Note to Self – Don’t say “Data Driven” Anymore

dataJim Harris just wrote a nice piece titled “It’s not about being Data Driven” over on his wonderful Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality Blog.  If you don’t have Jim’s blog on your radar, you should…he does great work over there.

In this recent post, Jim writes about the difference between being ‘data-driven’ and using data to make better decisions.  Jim writes:

In the era of big data, it’s not about being data-driven—because your organization has always been data-driven. It’s about what data your organization is being driven by—and whether that data is driving your organization to make better decisions.

I’ve been guilty of writing about companies needing to be ‘data-driven’ without making the very important distinction that Jim points out there. Success doesn’t come about because a company is data-driven…success comes from what a company does with their data and how they use that data to inform their decisions.

Jim is correct that many companies have been ‘data-driven’ for years. Most businesses would argue that they’ve been data-driven since inception. Most managers love to look at data to help them make decisions but I’d argue that many managers have historically looked at data in the wrong way. They looked at data as their ‘truth’ of how their team was doing. They looked at their data as a way to understand how their business was doing.   Many managers even look at their data as a way to improve their businesses.

The push for ‘being data-driven’ today can often make many of these managers angry, and rightfully so.  These managers aren’t idiots…they know data is important. They’ve always used data.

So…let’s stop imploring these managers and companies to be data-driven and start asking them to look at the data they’re using. Are they using all the data available to them? Is the quality of their data at question? Can they point to a full lifecycle of data management for their data? Can they ensure security, quality and governance of that data?

If they can’t answer these types of questions in a positive manner, its time for them to visit their data management and data quality processes and systems. Perhaps they’ve always been a data-driven company but they may have been using bad data or maybe they’ve just been using the wrong data.

Once an organization’s data quality and management practices are understood and new processes/systems implemented (if needed), the next question has to be about how that company uses their data. Do they use it to make decisions? Do they dive deep into the data to look for new ideas and problems to solve? Or do they just use that data as a way to point to how ‘great’ their business is?

There’s different ways of being data-driven, but like Jim said…the only way to be successful at using data is to use it to make better decisions.  Your organization can be data-driven and still be very unsuccessful. Find the data and data systems that work for your business and use them to make great decisions to make your company better.

Don’t Let Your Data Drive You

keep-calm-and-use-data-wisely-257x300I just read Jim Harris’ recent blog post titled “Data isn’t everything“. In the post, Jim provides some quotes from an article titled “Why Quants Don’t Know Everything“.

One of the passages from Jim’s post that I wanted to share was the following:

Quants have risen to prominence in fields as diverse as sports, politics, stock trading, and dating. However, after a field has become quantified, it doesn’t become a data-driven paradise, Salmon cautioned. “The more a field is run by a system, the more that system creates incentives for everyone (employees, customers, competitors) to change their behavior in perverse ways, providing more of whatever the system is designed to measure and produce, whether that actually creates any value or not.”

There’s an old saying that goes something like “you get what you measure for” and we’ve all seen it happen time and time again throughout all sorts of businesses.

Sales people are measured (and paid) based on revenue, so they bring in revenue.  Customer service representatives are measured (and paid) based on the speed in which they finish their calls with clients.  Both are great metrics to measure but without some form of control you end up with unprofitable revenue because the sales people will do anything to make a sale and angry customers because the customer service reps are more interested in ending the call then helping the customer.

Jim ends his blog post with:

While becoming data-driven is a laudable goal, as Salmon concluded, “let’s not forget that data isn’t everything.”

No argument there.  Data isn’t everything and allowing your business to be data driven without any real business context is a recipe for disaster.  Prior to stating that ‘data isn’t everything’, Salmon wrote the following:

That’s what a good synthesis of big data and human intuition tends to look like. As long as the humans are in control, and understand what it is they’re controlling, we’re fine. It’s when they become slaves to the numbers that trouble breaks out.

Emphasis mine.

Every real problem I’ve ever seen with organizations using data has been when they take the data as ‘gospel’ without any business context and ‘instinct’ added into the data analysis. Those companies that do well with data are the ones that allow themselves to control and analyze their data based on the current context of their businesses.

Data isn’t everything, but with proper planning, thought and management data (and the analysis of that data) can deliver real, long-term value to your business.  Don’t let your data drive you…drive your data.

Image Credit: Scott Brinker at ChiefMartec.

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