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Becoming a data-driven organization: Lessons from the field

Data To Dollars is a Knowledge Network, Coaching and Management Consulting Firm which specializes in helping organizations create and manage their data monetization programs.

Building a data-driven organization is one of the essential stepping stones towards data monetization use cases and many other advanced revenue generating and competitive edge use cases. What are the building blocks? What is best practice? Data To Dollars frequently invites thought leaders to share their reflections on our new blog.

Are you afraid of the enormity of the possible?

Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible’ neon art work, for me, accurately represents all that is going on right now with organizations striving to embrace the possibilities, the potential and the returns which data tantalizingly promises. Today, we witness a fundamental shift from traditional companies to a more modern, digitally centered business where data is the core enabler.

We are witnessing a shift towards an era where businesses are driven by:

  • Consumers; defining requirements and needs themselves,
  • Unexpected competition; destroying the norms of yesterday with data-powered, light resource and limited physical assets,
  • New opportunities; where successful companies effectively mine data and use it as a source of value, in the midst of relinquishing their asset base to a lean, digital core.

When speaking with company executives seeking to transform their businesses in similar ways, I immediately identify the human drive within us that seeks any and all ways to achieve progress, even if that requires a step into the unknown.

This, not so typical, link with the world of art comes to mind because so many organizations are discussing the goal of data-enablement. Yet I wonder why so many are trying (or at least say they are trying) to navigate this unknown area without as much as a playbook, not to mention an actual vision.

To set the scene for data capacity, collection, and subsequent usage, we start with the generation that is fueling the 4th industrial revolution. Today’s vast majority of companies were started before the year 2000 – and therefore are not considered to be “digital native” companies. They can be defined more as digital immigrants, attempting to migrate into a digital embedded and enabled arena. Regardless of when the organization was formed though, it is the people who define the culture. Those who work in and comprise the culture, help define the digital savviness, which is crucial if an organization desires to become a data-driven organization.

Consider your own organization. Are staff predominantly digital immigrants? If yes, the level of effort to transform into a more data-centric organization will likely be significant. Assuming this is the case, what can an organization do to shift towards the digital world and how can (big) data impact your company?

As a primer for these tips, I will use Alfredo Jaar’s powerful statement, less is more, so too the essence is to try and keep it simple.

First: You (and not someone else but you) NEED to ensure the proper sponsorship from the top of the organization.
Any significant culture change requires active support from the top. That starts with believers. And a vision. Declaring data as a strategic asset – but without committing investment nor resources and without a defined specific goal – will simply be insufficient.A symbolic, yet shallow declaration of ‘data is an asset’ will most often lead to suboptimal initiatives where the good will of individuals will turn into disappointing outcomes and –in a worst case scenario – may drive a terrible backlash at data as a source of strategic initiatives. Beyond the investment of time, operating without a relevant vision on how to use data as a means to focus value will seriously dilute all efforts to integrate a company’s initiatives in (big) data. Invariably, the different functional teams will operate in their own customer engagement silo, while others will operate in their own digitized solutions silo. External change is relatively easy, while internal change is hard.

The best way forward is mostly by focusing on the desired outcome and value you strive to achieve for the end-client or consumer of the data. There are two areas to explore, depending on the type of organization you represent:

  • companies can use data to create efficiency or
  • companies that use data to create market effectiveness. So ask yourself the following questions when looking for support from the top:
  • What will best sell the vision to those who need to sponsor any change?
  • Who owns the digital (big) data strategy?
  • How much are you investing in creating a business outcome?

Coupled with the overall sponsorship and vision, there must be a measurement of the efforts. Metrics are crucial in making sure all progress is transparent and made available and reviewed accordingly. Depending on which desired outcome the overarching vision holds, both directions have distinct metrics: Applying data to create efficiency is best measured through a return on investment (ROI) calculation. When applying data analysis to create market effectiveness it will all about HOW MUCH top line growth you are able to realize. Explaining that doesn’t get any simpler.

