The future of data: how organisations can inspire data-driven business transformation

Caroline Carruthers, director at Carruthers and Jackson — which helps organisations with their data — and Peter Jackson, director of group data sciences at Legal and General, make quite the team. They are two world-leading experts in data-driven business transformation.

On 23 May 2019, both will be presenting a presentation at Information Age’s Data Leadership Summit, where they will discuss how to successfully complete a data-driven business transformation.

A snapshot of Caroline and Peter's presentation. Not one to miss!
A snapshot of Caroline and Peter’s presentation. Not one to miss!

Is it important to look at data holistically?

Caroline: It’s really important. We see what happens when we tackle data just using technology or just assuming that we can buy a data warehouse and it makes everything all right. If that worked, it would have worked by now.

What we need to do is look at the whole organisation, but in a lot of cases, businesses abdicate responsibility for the data.

You then get to the point of forgetting that you have to put something in Excel, for example. Just because you put the data in a new fancy shiny system, it doesn’t mean the system doesn’t need you to do anything with it any more.

Businesses need to think about the risk side of it, they need to think about the policies, they need to think about the governance and they also need to think about the architecture, the flow and the people in the organisations. Data itself is very simple, but it’s about harnessing the power of the people — then businesses can really make a difference.

We talk about data driving the whole digital agenda, but actually people drive the data.

Caroline Carruthers will be speaking at Information Age's Data Leadership Summit on 23 May 2019.
Caroline Carruthers will be speaking at Information Age’s Data Leadership Summit on 23 May 2019.

Peter: I would add two things to that from a slightly different angle.

The first is that data goes right the way across an organisation, it’s horizontal throughout. As a result, business have to start understanding the complete data value chain — in other words, how data builds up value from its point of collection to its point of use across an organisation. It may have gone through operations, HR, finance and touched on all sorts of other places as it passes through.

The other point about taking data holistically is that data itself is holistic. Don’t just think about data storage, data processing, data visualisation, data analytics, a piece of data or a data set — by thinking about data holistically, you have to think about its quality, its standards, its calibration, how it’s stored, how it’s collected, its compute and how you’re going to exploit it.

Caroline: Data has now been recognised as an asset, you treat your other assets holistically, so why would you not treat data in the same way?

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How can business leaders instigate the data-driven business transformation?

Peter: I’ll jump in very quickly with an obvious answer to that one: get yourself a chief data officer. If you look after the company asset that is finance and money, you have a chief financial officer, and it’s exactly the same with data.

You need to have somebody who is the senior data leader, and there are two really important words here: who is accountable and responsible for the use and value of data.

Caroline: You really do need a business leader who can champion the data. But, the job requires them to understand where the organisation is and balance that with their ambition, because that will help dictate the type of journey the organisation will go on.

Peter: Yes, benchmarking around what we would call data maturity is really important. If you don’t understand where you are, how can you plot the course to where you want to go and know when you’ve got there?

Caroline: It’s like having a pirate’s map and not knowing where you start from. It’s not very helpful.

How can data leaders bring employees along the data journey?

Peter: That is a very good question and it’s crucial to a successful data-driven business transformation.

At the beginning, any data leader will have to create the vision, the view of the end state — where are we going to? And a lot of it is around storytelling; you have to have a wholly credible business case or a strategy document that aligns to the business objectives and business goals. But the starting point is to create a data strategy, the data transformation and then make it understandable for people, both at board and senior exec level, down to the people in the call centre, the people out in the field and operations.

Peter Jackson will be speaking at Information Age's Data Leadership Summit on 23 May 2019.
Peter Jackson will be speaking at Information Age’s Data Leadership Summit on 23 May 2019.

Caroline: Yes, it is about true engagement. We’ve seen time and time again, organisations will do data or IT projects and the whole engagement side comes down to a one-page set of instructions on how to do something. That’s not engagement, that’s not hearts and minds, that’s not winning that battle.

Engagement is really about understanding what’s in it for them and how you use those data storytelling skills that Peter was talking about to convey the art of the possible and how much better it’s going to be when they come on this wonderful transformation with you. A lot of it boils down to trust. You have to build that credibility and trust with the whole organisation to get them to come with you on that journey.

Peter: Something else we talk about is data literacy. I think if you want to get people on that journey with you, you have to increase the standards and quality and exposure to data literacy.

People in the organisation have to understand the data value chain and the whole organisations needs to start understanding the value of data, the potential value of data to the organisation. That’s largely through painting this picture constantly telling the story, constantly educating and being on message the whole time. And then as part of what one would call the deliverables in a data exploitation sense, deliver stuff so people can see the story unrolling in front of their eyes.

Caroline: It doesn’t matter how much you talk to people, talk to them some more.

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Do business leaders realise the importance of data?

Caroline: Yes, they know how important it is. That doesn’t mean they know what they’re going to do about it.

Peter: I think it’s true to say as well, a lot of organisations are still very much focused on digital transformation being about technology. They think if they create digital platforms and digital experiences either for their operations teams or for their customers or for their marketing teams, job done. What they’re forgetting in a lot of cases is the importance of data. You can’t produce a secure portal for a customer to interact with the organisation if you can’t service the data into that environment to give the customer a meaningful experience.

What are the typical challenges data leaders experience?

Peter: One of the stumbling blocks you’ll meet, unless you’re an organisation that was created in the last five to seven years, is what you might call legacy technology: databases, applications, operational systems that weren’t built and weren’t designed in terms of their architecture for exploiting the data.

Caroline: I’m actually working with one organisation that was created four years ago, and it’s having to cope with legacy because they were in the start-up mode and it was just all about getting over the next problem, the next hurdle and all of a sudden they’ve created a legacy before they realise it.

Peter: That’s a very interesting point because a lot of start-ups do fight against what you would call building up technical debt. In other words, they’re so focused on customer acquisition, or customer retention or market share, because that’s driving their funding cycle, that they’re in danger of building up technical debt. I think what Caroline is talking about there is organisations building up technical debts.

Caroline: Yes, very fast, incredibly quickly. And because the data world is changing, the technology world is changing, the pace of change is accelerating, the pace that debt gets picked up is accelerating too.

Other challenges that are common among organisations have a lot to do with the right leadership. You need the right buy-in from the organisation, the right level of curiosity to try something different.

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What will the future of data look like?

Peter: I think we can predict that there’s going to be more and more data in organisations. And I think in terms of what we might call data morphology, it’s going change dramatically: we’ll get a lot more unstructured data, a lot more external data sources. An organisation won’t just be running on its own data. I think we’ll see an awful lot more of open data sets available to organisations. These will have pressure on them to expose data into open data sets. I think the data literacy and the data skills in an organisation are going to increase as well.

Caroline: This is going to need to increase, because of the other things that have just been raised. The rise of the data citizen within an organisation will support what we would consider the more traditional data teams; to really let them focus on the more complex problems.

Peter: Something else we’re going to see the rise of ethics around data, particularly around artificial intelligence, machine learning and the use of data.

Just because you can or you’re allowed to doesn’t mean you should. I think that with the recent European rulings around copyright and Google, people are going to start taking data more seriously as an asset and try to protect it.

Caroline: It’s the understanding about how much we stand on data for. We’re both massive advocates for the future of data and what we can do with it around machine learning, AI and all the other fantastic stuff. But data is the foundation that all of that stands on — if we do not get the foundation right, if we do not handle it in an ethical and sustainable way, we will cause ourselves long-term problems.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...