How to develop a data culture within your organisation

The CDO’s leadership challenge

CDOs — or anyone with a CDO mandate — are normally charged with the responsibility to make the organisation data-driven with all the associated opportunities of maximising business outcomes. Their focus is rightly on business strategy and mapping data optimisation against business goals.

But to become data-driven relies first and foremost on people and processes. A second focal point should therefore be on how to strengthen and develop confidence in both.

Because data is so pervasive, it reaches beyond people’s professional trades and competences. Everyone has a role in data, either as a data owner, a data process owner or simply as a user.

The challenge of developing a data culture is not only to make people comfortable with data, but to make them data-savvy. As an encouraging factor, the CDO who succeeds in this endeavour will find his reward in a job that becomes much more gratifying.

This challenge requires the leadership to pay more attention to people’s skills and mandates than to their titles and seniority because a data culture is truly a collaborative culture.

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Developing a collaborative mindset and acknowledging the dependency on people regardless of pay rate is perhaps the most difficult part of developing a data culture because dependencies can seem frightening.

The mission can essentially be boiled down to three actions that are required to develop a data culture and enhance the confidence in the people and processes that make up the data culture:

1. Subscribe to data governance principles that strengthens accountability and transparency.
2. Break down organisational and data silos that prevent collaboration and the optimisation of data.
3. Apply clever change management methods to educate and get people on board.

1. Adhere to data governance principles

Good data governance is both the driving force and the desired result of your data culture, encompassing people and processes as well as technology.

Good data governance does not emerge out of a policy paper. It’s rooted in a sound data culture and helps enhancing the collaborative environment. Well performed data governance not only secures data quality and compliance needs, it also increases the general data awareness and hence the confidence in the organisation’s data culture.

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The CDO must commit himself or herself and the organisation to a few key principles to achieve the coveted data culture:

• Data security and risk management. Relating to both the protection of the company’s information assets and the data privacy of users and customers, data security is an important pillar of confidence and a collaborative environment.
• Accountability. Appointing data stewards responsible for each of their domains (ERP, the HR system, warehouse systems, etc.) provides a clear picture of responsibilities and access to data.
• Data quality. A high quality of data that is rich, correct and consistent is like the food in a restaurant: If this one thing is bad, then all the rest doesn’t really matter. A high data quality will make it worthwhile to maintain systems and exchange data.
• Traceability. Having an unbroken and transparent data supply chain makes cross-departmental collaboration much easier, and when data changes there must be plans to ensure that those changes are traceable.
• Publication. Good data governance includes publication rules to prescribe the approved data flow requirements.
• Deletion. An often-overlooked principle which nevertheless is at the core of good data governance. Outdated or illegally stored data is a liability that hinders compliance and weakens the foundation of a sound data culture.

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2. Break down the silos

As the activist mantra goes: “Information wants to be free.” So does enterprise data. Unlocking data from its silos and restricted repositories is the first step towards capitalising on it.

Technical and organisational barriers should be removed to the most possible extent to allow transparency and hassle-free transactions of data across systems and departments.
Storing data in disconnected systems will slow down workflows and require more manpower for double-checking and data cleansing, and frustrations of not getting correct data fast enough will spread from employees to partners and customers.

Technical and organisational silos are often symptoms of the same problem. Data and information is most effective when shared. This concept must be implanted in people’s minds and supported by systems. If people keep hoarding their own data and clinging to their private systems for performing crucial business operations, then integrated systems are of little avail.

In a siloed data culture, there will very quickly exist multiple versions of the same data records. Data becomes inconsistent and outdated, which will have a negative influence on both customer experiences and internal processes, questioning the accountability of data stewards and kindling conflicts between data owners and process owners. A data-driven organisation needs trustworthy data to work with.

The fact is that everyone depends on someone else for doing their jobs right. Data stewards depend on a correct data feed to maintain a high data quality, e-commerce managers depend on the CIO’s office to provide accurate and rich customer data, and sales managers depend on data stewards from CRM and Marketing to get matured information on leads and prospects. For this reason, developing a collaborative and silo-free environment will be a giant leap forward towards a sound data culture.

3. Be a change manager

Introducing a data culture with its silo-breakdown and data governance principles can be an earthquake-like experience for many organisations because ownerships are redefined and challenged, and because of general insecurity towards a new situation.

Developing a data culture at all is often daunting to many employees, who might experience anything from skills gaps to cultural barriers or psychological resistance. Intuition and tradition can be tough opponents for a CDO trying to introduce best data practices.

In order to lower the threshold to a data culture, one of the most rewarding initiatives is to raise the general data literacy in the organisation and educate data stewards. A higher data literacy is not just to the benefit of the individual employee but also to the optimised collaboration. One of Stephen Covey’s principles of being highly effective is to think win-win, which is particularly applicable here. Raising the data literacy of each staff member will make that person feel more comfortable with the new situation, as well as more productive. The individual person’s increased skills level will bolster colleagues’ confidence and mitigate the dependency moment.

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We often must resort to seemingly simple methods as part of immersing the staff into the data culture:

• Educate the staff and make data exciting.
• Show the organisation with use cases which insights and results can be derived from data.
• Launch a data campaign, highlighting the key points on posters.
• Announce rewards for the most innovative use of data.
• Cultivate ‘Champions of Change’ in the organisation – data stewards who can help you disseminate the concept throughout all levels and departments.
• Give people data training on boot camps.

Never underestimate the cultural impact of implementing a data strategy. The blessing of your c-suite peers will be futile if the people on the floor remain reluctant.

The best long-haul investment you can make to develop a data culture is to raise the average data literacy of the organisation and imbue the organisation with a data mindset and sound data management processes.

The process of developing a data culture will inevitably expose some data issues that reveal where there is room for improvement. This is a positive outcome. Next step is to leverage the optimised organisation and monetise the data.

Written by Niels Stenfeldt, CEO of Stibo Systems
Written by Niels Stenfeldt, CEO of Stibo Systems

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