4 Key Tips in Developing a Data Strategy (Tip #1 is Crucial)

By Jason Rushin

Published on September 15, 2022

Chess pieces laid out with a focus on the black ones.

We continue to discover why organizations with a top-tier data culture lead their competitors. In a statement that captures this point, Gartner predicts that by next year, “organizations that promote data sharing will outperform their peers on most business value metrics.” Alation’s Q1 2022 State of Data Culture Report further found that 90% of organizations with top-tier data cultures met or exceeded their revenue targets over the last 12 months.

As any c-level executive will tell you, outperforming your peers and exceeding revenue targets is a sure ticket to success. But, building a top-tier data culture that encourages enterprise-wide data literacy isn’t an easy task. Unfortunately, many organizations see the role of Chief Data Officer (CDO) as a silver bullet that can magically manifest a strategy and create a data culture. But, if the conversations with seasoned data leaders on the Data Radicals podcast are any indication, good CDOs—and good leaders—know that building a data culture requires a strategy that looks far beyond just the data.

Tip #1: A Good Data Strategy Starts With People

A data culture is one that thrives on data-driven decision-making. Data leaders don’t expect the data to make the right decisions, but they do expect insights gleaned from data to empower people to make the right decisions. That’s a fundamental concept trailblazing CDOs understand and use to be successful.

It’s important to begin with the premise that everyone in your organization works with data, so everyone must be committed to building a data culture. In a podcast conversation with Jennifer Belissent, Principal Data Strategist at Snowflake, she shared an interesting story about working with a food service management company.

Analysts were befuddled to find a spike in sales of breakfast sausage at a cafeteria. As they dug deeper, they found that a newly installed point-of-sale system somehow made the sausage button easier to press. So, cashiers used it as a catch-all, again and again, to make their jobs easier. It wasn’t that more sausages were actually being purchased—but the sausage button was being pressed far more often.

“These cashiers probably didn’t know they were working with data,” Belissent explained. “They probably didn’t know how their companies were using that data, the value data potentially brought to their company, their particular role with data. That brought home the fact that there are huge gaps in data literacy.”

Jennifer Belissent, the Principal Data Strategist at Snowflake, giving a quote on the most important thing for a new CDO.

Many CDOs and data leaders forget about the role we all, at every level, play in a successful data culture. But it’s not just explaining it to the workers; listening also helps. Belissent suggests CDOs embark on what she calls a “listening tour” to engage with stakeholders and understand the issues and priorities that can demonstrate the value of data. As you make data relevant to everyone at the individual level, from cashiers to the c-suite, the concept of data culture and data literacy start to make sense and take hold.

Stan McChrystal, Founder & CEO of McChrystal Group and former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, shared a similar story on the podcast. While visiting a base outside Baghdad, he spotted a pile of garbage bags and asked about them. They contained laptops, mobile phones, and documents confiscated from captured adversaries and which no one had the time to evaluate.

“Intelligence is like fruit,” McChrystal said. “It goes bad very, very quickly. And so this stuff sitting there was literally like rotting fruit, and very quickly it has no value.”

When teams don’t understand the value of data, it goes unused. In McChrystal’s case, and for any team working closely with data, it quickly grows stale and, eventually, worthless.

Tip #2: Training for Data Literacy

So how do you get workers at every level to understand the importance of data and data literacy? You explain it to them with training and constant reinforcement. More CDOs are starting to build this into their data strategy.

Wendy Turner-Williams, CDO at Tableau, understands the value of data literacy training better than most. The company publishes a data trends report, which uncovered an important gap where data literacy training is concerned. The report found that only 39% of surveyed organizations say data training is available to all employees, while 82% say they expect all employees to have basic data literacy.

“In other words, there’s over a 50% gap between the amount of literacy and training that’s actually being provided to the employees versus the employer expectation about these employees actually having basic literacy skills,” Turner-Williams summarized. “This seems to be a huge disconnect.”

McChrystal understood the importance of data literacy and quickly addressed his pile of confiscated items—essentially data—by training those involved.

“Suddenly everybody understands how valuable data is and people out across the organization start trying to get more data because they know that they see the value from it,” McChrystal added. “Suddenly not only does the value of data rise, it’s the appreciation of it across the organization.”

Training can frequently be a one-and-done endeavour, however, so constant reinforcement is necessary.

Tip #3: A Communications Strategy for Data

As people understand the value of data and their role in data culture, and increase their data literacy, the CDO can focus on expanding and deepening the resulting benefits. People just need to know what’s possible with data and get inspired by the impact data is having across the organization.

“I’ve been talking to a number of CDOs who have been talking about their comms strategy,” said Belissent. “You’re evangelizing to your peers, getting them excited about current projects, and proposing future projects. You’re also segmenting your employee base—as you would a customer base for a marketing campaign—and pitching the idea of the value of data.”

Communications and transparency matter, as they help drive accountability while ensuring more people and teams see that data culture is taking hold. To keep people accountable, McChrystal hosted a daily video call. This meant that, every day, he illuminated the work others were doing, to showcase and share the value of data—but also call out those who weren’t keeping up.

“We were sharing information more aggressively than ever before,” said McChrystal. “We solved a lot of our leadership problems there, not in the way traditional, but we created this normative pressure. Everybody could see what everybody else was doing and not doing. So that solved more of it than I expected.”

Tip #4: A Data Strategy Is a Change Management Strategy

Successful data leaders understand that creating a data culture requires a shift in the organization’s culture. It’s a massive change management project, and it requires CDOs to win the hearts and minds of workers on every team and at every level. Referring back to where we started, it’s all about people, and people desire empathy and communication.

“When you’re talking about changing a culture, you’re talking about changing the way people do something that has an underlying logic to it,” McChrystal said. “And so just coming in and saying, ‘What you do is stupid,’ is really dangerous if you don’t understand the underlying logic that it’s based on.” Instead, McChyrstal encourages leaders to be curious and ask questions: “Why are they that way? Why have they made those decisions?”

Obviously, tact and diplomacy also matter if you’re looking to build support and change a culture. CDOs aren’t there to tell people how to use data but rather to show them how to reap the benefits from using data. This is a fine line that can make or break your data strategy.

Tableau’s Turner-Williams points out that the CDO should act as the glue between teams: “I really think about data and chief data officers as they’re like a supporting actor to the corporate entity as a whole. You need to be able to talk to others. You have to be able to have a learner’s mindset. That starts to build kind of a reputation as a go-to person where people start to come to you. I think when you build relationships, they can’t be one-and-done; they’ve got to be an ongoing conversation.”

Again, even though you’re building a data culture, it’s all about the people.

Stanley McChrystal, former US Army General, giving a quote on changing what people do.

“Start by changing what people do,” McChrystal concluded. “People often say, ‘I’ll change their culture and then their behaviors will change.’ And I actually think you got to go the other direction. You’ve got to change the behaviors and then the culture will follow along.”

Change management is difficult, ergo creating a data culture is also difficult. Some people will resist. But, CDOs with a people-focused data strategy can create momentum by showing them how easy it is to capture and use data, how it will help them in their roles, and where others are already using data to their advantage. CDOs also have to consider everyone in the organization, listening to them, understanding what motivates them, and helping them benefit from data. In other words, it’s communication. Easy, right?

  • Tip #1: A Good Data Strategy Starts With People
  • Tip #2: Training for Data Literacy
  • Tip #3: A Communications Strategy for Data
  • Tip #4: A Data Strategy Is a Change Management Strategy
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