Data and Culture go hand in hand

data and culture go hand in handA few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon talking to the CEO of a mid-sized services company.  He’s interested in ‘big data’ and is interviewing consultants / companies to help his organization ‘take advantage of their data’.  In preparation for this meeting, I had spent the previous weeks talking to various managers throughout the company to get a good sense of how the organization uses and embraces data.  I wanted to see how well data and culture mixed at this company.

Our conversation started out like they always do in these types of meetings. He started asking me about big data, how big data can help companies and what big data would mean to their organization.  As I always do, I tried to provide a very direct and non-sales focused message to the CEO about the pros/cons of big data, data science and what it means to be a data-informed organization.

This particular CEO stopped me when I started talking about being ‘data-informed’.  He described his organization is being a ‘data-driven company!’ (the exclamation was implied in the forcefulness of his comment).  He then spent the next 15 minutes describing his organization’s embracing of data. He described how they’ve been using data for years to make decisions and that he’d put his organization up against any other when it comes to being data-driven.  He showed me sales literature that touts their data-driven culture and described how they were one of the first companies in their space to really use data to drive their business.

After this CEO finished exclaiming the virtues of his data-driven organization, I made the following comment (paraphrasing of course…but this is the gist of the comment):

“You say this is a data-driven organization…but the culture of this organization is not one that I would call data-driven at all.   Every one of your managers tells me most decisions in the organization are made by ‘gut feel’.  They tell me that data is everywhere and is used in making decisions but only after the decision has been made.   Data is used to support a decision rather than informing the decisions. There’s a big difference between that and being a data-informed and a being a data-driven organization.

After what felt like much more than the few seconds it was, the CEO smiled and asked me to help him understand ‘just what in the hell I was talking about’.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about the need to view data as more than just a supporting actor in the theatrical play that is your business.  Data must go hand-in-hand with every initiative your organization undertakes.   There’s some folks out there that argue that you need to build a data-driven culture, but that’s a hard thing to sell to most people and simply because they don’t really understand what a ‘data-driven’ culture is.

So…what is a ‘data-driven culture’?  If you ask 34 experts on the subject, you’ll get 34 different explanations.  I suspect if you ask another 100 experts, you’ll get 100 additional answers.  Rather than trying to be a data-driven culture, its much better to integrate the idea of data into every aspect of your culture. Rather than try to create a new culture that nobody really understands (or can define), work on tweaking the culture you have to be one that embraces data and the intelligent use of data.

This is what happens when you become start moving toward being a data-informed organization.   Rather than using data to provide reasons for the decisions that you make, you need to incorporate data into your decision making process. Data needs to be used by your people (an important point…don’t forget about the people) to make decisions. Data needs to be a part of every activity in the organization and it needs to be available to be used by anyone within the organization. This is where a good data governance / data management system/process comes into play.

During my meeting with the CEO, I spent about 2 hours walking through the topics of data and culture.  We touched on many different topics in our conversation but always seemed to come back around to him not understanding how his organization isn’t “data-driven”.  He truly believed that he was doing the right things that a company needs to do to be ‘data-driven’. I couldn’t argue that he wasn’t doing the right things but I did point out the fact that data was considered as an afterthought in every conversation I had with his leadership team.

Data and culture go hand in hand

Since that meeting, the CEO has called me a few times and we’ve talked through some plans for helping bring data to the forefront of his organization.  This type of work is quite different than the ‘big data’ work that the CEO had original wanted to talk about.  There’s no reason not to continue down the path of implementing the right systems, processes and people to build a great data science team within the company, but to get the most from this work, its best to also take a stab at tweaking your culture to ensure data is embraced and not just tolerated.

A culture that embraces data is one that ensures data is available from the CEO down to the most junior of employees.  This requires not only cultural change but also systematic changes to ensure you have proper data governance and data management in place.

Data science, big data and the whole world that those worlds entail is much more than just something you install and use.  Its a shift from a culture focused on making decisions by gut-feel and using data to back that decision up to one that intuitively uses data throughout the decision making process, including starting with data to find new factors to make decisions on.

