about the overall improvement of data management.

What are the two or three biggest challenges you face as a data management professional / CDO and how can we address them?

Well, I just wrote a book on what I refer to as the five challenges (data, people, process, technology, and culture), so it is hard to pick the biggest unless I go with the connections between these things. The ability to understand take advantage of the ways data binds the organization together is to improve data literacy. I would say improving data literacy is the most important challenge because it will enable us to address the others.

Many organizations want to get value from their data. But they do not always see the range of opportunities to do so. It is easy to get distracted by the technology itself and miss the importance of the quality and usability of the data.

Usability is the heart of value, since, as both Tom Redman and Danette McGilvray have pointed out, the only time data brings value is when it is used. Usability depends on many factors: the quality of the data itself, the skills and knowledge of the people using it, the tools used to create and manage it, and the information (metadata) that supports the use of data. If people within the organization are more “data literate,” that is, if they have the knowledge, skills, and experience to understand, interpret, and communicate with data, and if they have structures to support data use (metadata, access to SMEs, technical support), then they will also have better skills in designing data for use and getting value from data.

How do you see data management / the role of the CDO / IT changing in the next 2 – 3 years?

Data management is a set of practices intended to enable organizations to use and get value from their data. The way organizations create and use data is changing rapidly. These changes bring new risks, especially risks related to the potential misuse of data. Few organizations have yet been successful implementing data management practices. In my opinion, we need a major rethinking of how to view data management, especially with respect to how data use is supported.

Answering this question with respect to the concept of the CDO is a little tricky to answer, since it assumes that the role of the CDO is both well-defined and consistent across organizations. I don’t think that it is or that it necessarily needs to be. The role any individual CDO plays depends on the goals of the organization, the ways the organization plans to use data to meet its goals, and the current state of data and data management within the organization. Some CDOs will join organizations at the beginning of their data journeys; others will join organizations that have mature data management and governance practices. What I hope will happen in general is that CDOs will find effective ways to educate organizations about the ways that data binds them together and that this insight will help organizations understand and use their data more effectively.

Do you have any planned next steps for your career?

I have just recently started a new job, having joined Prudential in September 2021. It is very exciting to be part of the team at Prudential. The company has launched a transformation program. We have a smart, experienced CDO and genuine support for the work we are doing in our Data Management & Governance program. I have a great team of people reporting to me and a manager and colleagues who are committed to making the program work. So, my goal is very simple: establish a world class data quality program.

What is the single best piece of advice you have received in your data management / IT career so far?  Why has it been so important to you?

Think about the customer. This is Tom Redman’s mantra. I think he gets it from quality pioneers like W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran. This advice is important in relation to many things, but it is easiest to remember in relation to the value equation.  The message is that people need to be able to use data with confidence. If it is not reliable, they won’t be able to use it. No use, no value. No value… why do all that work?

Can you share something about yourself as a person that people wouldn’t know about you?

Questions like this are a little hard to answer, because a lot of what I do is hang out at home with my husband and my pets, and engage in hobbies that are a bit solitary, like reading, quilting, and cycling. That said, I was at a training session several years ago and, as part of an ice breaker, we had to answer a bunch of questions like, how many pets do you have? (At the time, in our house we had six: two dogs, two cats, a snake and a dragon lizard thing), and have you ever lived in a country other than the US? (I lived for two academic years in Austria and spent one summer in Ireland), and how many states have you lived in? (Again, six! Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Connecticut). And I kept being the last person standing. So… maybe I am secretly the kind of person other people might find interesting. At least, I feel fortunate to have had rich and varied experiences. 😉

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