Learning the (Data) — Data-Driven Management, HBR Edition

The months of December and January are usually full of reviews of significant events and achievements during the previous twelve months. Harvard Business Review makes the search for some of the best writing on the subject of data-driven transformation by occasionally publishing in one volume the best writing on a critical subject of interest to professional through the magazine OnPoint. It is worth making part of your permanent data management library.

The volume begins with a very concise article by Thomas C. Redman with the provocative title “Does Your Company Know What to Do with All Its Data?” He then goes on to list seven takeaways of optimizing the use of existing data that includes many of the themes that I have written about in this blog: better decision-making, innovation, what he calls “informationalize products”, and other significant effects. Most importantly, he refers to the situation of information asymmetry and how this provides companies and organizations with a strategic advantage that directly affects the bottom line–whether that be in negotiations with peers, contractual relationships, or market advantages. Aside from the OnPoint article, he also has some important things to say about corporate data quality. Highly recommended and a good reason to implement systems that assure internal information systems fidelity.

Edd Wilder-James also covers a theme that I have hammered home in a number of blog posts in the article “Breaking Down Data Silos.” The issue here is access to data and the manner in which it is captured and transformed into usable analytics. His recommended approach to a task that is often daunting is to find the path of least resistance in finding opportunities to break down silos and maximize data to apply advanced analytics. The article provides a necessary balm that counteracts the hype that often accompanies this topic.

Both of these articles are good entrees to the subject and perfectly positioned to prompt both thought and reflection of similar experiences. In my own day job I provide products that specifically address these business needs. Yet executives and management in all too many cases continue to be unaware of the economic advantages of data optimization or the manner in which continuing to support data silos is limiting their ability to effectively manage their organizations. There is no doubt that things are changing and each day offers a new set of clients who are feeling their way in this new data-driven world, knowing that the promises of almost effort-free goodness and light by highly publicized data gurus are not the reality of practitioners, who apply the detail work of data normalization and rationalization. At the end it looks like magic, but there is effort that needs to be expended up-front to get to that state. In this physical universe under the Second Law of Thermodynamics there are no free lunches–energy must be borrowed from elsewhere in order to perform work. We can minimize these efforts through learning and the application of new technology, but managers cannot pretend not to have to understand the data that they intend to use to make business decisions.

All of the longer form articles are excellent, but I am particularly impressed with the Leandro DalleMule and Thomas H. Davenport article entitled “What’s Your Data Strategy?” from the May-June 2017 issue of HBR. Oftentimes when addressing big data at professional conferences and in visiting businesses the topic often runs to the manner of handling the bulk of non-structured data. But as the article notes, less than half of an organization’s relevant structured data is actually used in decision-making. The most useful artifact that I have permanently plastered at my workplace is the graphic “The Elements of Data Strategy”, and I strongly recommend that any manager concerned with leveraging new technology to optimize data do the same. The graphic illuminates the defensive and offensive positions inherent in a cohesive data strategy leading an organization to the state: “In our experience, a more flexible and realistic approach to data and information architectures involves both a single source of truth (SSOT) and multiple versions of the truth (MVOTs). The SSOT works at the data level; MVOTs support the management of information.” Elimination of proprietary data silos, elimination of redundant data streams, and warehousing of data that is accessed using a number of analytical methods achieve the necessary states of SSOT that provides the basis for an environment supporting MVOTs.

The article “Why IT Fumbles Analytics” by Donald A. Marchand and Joe Peppard from 2013, still rings true today. As with the article cited above by Wilder-James, the emphasis here is with the work necessary to ensure that new data and analytical capabilities succeed, but the emphasis shifts to “figuring out how to use the information (the new system) generates to make better decisions or gain deeper…insights into key aspects of the business.” The heart of managing the effort in providing this capability is to put into place a project organization, as well as systems and procedures, that will support the organizational transformation that will occur as a result of the explosion of new analytical capability.

The days of simply buying an off-the-shelf silo-ed “tool” and automating a specific manual function are over, especially for organizations that wish to be effective and competitive–and more profitable–in today’s data and analytical environment. A more comprehensive and collaborative approach is necessary. As with the DalleMule and Davenport article, there is a very useful graphic that contrasts traditional IT project approaches against Analytics and Big Data (or perhaps “Bigger” Data) Projects. Though the prescriptions in the article assume an earlier concept of Big Data optimization focused on non-structured data, thereby making some of these overkill, an implementation plan is essential in supporting the kind of transformation that will occur, and managers act at their own risk if they fail to take this effect into account.

All of the other articles in this OnPoint issue are of value. The bottom line, as I have written in the past, is to keep a focus on solving business challenges, rather than buying the new bright shiny object. Alternatively, in today’s business environment the day that business decision-makers can afford to stay within their silo-ed comfort zone are phasing out very quickly, so they need to shift their attention to those solutions that address these new realities.

So why do this apart from the fancy term “data optimization”? Well, because there is a direct return-on-investment in transforming organizations and systems to data-driven ones. At the end of the day the economics win out. Thus, our organizations must be prepared to support and have a plan in place to address the core effects of new data-analytics and Big Data technology:

a. The management and organizational transformation that takes place when deploying the new technology, requiring proactive socialization of the changing environment, the teaching of new skill sets, new ways of working, and of doing business.

b. Supporting transformation from a sub-optimized silo-ed “tell me what I need to know” work environment to a learning environment, driven by what the data indicates, supporting the skills cited above that include intellectual curiosity, engaging domain expertise, and building cross-domain competencies.

c. A practical plan that teaches the organization how best to use the new capability through a practical, hands-on approach that focuses on addressing specific business challenges.

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