What about your organization? Does data and culture go hand in hand or are you trying to force data into a culture that doesn’t understand or embrace it?

Be pragmatic, not dogmatic

be pragmatic, not dogmaticI’m currently reading Scott Brinker’s book Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster, and More Innovative (awesome book – look for a much more complete review here soon) and came across a line in Chapter 7 that says “Be pragmatic, not dogmatic.”

This really spoke to me.

One of the things I dislike about many business books is that they try to create dogma and that readers should follow their ‘recipe’ and you’re business will be ‘great’.  Much like Isaac Sacolick’s Driving Digital (see my review of Isaac’s book here), Scott doesn’t do that with his book…instead he’s telling people to stop trying to find a recipe that other companies have used for success and start from scratch (with lessons learned from others of course).

One of the most damaging routes a company can take is trying to mimic another. I’ve been in meetings listening to product managers describe their product roadmap that contains 99% ‘me too’ features to keep up with their competitors.  When I ask about innovation, I get blank stares.  These folks are stuck in the dogma of their industry and their organization. They are focused on imitation rather than innovation.

That’s where being pragmatic comes into play. Sure…there may be features that you must have to compete in your vertical/industry but if you’re entire roadmap is focused on imitation, its time to take a step back and rethink your approach, your investment and your business. Rather than mimic everything others are doing (e.g., being dogmatic), take a the pragmatic approach.  Take a look at what your competitors are doing, what your clients want, what you can deliver and what best fits into your organization’s long-term goals and then do that.

Another aspect of pragmatic vs dogmatic that I see often is that of project management. How many times have you heard (or said!) “well…we need to build a gantt chart before the project can start” or “that’s not how the PMBOK” says to do it or ‘Scrum requires us to do X, Y and Z in that order.”   That’s dogmatic.  Not every project requires a gantt chart or a daily 15min standup meeting. Not every organization can (or should) follow the dogma of project management methods.  The most successful project managers out there are those that know when to follow guidelines and when to deviate from said guidelines.

So…be pragmatic, not dogmatic.  Thanks for the quote Scott.

Don’t Ask if you Can’t Act

Don't Ask if You Can't DoIn a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “Don’t Ask for New Ideas If You’re Not Ready to Act on Them”, Ron Ashkenas provides an example of a company wanting to do the ‘right’ thing but not having the processes or systems in place to pull it off.

The example provided by Ashkenas is one that I’ve heard and experienced many times myself.  One of his clients implemented a ‘crowdsourcing’ approach to gathering innovation ideas from people throughout their business. This company received so many responses that it took nearly a month for all of the responses to be analyzed, categorized and reviewed.  It then took a few more weeks for executives to respond to everyone and announce that they were planning on following up on specific ideas to pursue.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen this type of thing happen at other organizations I’ve worked at. The urge to identify and implement innovative ideas is a strong driving force for any organization and crowdsourcing these ideas makes a great deal of sense. That said, taking the step of asking for new ideas is pointless if your organization can’t quickly act upon those ideas.

This is why every organization needs to reimagine (or reinvent) itself as an agile organization. To truly be able to act upon innovative ideas, an organization needs to be able to marshal the necessary resources (e.g., people, systems, data, etc) to be able to analyze and act upon these new ideas.

Organizations need to be able to pivot and turn quickly to address their clients needs and their competitors offerings. This agility requires the utmost agility in all aspects of the business, including the IT group.  The IT group must provide systems and capabilities to allow the business to gather data, analyze that data and act upon that data quickly and easily.

In the example given by Ashkenas, an agile organization with an agile IT group should be able to put the right tools together capture, track, analyze and report on ideas from around the business.  If your IT group can’t put together the right tools at the right time to deliver the right services, you probably need to spend some time rethinking your IT group and its leadership. Additionally, if your IT group can deliver the right tools at the right time but it still takes you weeks or months to analyze and react…you have larger problems than just a non-agile IT group.

Move. Move fast. Move true.

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

true By pittaya on flickrI just noticed a post over on the Enterprise CIO Forum by Joel Dobbs titled What CIOs (and other executives) can learn from Research In Motion’s dramatic decline.

