Data democracy: bringing everyone on the data journey at Microsoft

Co-creation and breaking down silos to leverage data insights is easier when you have top-level support driving a data-first culture.

In January 2021, after 21 years at Microsoft, Robin Sutara was appointed Microsoft UK’s first Chief Data Officer and parachuted into the UK subsidiary with a clear mission: to accelerate a data-driven culture and champion a data democracy.

In theory this was no simple task, considering the hugely successful multinational technology company was founded in 1975—meaning decades of historic data—and has almost 200,000 employees. Additionally, she relocated from Redmond, Washington, where the corporate headquarters is found, to north west London in the middle of lockdown in a global pandemic.

However, in practice, and thanks to the progressive and innovative approach that pervades Microsoft, Sutara has been able to take colleagues on the data journey with few issues. Moreover, full-throated encouragement from the very top has undoubtedly made her job more straightforward. “Every organisation going through digital transformation realises the value of their data, and the UK senior leadership team, in particular, wanted to think about how to leverage that data as efficiently as possible,” she says.

“Having the support of the senior leadership team, all the way down from Satya Nadella and UK CEO Clare Barclay, to commit to becoming a data-driven organisation definitely makes it easier to change the culture. It is very difficult if you come in and make lines in the sand and say: ‘This is how we are doing things from now on.’ You have to take people on the journey.”

Reflecting on almost a year into her latest role at Microsoft, Sutara believes her team has “made significant strides” on the data-first journey and “unlocked power by enabling the organisation to use a single source of truth to drive decisions”. Aside from senior-leadership backing, this has been achieved through cross-department collaboration and a pioneering spirit engendered by co-creation.

A self-service data culture: what is it and how can your organisation implement one?

Microsoft UK’s Chief Data Officer, Robin Sutara, encourages business leaders to overcome their paralysis and ‘think big, start small, and act fast’ to empower workers and make smarter decisions in the digital age.

Pioneering spirit

By establishing Centers of Excellence (CoEs), Microsoft brings together disparate elements of the business to develop solutions to business challenges. “The different business groups at Microsoft all have specific goals, and as we cement a data culture, we keep those objectives in mind, as we want to ensure that they truly grasp the value of leveraging data, so it makes their job easier,” explains Sutara. “In turn, those data insights enable them to deliver a better and faster service for our customers.”

Sutara has used her vast experience at and knowledge of the organisation to excel in her position as Microsoft UK’s CDO. Seven years after attending Norwich University, Vermont, with a degree in computer engineering—and following stints repairing Apache helicopters for the US Army and then fixing computers for Tandy—she started at Microsoft in 1999.

Sutara was initially a Consumer Support Engineer. In over two decades, she has also been, in chronological order, Senior Technical Account Manager, Business and Operations Manager for Cloud Vantage Services, Senior Program Manager of Customer and Partner Experience, and Director of Business Management. More recently, from July 2018 until she was appointed CDO for Microsoft UK, Sutara was Chief Operating Officer of Azure Data Engineering.

Her impressive CV means she perfectly understands various departments’ pain points on achieving a data-first approach. Further, having deep-rooted personal relationships with numerous key stakeholders, Sutara can drive collaboration and break down dreaded data silos quicker.

Power of collaboration

“To create a data culture, you have to take the organisation with you; it has to be collaborative,” she says. “You can’t dictate because when you talk to people, there is a significant value in ensuring that every person understands [digital transformation] is not about job displacement, rather it’s about job empowerment. The question is: ‘How do we use data to help you be more efficient at your job, leverage that insight and that knowledge, and all those capabilities beyond the tedious activities?’”

Sutara continues: “It is interesting when you talk to a Chief Information Officer about how to connect with the Vice President of Sales, or a COO about how using data will be more efficient for the business. The key point is: it is not simply an IT decision. You have got to get the data within the hands of the business groups and focus your efforts and progress against a data strategy or a data culture based on the business value, or you will never be successful in leveraging data more effectively.”

Instilling a data culture is a business imperative in the digital age, posits Sutara. Her advice to businesses seeking to take advantage is to “think big, start small, and act fast”, stressing the last aspect. “As fast as you think about how technology can solve a problem, there become easier ways to do it, but the question is: how do you stay on top of that innovation while still making progress? I think sometimes business leaders sit back and say: ‘Well, I shouldn’t take action because something better might be around the corner.’”

This attitude is wrong-headed, insists Sutara. Providing a last tip, she adds: “You have to make sure you create data-driven value within the organisation and, using an agile engineering methodology when applying your data strategy, keep iterating, as you’re not necessarily going to have the right answers the first time.”

Her final message is clear: through experimentation, being agile and failing fast, organisations can unlock innovation and pivot to better serve their customers.

Robin Sutara is Microsoft UK’s first Chief Data Officer.

This article was written as part of a paid-for content campaign with Microsoft

Oliver Pickup

Oliver is an award-winning business and technology journalist. The London-based writer's work has featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, and numerous other publications.

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