The importance of adaptability: defining a data leader

What are the defining characteristics of great data leaders, in comparison to traditional business leaders, with a focus on adaptability?

There are many qualities that we search for in great leaders: wisdom; loyalty; constancy; courage; the ability to communicate persuasively, balanced with a willingness to hear uncomfortable truths and to change direction. But when it comes to a great data leader, a crucial role in an increasingly digitalised era, the defining characteristics vary slightly. Let’s explore what they are:

Ability to embrace change

To work in Information Technology in the early 21st century is to live in an era of unprecedented – and accelerating – change. New technologies are proliferating at such speed that even domain experts are struggling to keep up with new logos that appear in presentations summarising recent arrivals.

>See also: The UK’s top 50 data leaders 2017

Furthermore, more data than ever before is available to support analysis, and in greater variety. Established methods for functions such as software development, information management and governance and the design and development of architecture and infrastructure are cracking under the twin pressures of the “new” and the requirement to do more, more quickly, with the same or fewer resources. It’s clear that these are challenging, but also exciting times for data leaders.

Little over two decades ago, the industry regarded business processes as ever-changing, but data structures as largely constant and stable. Businesses believed that if they modelled their data correctly and exhaustively, they would be largely insulated from changes in the world around them.

But in an era when the big web properties can make thousands of changes to their web-sites every month, the idea that we should map each-and-every new attribute to a well-defined and fixed domain in half-a-dozen downstream target systems now appear quaint and other-worldly.

>See also: Top 10 attributes of a true data leader

“Big Data” is sometimes represented as a veritable Tsunami: the reality is that the challenge for today’s data leaders is not in dealing with a single, giant wave of data – but rather in working out how to manage and exploit scores of rivers of data, each of variable structure, quality, provenance, reliability and value.

Adaptability is key

In his seminal essay on software development, Fred Brooks observed many moons ago that it is the termites that technology managers and leaders should worry about, not the tornadoes.

For today’s data leader, the volume of data – the tornado – is far less of an issue than the variety, and the complexity that comes with managing that variety.

Without an adaptable leader at the helm, it’s impossible for organisations to succeed merely in managing that change, never mind exploiting it to drive business value. DevOps, Agile development methodologies, schema-less information management strategies, user-centred models of data governance, cloud and as-a-service deployment options, Deep Learning – all of these are merely tools that make more-or-less sense in different circumstances and for different use-cases.

Recognising and celebrating the plethora of new technologies, tools and frameworks now available to us – and adapting to circumstance by making appropriate choices in different scenarios – is the hallmark of success for today’s data leaders.

>See also: Data leader on the impact and necessity of data analytics

Einstein might have been thinking of the 21st century data-driven business when he observed that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

Today’s adaptable data leader can make smart choices about when and where to avoid over-simplification to avoid leaving business value on the table – and where to enforce simplification, to avoid the unnecessary complexity that slows business to a crawl. Because to adapt is first to make intelligent choices about what is merely important – and what is vital.


Sourced by Martin Willcox, Big Data Practice Lead at Teradata

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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...

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Data Leaders