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You Have 100 Days to Lead a Data Revolution

February 22nd, 2018

Most data resides unused on corporate servers—information that, if unlocked, could create sustainable competitive advantage. That’s why smart companies are looking for digital change leaders to guide their organizations through the transformation around using data rather than just collecting it.

We’ll call these change agents Chief Data Officers, or CDOs, although they aren’t always called by that title—they may be the CIO, Chief Digital Officer, or lead a line of business. It might be you. Whoever it is, the organization is relying on this person to lead change that probably includes parts of all of these:

  • Extracting more value from existing data
  • Monetizing data as a new revenue source
  • Leading a cultural shift around data-driven decision making
  • Tearing down data silos
  • Ensuring data privacy and security
  • Taking on dry but crucial issues such as data governance

This all means big issues, lots of moving parts, and a high-risk challenge for your career. In all likelihood, the board is watching intently.

If you’ve been asked to take on this challenge, where do you start? We believe CDOs have 100 days to get this digital transformation rolling downhill and towards a successful conclusion. If the basic building blocks aren’t in place and moving towards real progress by then, there is trouble ahead.

But before we start on how to make this crucial transition happen, we need a brief look at why it is occurring now.

Technology Is Changing the DNA of Business

Chances are the company you work for has evolved dramatically over the last decade, spurred by transformational shifts in technology. These shifts started with open source software, allowing enterprises to access innovation at lower cost and without having to invest in long-term platform decisions. Then, the development of public and hybrid clouds enabled companies large and small to compete at scale and reduce time-to-market for technology solutions. And now, the primary change-driver has shifted once again: to the availability, analysis, and use of data.

Data is everywhere—it flows in from products reporting on their own performance, from digitally-linked business partnerships, from video of shoppers’ traffic patterns around a store, from IoT sensors around the world, and from field reps using mobile apps to retrieve up-to-the-minute customer information before making a call.

Companies are rushing to digitize big swaths of the business that haven’t been previously, instrumenting more and more business processes to capture the data they need to fuel improvements and make better decisions. Some have realized they know more about how a user moves through their website than they know about how a new product makes it to market.

Because of these technological earthquakes, the expectations and skills of today’s knowledge workers around data have evolved rapidly. Individuals who are data-conversant and understand how to connect data, systems, and decisions together are in high demand—just ask GE, which last year moved its headquarters from Connecticut to Boston primarily to be closer to technical talent.

The First 100 Days

A CDO’s first 100 days should lay a foundation for iterative—but fast—action. The change agent must educate leadership about what needs to be done, and drive home the idea that nothing less than a new way of thinking about achieving business goals is being introduced.

The CDO needs to be an evangelist for the art of the possible. What business actions and decisions can be improved by better data? What unused data can be put to work? By evangelizing what can be done and the ensuing benefits, the CDO helps people overcome their resistance to change.

The value of experimentation is another critical message of this evangelism. Enterprises that can formulate a new hypothesis, construct capabilities to test the hypothesis, gather data about outcomes, and then iterate and try again, have a strategic advantage over their competitors.

One hundred days is not a long time. Let’s get down to specifics. Starting on the road to implementation requires understanding of three things:

Understand the Business Goals

First stop on this journey is understanding how data advances business goals. In short, what does the business need to accomplish? All explorations of data and capabilities should be grounded in what the business needs to ensure you aren’t building capability for capability’s sake. How will you demonstrate to the business the impact you’ve made without an eye on what matters to them?

Once you know the business goals, you’ll also have a good idea of important stakeholders to invite along. Establish strong partnerships with them. These will likely include internal business owners, IT experts, and outside business partners.

Understand Your Data

Get started conducting data audits and catalogs—but delegate this and don’t let it distract from your true purpose. (In our experience, some people think an inventory of assets is the entire job. Believe me, that is just the start.)

More than just finding data, you need to comprehend what it can do. Does it have the predictive power needed to meet the business goals ascertained above? You’ve also got to turn that question on its head. It’s tempting to start from the data, but the big question is: Does the enterprise have the data needed to accomplish its business objectives? If the business wants to improve the customer experience, are you collecting the data that tells you where customers are frustrated today?

Knowing where data gaps exist, by business objective, is a great starting point for your action plan. There’s a good chance your board wants to know, too.

Understand Your Organizational Capabilities

Even if you already know what data is available, is your organization capable of using it effectively, given your current level of data maturity? This is more than grading technology—it’s understanding your complete capabilities: people, process, and systems.

One of your tasks is to evaluate how data, information, and insight are put to use (or not). This is more difficult than it sounds, because the opinions you hear will be influenced by their holder’s place and experiences in the organization. We’ve all heard the story of the CEO who, when asked to describe how a process works on the manufacturing floor, gives an answer that rolls the eyes of the shop foreman. It’s vital that both voices are heard.

It is also vital to identify where talent is misdeployed. You might have the best and brightest PhDs on your machine learning team, but if they aren’t working on problems that impact the bottom line, then why are they there?

The capability to turn data into decisions is not something accomplished by a single department. It’s not the business side of the house that does it, and it’s not IT that does it. It’s both, along with a cast of supporting players that can include engineering, your data science team, business analysts, floor managers, and top executives. Having the right data available at the right time empowers potentially everyone in the company to make decisions quickly and confidently.

Lay the Groundwork for Investment

The final step in the first 100 days is commonly called putting your money where your mouth is. Saying, “We are becoming a data-driven company” but not asking for data and analysis to support key decisions is pointless and also demoralizing to those who have signed on to follow your lead. The CDO has to evangelize for a new culture that values actionable data as much as previous business models prioritized cash flow.

Assessing the Assessment

As you come to the end of the initial assessment phase, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned.

Start by translating your technical and business assessment into a formal action agenda. Without a battle plan, you’re wasting effort. Use business results as a way to focus on what’s important. Finally, think of your action plan as more of a roadmap, where occasional course corrections are inevitable to stay up to date on changes in the competitive environment, internal changes in strategy or tactics, and financial realities.

Here is what you should be able to show stakeholders at the end of the period:

  1. You have demonstrated how integral data is to achieving their business goals, and specifically where the opportunities lie.
  2. Your organization now has a survey of its critical information, where it resides, how it can be accessed, and by whom.
  3. You have delivered a clear illustration of how data moves through the organization, and have identified problems such as dead-ends, misdirections, and black holes.

The Next 100 Days

With specificity developed around these three areas and links drawn between them, you should have a compelling story for stakeholders and the executive suite to win support for the next steps, whatever they may be.

As your initial three-month run comes to an end, set goals for yourself and continue generating momentum. When you hit 100 days, pause, take a deep breath, reflect on your accomplishments, and visualize where the road leads next.


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