For decades, in our society, petroleum was the lifeblood of the economy. But in the past 10-20 years, that balance has shifted; information–and the data derived from operations–has supplanted it in importance. The primary reason for the shift is that our entire economic model is experiencing a state of sustained change, and the prevailing trends center on the collection, analysis, and application of vast amounts of data, from every source imaginable to influence every decision, as opposed to singular visionaries.
Collecting data is the easy part, though. What you do with that data to create change is where it gets tricky. Information without insight is just noise. You need the right information at the right time, to make the right decisions.
Tim Cook is widely renowned as a master of supply chain operations for the work he did as Apple’s COO after Steve Jobs returned to the company in the late 90’s. They examined the company’s products, users, and market position and made tough choices about what was working and what wasn’t. The result was a leaner Apple, with more focused products, and a manufacturing pipeline that was able to respond nimbly to giant swells in popularity around those key products–undoing years of poor management decisions in a fraction of that time.
Cook and Jobs weren’t just guessing what would work, though. It wasn’t gut feeling that drove the change. Insight into how the business operated at a deep level was needed to facilitate those choices. If they hadn’t done the work to understand the needs of users, the inefficiencies within the business, and the positioning around product offerings, it’s not likely the company would be the juggernaut that it is today.
But it’s not a fairy tale. Every company has the ability to make those kinds of changes, regardless of the end product or audience. It just takes the right information and analysis.
Ask yourself: do you have the right view of what’s happening inside your business? Do you have the kind of visibility across internal systems and processes and external users and products? Do you have the kind of clarity required to make rapid choices with far-reaching consequences–with confidence?
If the answer is no, then it’s time to consider what a data strategy can do for your business.
Let’s think about this plan in a few dimensions.
What kinds of information are being captured on performance right now? Is it enough to make the kinds of decisions that will drive the business forward or are there gaps?
Mapping business processes from end-to-end can be a tremendously valuable exercise in helping to identify those gaps or roadblocks that impede the streamlined forward momentum you’re seeking. If the processes are too complex, simplify them wherever possible and look for ways to build reporting structures around their ongoing performance to measure the change–and be prepared to iterate on those ideas until they’re really working.
Are the systems of record within the business architected in such a way that reporting is enabled successfully? Is this data of value?
If you’re running antiquated, monolithic systems and expecting them to perform at the level that the business needs today, it’s going to be a challenge. Bad news: you’ve got to do something. Good news: it’s not a total tear-down. Many companies are shifting to a more flexible architectural configuration that allows for scaling and growth as well as visibility into the internal and external processes those systems carry out. Newer service layers can be built alongside older systems and slowly integrated, all the while yielding better, more actionable data.
Do you really know your users? What kind of relationship do you have?
If the primary way you interact with the people you serve is through social media or a contact form, you’re missing out on genuinely understanding behavior and intentionality and only getting part of the picture. Whether the user is internal or an external customer, the right user experience–blanketed with analytic capture points to better understand flow–is critical to maturing that relationship. Web and mobile applications should be optimized to create the positive behaviors you seek in users, and also to capture the nuance of what you’re not expecting in order to derive those deeper insights. There’s a quote by composer Claude Debussy that captures this idea rather elegantly: “Music is the space between the notes”. You need to be able to not only project what you want users to do, but to detect and understand those anti-patterns as well.
Ok, we’ve got a plan. Now we need some next actions.
- Form a (small) team.
Find like-minded colleagues in the organisation and rally support. A good data strategy is not solely within the domain of IT. The right approach and visibility will support every area of the business–and if there are gaps, consider how the strategy needs to evolve to account for them.
- Define roles and responsibilities.
This can’t all be done by one individual, and your team needs to be functioning as efficiently as possible. It’s probably a foregone conclusion that everyone is busy, so be tactful about adding to busy workloads–but reinforce the value that this collaboration will create within the business. Be clear about who’s responsible for which parts.
- Create regular check-in meetings to assess the progress being made on the strategy.
These don’t need to be marathon working sessions. They can be short and to the point–as long as everyone’s objectives are clear.
Layering the business, technical and user areas of focus together with some basic Agile processes can create some very interesting change within a business and start a chain reaction that propagates into new ideas. Gathering information is critical, but it’s only valuable when it’s applied effectively. Like any project, it takes a plan and a team to see it through. But the insight a good data strategy can unlock is nearly limitless, making it well worth the effort.