Count me among the most enthused about all the attention that everything data, from big data to analytics to quality to culture, is getting these days. Though the attention has grown steadily for some time, the subject is enjoying a distinct and welcome uptick. Data is all the rage -- and not just in the technology community, as evidenced in recent New York Times features on the promise and the perils of big data.
But I’m worried. Everything data seems to demand top-down leadership. As editor in chief Beth Schultz opined not so long ago, creating a data-driven culture must be driven from the top, for example. In my day job, I consult on data quality, and I espouse the same thing.
But really, must everything data come from the top down? I started my career at AT&T Bell Labs as what we would now call a data miner. My job -- my whole job -- was to work with people throughout AT&T to understand their problems and with others in the labs to think differently about those problems and propose new solutions. I was fortunate enough to contribute two or three important ideas, but AT&T's president never heard about them.
Since setting out on my own, I’ve been blessed with dozens of aggressive mid-level to upper-level managers as clients. They grew sick and tired of dealing with bad data and concluded that there had to be a different way. And they found it, often improving quality by an order of magnitude or more. Take that, Redman and Schultz. Maybe senior leadership isn’t essential, after all!
Alas, I don’t think that conclusion stands up to even the gentlest scrutiny.
And my view of the diffusion of innovation at AT&T is far too optimistic. The teams I worked with laid the foundation for data quality improvement (even earning two patents) and completed projects that saved the company more than $100 million annually, but we did not even get a chance to work on other important data quality issues.
Finally, practically any manager can start a data quality effort within his or her span of control, but I’ve yet to observe such an undertaking expand without the leadership of a more senior manager. It seems to me that data quality programs go just as far as the highest-ranking leader can credibly demand.
“Anything data,” never mind “everything data,” is truly transformative. The data revolution can start anywhere. But Schultz is right. For it to penetrate everywhere, top-down leadership of change is essential. Would you agree?
I am myself a victim of haphazard data at work and I undertake a lot of effort daily in bringing data to usable format after searching through for that data in a jungle of storage. Yet I am helpless as the top management doesnt take initiative in performing data organizing efforts which I think can be easily done in off-peak seasons. However, its not that I dont have a role in organization of data and I am sitting waiting for the rescue; I try to contribute as much as I can esp for the data that is my output but my feathers are just big enough to implement the revolution organization-wide.
It does take time for the top management to respond to changes that come from the bottom. I would suggest that you find a good way to explain how your data organization effort is useful to the company and I think your effort will be appreciated.
I do that a lot but I cannot cross the line. The bosses do agree to my recommendations and appreciate the effort but they are just too pre-occupied to make a plan or even designate a task team for the program. However, things are changing as the management is getting staffed with younger blood that is more inclined towards changing things that are a hurdle in making processes smoother and tasks effective.
I used to have a lot more for "working patiently through each layer of management until you reach the level you need." But it is a time-cconsuming process, fraught with difficulty, including the separate agendas of those you must work through. I wish I'd kept statistics throughout my career on this, so I could speak more factually. But I'm pretty sure most efforts to work through to the top fail. Most people who try grow frustrated. The better ones take new jobs, where there are brighter prospects. The poorer ones give up. And become part of the problem for the next guy.
Looking at the post and some of the conversation here, I'd agree top down is one of the ways the data revolution will likely spread with one important caveat. The availability of data tools to an increasing number of business users as shown in our post about ClearStory today and an ever increasing number of startups focused on data driven solutions to give them a competitive edge, may also lead to change from the outside as larger companies react to competition.
Organizations that are focused from day one to deliver data driven solutions are garunteed to keep their data organization at the very best. To add on, availability of data tools to 'all' business users is a problem that leads to unstructured storage of data. Also, awareness programmes or training sessions by the organization itself can lead people to follow defined rules in maintaining data in a structured way.
So true. One thing I am sure that where organizations are lead by younger blood or by people who are focused on organizing things, there it would an easier task to convince the bosses to invest effort and funds in data organization process.
Thomas, you point out a few scenarios for folks working to make improvements from the bottom up: "Most people who try grow frustrated. The better ones take new jobs, where there are brighter prospects. The poorer ones give up." I'd toss in another -- you make great progess and have a great rapport with and respect from a key senior leader ... who then leaves the company and you're starting at ground zero once again!
Waqas, your story is sad, but no doubt one to which many business professionals can relate. It always pays to bear in mind that what you want, or what's high priority to you, is neither not always what the company wants nor top of the agenda. It's easy to say "why aren't we doing this, we could reap this, that, and the other benefits" when you're not holding the purse strings or directing umpteen other strategic initiatives. (I'm not downplaying the criticality of data improvement programs, just pointing out the grim realities at many companies.)
So true. Even when I think about that why bosses arent doing this; the answer I get is that if it would have been really beneficial or critical for the business sustainability, they would have been the first one to do it. However, when you are one that values efficient processes, then you think that in the long run, all this data improvement exercise will pay off. Its difficult however to explain that how will the data improvement link directly to business growth.
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