Second: Embrace a culture of experimentation.
This is not synonymous with a culture that accepts failure; those are two different things. Simply accepting failure may actually create more failure. And more failure usually spells the end of your initiative in becoming a data-driven organization. Rather, a culture of experimentation that captures their metrics is one in which companies, organizations, and teams learn from failures over time. You need to create the ability to course correct (again; in time) and measure what you do. A culture of transparency will help as it will allow for everybody to learn and see what is going on. Maximizing the effect of the experimentation which you need to foster. And then the wheel is set in motion.

Organizations whose ties date back to the pre-millennium age and are ambitious, or forced by the market, to migrate in actions (and not just words) to the digital era can find ways to support this, by tying regular optimization efforts to performance improvements. Behavior after all follows reward! These will lead to cost reductions and free up capital for innovation.

An example is BNY Mellon, which started with the objective of finding new sources of top line growth. It started mapping 1700 legacy applications to 100+ foundational services. APIs then expose services to a wider range of users in the different value chains used by business groups who seek to leverage the data to extract value aimed at new sources of top line growth. Had the bank not set out on this open approach it would have never uncovered the value it could unlock by simply opening up data and information to all the different value chains. An experiment no more; it now creates a clear competitive advantage.

Third: Speed. Speed. Speed; Move faster than ever, and with reduced complexity

Companies that put data at their core are going to move fastest at this opportunity. [ed: Data To Dollar’s research over the years has demonstrated that this is between two and a half and five times faster than their less sophisticated peer group]  So how do they do that? How can YOU do that?  It will require a comprehensive rethinking of your organizational structure, its supporting infrastructure and how an effective change program can support the desired change. Today’s many disruptors include a variety of accessible technologies; Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud, Internet of Things, they all bring a great deal of impact to an organization and are all functionally interdependent.

At one government agency which I visited recently, every business project had seen IT project managers added to the team. Yet, why not include data scientists on every project as well?

The way organizations consume these capabilities are changing too; as cloud is adopting even faster rates of evolution and readily available everywhere, where else but in a cloud based service model would you scale all the data? We are in the middle of a digital transformation of most businesses, and as recent research by MIT Sloan has shown, more investment in digital infrastructure is correlated with several desirable outcomes, including more revenues from innovation and higher margins.

In my perception, especially governments seem again and again to fall into the trap of wanting to move fast, yet failing to embrace the required speed to become successful. Sourcing of the required building blocks usually has to follow tender rules. The alternative seems to be the de-stacked approach; aka hardware, storage, software, and network components are all sourced differently in a more traditional manner. Slowing down projects and over-complicating things, losing precious momentum

A vertical approach seems more effective, as it addresses both those who look at data to create efficiency results (and judge this by the accompanying ROI) and those seeking to use data to create market effectiveness (and realize top-line growth). It seems however that more and more organizations are moving towards a single secure architecture and single domain with direct access to cloud services, leveraging global platforms and capabilities. This, in turn, enabling a cloud first strategy with highly personalized supporting systems and provide intuitive and real time access to the applications that are driving the business, from any device, anywhere and at any time. Just like most digital native organizations do.

So, what could we learn from Alfredo Jaar’s neon art work?

Well, first of all, don’t be afraid of the enormity of the possible.  Of course, it will likely be a highly disruptive journey when embarking on a data-driven transformation. And it will create a legacy as digital migrants. So, first and foremost, keeping it simple, is really crucial.

The drive to become a data-driven organization is a powerful business transformation. It forces companies and teams to reshape the very basic elements of their businesses. They need to consider the optimal way to extend, defend, create, and disrupt the ecosystem in which:

  • the consumer is in charge and will define the next move for your organization,
  • asymmetric competition from unexpected angles will become ever-present, and where
  • successful companies maintain control while transforming their asset base to a lean digitally enabled, data-driven style, using data as a source of value to capitalize on those new opportunities out there.[

It is time to act now and grasp the full opportunity, just start to unlock the value of the data!

Martijn Demurtas is a Senior Account Executive at Sales Force and a member of Data To Dollars’ advisory board.

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