Data Culture. What is it and how do we enhance it?

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This is the first of a series of ideas that are being developed jointly between Bloor Research and Saltare (a leading UK based provider of analytics services) to promote the use of analytics and look to make enterprises ready to make better decisions, with more confidence, and not be daunted by perceived technical barriers.

There is a lot of talk at present on the importance of data culture to the competitiveness and resistance to the disruption that an enterprise has. However much the phrase is bandied about there are very few attempts made to really define what it means or guides provided on how to address achieving an effective culture. So as a starter this article will provide some thoughts that we have about data culture.

There is clearly a difference between how young Internet-savvy companies run themselves and older more established companies. Nowhere does this become more obvious than in their use of analytics. We are not saying that established companies such as insurance companies and banks are not highly literate in analytics; the fraud departments and the actuarial departments are clearly highly sophisticated users of analytics, but generally the Internet companies have a more pervasive adoption of analytics than is true of the established industries.

The Internet companies grew up in and around data and it is a second sense to them to gather data and analyse it prior to making a decision. In more established businesses, there continues to be more of an emphasis on functionality, with data being a by-product of doing business rather than the lifeblood of business itself. This manifests itself in how data ownership is perceived; in established industries the business takes ownership of process but views data as belonging to IT, to the young data-aware company they know that the data is an integral part of how they do business and drives competitive advantage.

The Economist Intelligence Unit identifies that companies that rate themselves ahead of their competitors in the use of data, are rated as being three times more likely to be financially successful. Superiority is closely allied to the use of data-driven decision making over the continued reliance on intuition. There is obviously therefore a pressing need to close the gap.

One thing that is often thought is that it is so much easier for the Internet era companies to be data-driven because they have the data to hand. They have chosen to recognise the importance of the data that drives their businesses from the outset and to place value on it and to treat is as an asset rather than just a by-product. To address this it is important for all companies to understand their data supply chain, to understand where their data comes from, the rules that surround it, how it has been treated, the quality of that data, its veracity and timeliness. Most companies have vast pools of data of very usable quality but they are yet to put it to work.

Having gained an understanding of what data exists and how reliable it is, the next questions to ask are what can be done with it? How can it be shared to benefit as many people as possible? These are relatively simple questions to address and provide a starting point.

Next the questions get a little harder. You need to look at where friction exists within an organisation that is holding things back, and how better information can reduce that friction and advance co-operative working. Allied to that is to look at the big picture (the corporate goals) and ask how can the data that is to hand be used to advance achieving that?

With those foundations in place, you can then start to encourage a fact-based way of working. This is achieved by advancing three things:

  1. Encouragement to use data, make the value of using data clear and remove barriers to access;
  2. Engagement to experiment and use data, assist people to bring data into their day to day decision making, and get them to use not just local data but all pertinent data from other internal and external sources;
  3. Education in use of data, by assisting them to use the tools at hand to access data, use tools to make data informative, and how to interpret results. It is amazing how many people have access to Microsoft and Google analytics tools because of investments they have made elsewhere in their technology stack, and despite having free use of very capable tools, underutilise them.

From there you can start to move to a more enterprise-wide programme to advance your data culture:

  1. Map the organisation’s use of data;
  2. Identify where gaps exist and check to see if they can be filled with data that exist elsewhere;
  3. Start to ensure that all data is accurate, timely and accessible for all who are entitled to use it. Remember if data is available but has known quality issues it is better to use that than to have a gap, so long as people are aware of the shortcomings;
  4. Celebrate and reward success;
  5. Use data to bring people together.

When embarking on such a programme it is essential to recognise that you are trying to change the culture, and just as Rome was not built in a day, overturning years of inbuilt assumptions about the ways that things are done is not a quick fix. It is important to sustain the activity, to recognise that progress will not be linear, that some will get disheartened by the lack of obvious quick wins. If it was that easy everyone would be doing it. Set a course, monitor progress, encourage and make it a habit to look at the facts first then, make a decision, and discuss what the facts tell us.

Nothing here is costly, or difficult, it’s just time-consuming to reach the goal, but as the end game promises so much it is surely a journey worth making. Management needs to get behind this and make it happen.