First Rule of Data: Don’t Talk About Data

3 min read

Fight Club knew the rules. Shame data doesn’t. 

The easy way out is to point the finger at something you don’t understand. Data is usually that fall guy.

We are repeatedly told that ‘data is the new oil’, ‘data is a strategic asset’ or other such clickbait headlines. The truth is data has always been a strategic asset; the rest of the world is now awakening to this fact.

Consider this:

What do you think accountants have been using to make decisions since the dawn of time?

Don’t say beans.

That’s too obvious.

But even if you did, that is data, just in physical edible form.

As the world gets to grips with how technology has changed life (think: social media, medical advancements, electric vehicles etc.), data was traded without friction. As Facebook acutely exploited, we became the product, freely passing many data points across to the social behemoth without a moment’s consideration.

Tech giants knew more about us than potentially our closest friends within no time at all, identifying trends, building profiles, and understanding our browsing habits.

This, for me, was the wild west era of data.

In essence, a free for all, without regulation.

A period of extreme growth for those who took advantage of our willingness to pass on details about our lives.

We will never get this data back. It’s gone.

Lost into the ether, sold across black market(s) and stored on servers worldwide.

With fear comes regulation.

Whether that be cryptocurrency and central banks’ absolute petrification, fiat currencies will become worthless or restrict what data companies could hold.

In came tighter controls.

Some even went as far as calling it an act against our freedom of speech and human rights.

The result?

An exaggerated swing back to an over-controlled environment.

The vying to the wild west’s yang.

I believe we will end up somewhere in the middle; a balancing act between enthusiasm and apathy.  Ultimately an equilibrium will need to be established. Whether that inadvertently favours consumers or big tech, only time will tell.

The reason for telling you this is we often focus on the wrong aspect, especially from a data perspective.

Many companies know they need to do something with their data; the problem is they don’t know what that something is.

The assumption that data will unlock further competitive advantage is spot on. The challenge is to link data to the nirvana of sustainable profit and market leadership.

At this point, I would encourage everyone in this position, to stop looking at their data.

Counterintuitive I know, but it’s true.

The reason being data is nothing if it is not used to address a business driver.

That is not strictly true as it will not be worthless, but the endeavours you undertake will be fundamentally flawed if you start with the data and work your way up.

Business is about creating value.

Value is either reducing cost or making money.

Everything a business does can be reduced to the lowest common denominators of revenue generation or cost reduction.

The important part to note here is that the Business defines these drivers. Technology, IT or the name used in your Business, are all terms to describe a support function.

Our clients are at the front office & the rest of the Business.

That’s why it is vital the Business defines what the drivers are, and clarity is given to others as to the focus. This manifests itself through strong Business objectives which are clearly disseminated across the organisation.

By doing so, the Data teams can begin work in earnest.

As a Data Leader, I know the importance of aligning everything we do to a business problem (and ultimately a value driver).

If this doesn’t happen, it is highly likely a technology solution will be created and delivered which a) wasn’t asked for by the Business or b) doesn’t address the real problems being encountered.

That’s why we should not talk about data.

We should listen to the Business.

Then listen some more.

Then define and replay back to the key stakeholders what has been heard.

In turn, a focus on projects, associated prioritisation and uniformed commitment on approach is needed. Only then, should you start looking at the data in detail.

Please do not be under any impression that there will be plenty of data activities at a micro level that will need to be performed – this is part of putting your organisational blocks in place and establishing the BAU.

This is not a linear process either.

Concurrency should be maintained & encouraged so as to move forwards and build momentum. Momentum, political capital and delivery need to be the cornerstones of the Data Agenda.

If you are to take away anything from this article, please let it be this:

“Everything data does needs to support a Business outcome.”

In the beginning, that will mean not talking about data & listening more than talking. Some will find this easier to do than others, but failure to do so means creating unnecessary problems.

Think: explaining why you’ve built an expensive technology solution, doesn’t solve the problem and is difficult to support (a real-world example).

As you embark on your data endeavours, please remember that the first rule of data is not talking about data.

Brendan Ellis As the Head of Data at specialist lender Shawbrook Bank, Brendan leads the data vision & strategy across the business. Focusing on driving a data-enabled organisation, Brendan is passionate about delivering value to clients through data & innovation. Having previously established the International Analytics function at NBCUniversal and been responsible for Business Intelligence at Turner & Townsend, Brendan knows the power behind data. Brendan is a seasoned speaker, writer and podcast guest focusing on strategy & culture. He is a big believer in the challenging the status quo but in and out of work having completed endurance challenges (IRONMAN & Ride Across Britain) & established high performing cultures. Brendan is fascinated in digital transformation and how technology will continue to change the world.

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