Its a good read with some good points about the downfall of what once was a great company with a bright future.

A few key points from Joel’s post:

  • It’s a long way down from the top. Being the biggest, the best, winning a prestigious award, whatever the “top” means, a fall from there means a long and painful decent.
  • When the fall starts, do something! Failing to recognize the problem and deal with it early leads to a long, sometimes rapidly accelerating, decline that will only get worse until no fix is possible.
  • Everything happens fast these days. The pace of life in general and business in particular is accelerating at a remarkable pace.

In Joel’s post, he’s using the above bullet points to highlight lessons learned from RIM. At one point in the not too distant past, the Blackberry was the device everyone wanted. It was THE phone.  Then…something happened.  Apple released the iPhone.  Google released the Android OS and Motorola rolled out the “Droid” phone.  RIM tried to keep up with a touch screen device but it never really caught on.

Today, RIM is a shadow of its former self. The company is in a bad spot and I doubt it will survive as an independent company.  I suspect there are companies out there right now looking at RIM for a merger play…if only for the intellectual property that RIM holds.

Its really too bad. It didn’t have to be this way.  RIM could have done more to save itself but I suspect the RIM leadership and culture wouldn’t allow it to recognize that things were bad and they needed to do something.

To expand on Joel’s “move fast” and “do something” call to action, I’d add the following: Move True.  In other words…Move. Move fast. Move true.

Now…in order to ‘move true’, one must know how to align any movement to ‘true’.   In other words, you’ve to be thinking ahead and planning for these movements.

Of course we can’t plan for everything, but you should be able to plan for most things that come along.  Whatever change comes along shouldn’t come as a surprise to you if you are doing your job well. There shouldn’t be any real ‘surprise’ in competition. Nor should their be a ‘surprise’ in technology or governance methods or processes.

As a CIO, what can you do to be prepared to move fast and true?  Here’s a few tips to be prepared to move:

  • Look to your team. Allow your team members to attend conferences, training and other ‘outside of work’ activities. Keeping them cloistered in the office is a great way to keep the blinders on. Involve your team members in the decision process for change – they may surprise you with their ideas.
  • Look to your competitors and your partners What is your number #1 competitor doing? What are they planning for? Of course…this is a tough one…but…we all know the IT world is a small world. CIO’s know CIO’s.  IT professionals know IT professionals. People talk.  Listen to what they say. What about your business partners…what are they doing?
  • Look at the Non-IT groups in your organization. What are your biggest areas where “Shadow IT” is most prevalent?   These areas might just be the areas you need to move the fastest in. What are the biggest requests for technology?  If they are asking for it, its most likely needed. Or not…but you need to understand the requests to better plan.
  • Build culture of ‘agile’. I don’t mean “Agile” as in methodology….I mean ‘agile’ as in flexible, nimble and lightweight. Build processes, procedures and governance in place that allows for flexibility and ‘pivoting’ as needed.
  • Stop the spreadsheet engineering and start planning. Just because you can create a spreadsheet, doesn’t mean you should. Too many times, CIO’s and IT professionals build a spreadsheet to ‘plan’…but that’s not planning…that’s numbers.
  • Build “what if” scenarios and be prepared to move when change occurs. Don’t overdo it. You don’t need 500 pages of documents to be prepared…but put some thought into what your next steps are if ‘X’ happens and what you’ll do if both ‘X’ and ‘Y’ happen together. Much like Disaster Recovery Planning. In fact, this is Disaster Prevention Planning in a way.

Change happens…and when it does, you should have your plans in place to move. These plans should then allow you to move fast and move true.

Image Credit: true by pittaya on flickr

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

Watch out for the Gorilla!

Gorilla By Kris Elshout on flickrI’m currently reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (amazon affiliate link).

In one of the first few chapters, Dr. Kahneman describes the “invisible gorilla test” popularized by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. The test consists of a team of 3 people dressed in black and a team of 3 people dressed in white passing a basketball to their teammates.

