Technology & Innovation

Driving a data-centric culture: a bottom-up opportunity

January 16, 2015

North America

January 16, 2015

North America
Janie Hulse

Senior editor

Janie Hulse is a senior editor with The Economist Intelligence Unit's Thought Leadership team. Before joining the EIU, Janie worked with The Economist Group and other organizations as a freelance correspondent and consultant based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has also held managerial roles in the areas of marketing and research with US global companies and within US Government agencies. She holds a master's degree in economic development from the London School of Economics and a bachelor's in industrial relations from Cornell University.

A bottom-up opportunity

Big data has captured the attention of business leaders across almost every industry. Building big-data capabilities—namely putting in place the right technologies and talent—has found its place in the corporate agenda. Leading companies now are looking beyond these measures so they can move forward in promoting a data-centric corporate culture. Data-driven leadership is critical to the success of fostering such a culture, but creating excitement within middle management on down is also necessary if the aim is to achieve a big-data cultural transformation. “For a data-centric business like ours, the entire organisation is grounded in the notion that data drives everything … and all decisions are grounded in data,” says Karen Quintos, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer of Dell, a US computer manufacturer.

Big data is a big deal 
Most data-driven-driven companies are focused on the leadership challenge of inspiring this cultural shift. They seek to develop a values-based vision of the future, promote the spread of data expertise across corporate ranks, and encourage and support collaboration among business unit leaders. In essence, they work towards a common set of goals and communicate passionately and consistently across all layers of the organisation (see our related article, Driving a data-centric culture: the leadership challenge). To date, however, relatively little has been said about the role of middle management and other, lower-level employees in such efforts to spread and institutionalise a data-centric culture. Leaders of companies shaping the trend recognise the importance of evangelists at all levels of their organisations. Dell stands out among other large companies for its early big-data programmes and efforts to use data insights across multiple departments. It’s no longer just about having more or bigger data sets, it’s about connecting data to drive value. “It’s not good enough to just have disparate pieces of data, say, about our customers—the real challenge is to connect all the internal and third-party data we have, integrate them in a single, consistent view of the customer and uncover new insights and opportunities,” Ms Quintos adds. Other top leaders share her view: “They [C-suite executives] realise it’s a big deal to their business,” says Scott Klososki, a former CEO of three successful tech start-up companies and principal at consulting firm Future Point of View, “it’s as transformational as, say, the use of drones in the air force,” he adds.

Beyond technology and tools 
Across industries, C-suite leadership teams are very engaged in deploying the right technology and tools to collect and process new, rich data streams. Geo-location and app-usage data from mobile devices and live sensor data from manufacturing or maintenance systems are now prevalent. Moreover, corporate leaders are acquiring and developing the right talent and skills to connect data to critical business insights; they are also spearheading initiatives to foster the kind of culture that embraces the use of big data in decision-making. Many savvy companies have adopted modern big-data technology tools and applications and have hired data scientists and analytics experts trained to decode and translate data sets into powerful and timely business knowledge. Companies at the forefront of the big-data revolution, however, are looking beyond technology and specialists and are striving to create a corporate culture that promotes the use of big data at all levels and across all business departments. The critical next step is the cultural transformation necessary to embed the new expertise and tools into day-to-day business transactions and decisions throughout the whole organisation.

The bottom-up recipe for success 
The C-level action must be complemented by the right bottom-up initiatives and behaviours—and the two must go together. So what is the bottomup recipe for big-data success? What do employees at all levels of the organisation need to do to propagate a data-centric culture? Our research uncovered the following best practices:

Use data to set and track performance goals 
To be able to fully understand and connect the data with their everyday work, employees need to look at key metrics daily, make sense of them and link them to what they already know intuitively about their business and their customers. There’s great opportunity in making data indicators real and relevant to individual managers and employees by having them use data to set their own goals and performance metrics. “You have to spread the data to everyone,” says Gabie Boko, North America executive vicepresident and chief marketing officer of Sage, a software provider to small and mid-size businesses. “And you have to make the numbers relevant—they have to see the value of their own efforts,” she adds. Within her marketing team at Sage, Ms Boko has implemented data-laden dashboards that follow the same format that she uses to track her own strategic goals. This approach has a significant potential to benefit business performance. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) survey, sponsored by Platfora, shows that 68% of executives say that greater access to big data would substantially improve their department’s functions. Respondents from top-performing companies are even more likely to agree (76%). “Use data to prioritise and re-prioritise the work of employees,” says Charles Thomas, recently appointed chief data officer of top-four US bank Wells Fargo, “and replace old, mundane work with new, game-changing work.”

