Fueling Data Revolution Requires Sparks From Top

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 Iím 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, Iíve 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 isnít essential, after all!

Alas, I donít think that conclusion stands up to even the gentlest scrutiny.

Bell Labs is but a shadow of its former self. And what happened to the other great national labs? Or the smaller, more focused labs that once decorated the American business landscape? Theyíre gone and, sadly, unlikely to return. Writing in the NYT, Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, explains the demise of Labs-like, data-fueled innovation.

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 Iíve 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.

ďAnything data,Ē never mind ďeverything data,Ē 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?

Thomas Redman,

Dr. Thomas C. Redman, Founder, Navesink Consulting
Dr. Thomas C. Redman (the Data Doc) is an innovator, advisor, and teacher. He was first to extend quality principles to data and information, in the late 80s. Since then he has crystallized a body of tools, techniques, roadmaps, and organizational insights that help organizations make order-of-magnitude improvements. More recently he has developed keen insights into the nature of data and formulated the first comprehensive approach to "putting data to work."  Taken together, these enable organizations to treat data as assets of virtually unlimited potential. Tom has personally helped dozens of leaders and organizations better understand data and data quality and start their data programs.  He is a sought-after lecturer and the author of dozens of papers and four books. The most recent, <i>Data Driven: Profiting From Your Most Important Business Asset</i> (Harvard Business Press, 2008), was a <i>Library Journal</i> best buy of 2008. Prior to forming Navesink in 1996, Dr. Redman conceived the Data Quality Lab at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1987 and led it until 1995.  He holds a PhD in statistics from Florida State University and holds two patents.

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Top management involvement mandatory
  • 4/4/2012 6:54:35 PM

Big Data is changing Leadership. For any manager, with the data's ability to drive clarity the executive is able to make clearer and precise decisions. C-Level executives can be able to trust in data. When it is proven that the team adapts to a "data driven culture.

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/23/2012 1:30:29 AM

@ Beth

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.

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/21/2012 3:49:52 PM

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.)



Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/21/2012 3:46:11 PM

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!

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/21/2012 1:43:55 PM

True Shawn

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. 

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/21/2012 1:25:12 PM

@ Thomas

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.

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/21/2012 10:17:36 AM


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.

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/20/2012 5:26:08 PM

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.


Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/20/2012 12:34:54 PM

@ Hospice

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. 

Re: Top management involvement mandatory
  • 3/20/2012 11:55:58 AM


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.

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