Watch for yourself…and really really focus on counting the passes between the white-shirts. (If you are reading this via RSS and don’t see a video, please click here to view it).

Did you get the number of passes correct? How about the gorilla…did you see the gorilla the first time?

Whether you saw the gorilla while watching the video or not…research shows that about half of the people that watch this video and focus on counting passes, do not see the gorilla. Pretty amazing huh? Half the people don’t see a gorrilla walk through the scene, pound its chest, turn and look at the camera, then stroll off.  Half the people.

From this test (and many other tests by other psychologists), we’ve learned that its very easy for us mere humans to get deceived, to miss things and/or just not pay attention that well. The ‘invisible gorilla’ phenomenon isn’t just some theoretical phenomena…Its something that happens in the real world every day. It happens to me and to you everyday.

The invisible gorilla shows up in many workplaces too.  With so many people and organizations focused on “doing more with less” (or whatever other buzzworthy terms you want to use here), we tend to miss some of the very important details that might change our outlook and approach towards those things we are so focused on.

Take a step back in your job/life and look for that invisible gorilla.  Maybe your gorilla won’t be as easy to see as the one in the video above…but i bet there’s one there…if you look hard enough.

PS: If you want to learn more about The Invisible Gorilla phenomenon, Simons and Chabris have written many papers on the subject and have even released a book titled The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (amazon affiliate link). 

Image Credit: Gorilla By Kris Elshout on flickr

Data Driven…or Data Informed?

data slide By bionicteaching on flickrI just finished reading Eric T. Peterson’s post titled The Myth of the “Data-Driven” Business.

I don’t talk or write much about ‘data’…mostly because I’ve always taken it for granted as something that was always ‘there’.   If the data I needed wasn’t available in an easy to consume format, I’ve always found a way to get what I needed through data collection, data manipulation or by hacking together data to get what i needed.

To me, data has always been something that I’ve used to do my job. Data is something that I’ve used to help inform myself, my teams, my organizations and my clients.

I’ve often heard people and companies talk about being ‘data driven’ and have always felt like I was missing something as I never really understood what they meant by being ‘data driven’.

In my world, data has always been the building block of services and platforms but data isn’t driving me, my business or my teams. Data is the base level of the business. Data is the business in its rawest form…but its also meaningless without context  and meaning.

Most of my thinking towards ‘data’ comes from my systems thinking and knowledge management education and training in the form of the Russell Ackoff model. The Ackoff model claims that  there are five ‘buckets’ that content in the human mind can be classified into. These buckets are:

  • Data
  • Information
  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Wisdom

In the systems thinking and knowledge management world, the “Data -> Information -> Knowledge” model is quite prevalent…or maybe more accurately, its been the prevalent filter that i’ve used in my work.

So…from my filter, Data is the rawest level of ‘stuff’. Its the baseline that you build from.  Data leads to information, which leads to knowledge…but data is nothing until you build something on top of it…until you add some form of context or meaning.

Therefore, it was always hard for me to understand the ‘data driven’ people who’ve been popping up everywhere over the last few years.  I’ve never really given much credence to the ‘data driven’ mantra.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw the The Myth of the “Data-Driven” Business headline in my RSS reader today.

In the article, Peterson makes a fairly convincing plea to stop using the term ‘data driven’…rather, he says, use something more like ‘data informed’.

Eric writes:

My concern arises from the idea that any business of even moderate size and complexity can be truly “driven” by data. I think the right word is “informed” and what we are collectively trying to create is “increasingly data-informed and data-aware businesses and business people” who integrate the wide array of knowledge we can generate about digital consumers into the traditional decisioning process. The end-goal of this integration is more agile, responsive, and intelligent businesses that are better able to compete in a rapidly changing business environment.

Emphasis Mine.

I can get behind ‘data informed’.

I can get behind using data to make better decisions. At the end of the data, thats why you collect data…to make better decisions.  But…you’ve got to put meaning, context and definition around that data to make it useful.

I’m keeping an eye on Eric’s post to see what discussions come out of it but I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you view ‘data driven’ vs ‘data informed’.

Image Credit: data slide By bionicteaching on flickr

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