Offer data analysis training and education 
The big-data revolution is not only bringing about a slew of new data sources and analytics tools, but is also encouraging new, more scientific ways to think about and analyse data. Data science used to primarily belong to academia and, even there, was usually confined within specialised research and engineering institutes. But now it is a popular discipline among top colleges and even discussed in business schools that cater to the most coveted Fortune-500 corporate employers. What data scientists and business leaders at data-driven enterprises realised as they began implementing sophisticated big-data analytics tools is that employees who could both manipulate and analyse the data, as well as understand the business knowledge and opportunities they reveal, are extremely rare—and valuable. And experts who can effectively educate the rest of the organisation on how to extract useful insights from data are critical to transforming an organization’s culture into a data-centric one. Data analysts and business people traditionally speak different languages. Therefore, the need for qualified and effective “interpreters” has created a significant opportunity for capable employees at all levels to grow and advance. Accordingly, there is a demand for big-data knowledge and education within the corporate ranks—EIU survey respondents see lack of understanding about how to apply big data to their role or function as the foremost obstacle to more extensive use of data in their organisations, even ahead of lack of financial resources. Therefore, employees at all levels could benefit from taking part in internal big-data training courses—and employers could encourage employees to take advantage of the wealth of external data-analytics programmes offered by academic institutions. At Wells Fargo and his previous employers, Mr Thomas implemented such training initiatives that taught data analysts how to think and communicate like business people, as well as ones that educated business leaders in the art and science of statistics and data analytics. By developing into business-savvy data analysts—or data-savvy business people— employees would not only improve their own professional prospects, but would also help bridge the cultural and communication gaps that hold back their organisation from capturing the benefits of big data more fully.

Share, and compete, with peers 
Harnessing the natural competitive tendencies of human beings to drive enhanced performance and desired business outcomes is nothing new. When it comes to engaging employees with new data sources and analytical tools, the most forwardthinking data-centric companies make considerable effort to create and nurture vibrant interactive data communities that are transparent by nature, including corporate wikis, internal social and knowledge networks, and company or department-wide competitions based on metrics. “Our delivery teams compete with each other on their scorecard metrics,” says Rod Morris, senior vice-president of marketing and operations of Opower, a cloud-based software solutions provider for utility companies, “the winners can earn an extra day of vacation and a trophy.” The transparency and visibility of the data metrics act as a powerful motivator for individual employees, and teams, to push themselves to achieve better performance. By sharing data and knowledge, competing with their peers and even having fun with the data metrics, employees are not only increasing their engagement with and utilisation of the data tools, they are also incorporating the new data into everyday interactions and weaving them into their companies’ cultural fabric.

Experiment and innovate with data 
As companies successfully implement their big-data initiatives, employees go from learning, to adopting and then to consistently using the new data tools. The most advanced stage of that journey involves employees taking the initiative to experiment and innovate with the new data. “Data is a raw material,” says Mr Klososky of Future Point of View, a technology consultancy, “the key is to create a ‘cultural alchemy’—an environment in which lower-level management and employees can feel free to be creative and to experiment.” Significant opportunities exist for future improvement of business processes and results using big-data analytics—30% of survey respondents see great possibilities in enhancing future predictive capabilities and 28% believe applying advanced analytics to more business processes holds significant future potential. “It is a connected and increasingly complex world,” says Ms Quintos, CMO of Dell, “and no one has fully figured out how to integrate and simplify the disparate and growing data sets companies have at their disposal. The opportunity to be creative is huge.” Employees should embrace their freedom to innovate with the data and unleash their creativity using this new corporate asset. As a result, they will help firmly embed big data into the corporate culture and day-to-day business. Top-down leadership and initiatives are important for creating and nurturing a data-centric culture. But they are not sufficient by themselves. They need to be complemented and reinforced by grass-roots activities and engagement at the individual-employee level. The people who will lead on the ground and shape the big-data cultural transformation are different from the CEOs and CIOs who defined the strategic vision or the data scientists who built and implemented the new tools. They reside at the mid- and lower levels of the organisation; oftentimes, they are a different, younger demographic, comfortable with the latest technologies and social networks. Having employees across all layers of the organisation embrace and use data on a day-to-day basis is the critical ingredient and necessary condition for ultimately transforming the company into a truly data-driven business.

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