How Data Democratization Can Unlock Game-Changing Business Performance

Rodrigo Vargas | November 01, 2021

Although making data available to everyone -technical and non-technical users alike- may look like a utopia, pursuing such endeavor can really payoff. The process of becoming a data-driven organization and empowering users may seem daunting at first, but if done properly and once results start showing off, there is no stopping to the degree of efficiency and innovation an organization can unlock.

In a world where storage and computing power has been transformed into a commodity, businesses have an opportunity to extract incremental value from their data. Collecting and storing data is both straightforward and cheap, but encouraging a culture that approaches data in innovative ways, has become the true key to success in a competitive and everyday changing world.

Data is for everyone!

Traditionally, it is the job of IT to prepare and present data to decision-makers. Done in a back-and-forth slow process loop to create and refine reports, it is generally a race against time, matching the velocity at which reports can be created to the velocity the business needs the information.

Make no mistake, highly skilled personnel and lots of time and effort are still required to prepare and present data, what needs to change is how the data is used, or even better, how data is presented or visualized. Instead of fixed, static reports, data is made available in such a way that decision-makers can visualize it in an intuitive manner, and they can alter the visualization to better match how they understand the business. Reports should not be fixed anymore; everyone could see the same data but use it differently.

The key is to make the data available to those who really understand the business, in a way that is flexible enough to combine it and visualize it in any way they want.

Where to Start?

The end goal is to create a data-driven culture where anyone can use data to make better decisions. And, to achieve this goal, a long-term vision must be established. Driving such transformation is not about executing an IT project or deploying a new shiny BI & Analytics platform, but understanding that the transformation will only succeed if the right culture is created and nurtured.

1. Foster a Data-driven culture
Start by establishing and consolidating a long-term vision to become a data-driven organization (data should be available and used by everyone). This vision will permeate business goals, business plans, projects, and culture. It is important to establish training plans for non-tech savvy personnel, all the way from line-of-business personnel up to the top management.

2. Establish a Data Team
Investment does not need to be huge upfront, but investments will need to be made, nevertheless. This investment will pay off, though. Don’t think about the tools first, this is generally what makes such culture-shifts and business transformation fall apart in the first place. Becoming data-driven is about understanding the data, establishing proper governance processes around it, and making it available to whoever needs it.
Hire or train an architect, preferably, an enterprise architect or someone who deeply understands the business, the technology and walks both the technical and the business worlds (think on someone already inside the organization and establish a career path for building a Chief Data Officer). And then add at least a couple of software engineers to start creating or improving a robust DataOps framework.

3. Work on establishing a robust data architecture
Rules and policies need to be put in place to guarantee data and information confidentiality. All data is not for everyone, and there is a need to establish which data can be seen by different people according to their roles in the organization.
The more data is made available, the better. However, it is important to enforce rules to prevent people from accessing data private to their role. Enabling access beyond what is necessary to a role is encouraged for innovation to happen, but the balancing act between data accessibility & data needs is crucial as well. Defining a well-thought and very well-aligned data architecture is important to enforce such rules and policies.

4. Execute a pilot
Use the Data Team to build a pilot for one process in one business area. Take the time to really create a solution that hugely impacts the process, identify key questions that when answered on a regular basis can vastly improve performance or results, and generate the data pipeline and data visualizations to answer those questions in a regular and systematic way.

Closely drive the culture shift for 3 to 6 months by training people and encouraging the use of the generated data visualizations and using the data team to rapidly iterate through feedback and improve them. Then, use the pilot to showcase, with actual results, the impact of becoming data-driven.

5. Build data-literacy
According to Gartner, data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze and communicate with data. It is the ability people have to use data to produce value, and in the context of a digital world, the ability and desire to use technology to drive better business outcomes. Poor data literacy is one of the biggest roadblocks for becoming data-driven.

Building data literacy is then, not optional. Start by establishing a long-term plan and kick-off a training program aimed at people involved in the pilot. It is easier to start small and then scale, as starting small also allows to fine-tune the program according to the identified challenges and business dynamics.

6. Plan and execute
Actual results prove better than promises. Showcasing the pilot will serve as a foundation to strengthen the data team and to build long-term roll-out plans. Don’t hurry, evolve the technological foundation and incorporate new reports and areas over time.

A ‘Simple’ framework

Setting up a framework that works can enable seamless and quick growth. Such framework can be thought of as comprising of four elements:

1) Leadership Sponsorship is the cornerstone to any organizational transformation, and without genuine conviction and leadership support, no transformation of any kind will take place.

2) A well-tuned DataOps process to collect, store and make data available. The DataOps process combines technology, processes, principles, and personnel to automate data orchestration across the organization, therefore it needs adequate skills within the data team and sponsorship to thrive.

3) A set of predefined data visualizations, or reports, will provide sufficient traction for people by making it easy to analyze data. The challenge will be to drive usage and engagement for daily or weekly operations using these visualizations.

4) Enable ad hoc filtering, searching, and data combination capabilities. Include functionality in the visualizations so that, if whoever is analyzing the data needs a new data element, or needs to change the chart type to see the data differently, can do so without having to wait for the IT team to update the visualization.

The Outcome

If everyone has access to data, instantly, the benefits for an organization can be thought of at two different levels:

1. The immediate benefits

a. Faster decision-making and turnaround times, by removing the bottleneck created by gatekeepers.

b. Enforced security, by removing the manual processes of sharing data and establishing secure and automated access to the underlying data.

c. End-to-end ownership and accountability, by providing all the tools people need to effectively and efficiently do their work.

2. The deeper, longer-term, game-changing benefits

a. Deep insights on the business operational processes, improving efficiency, and reducing costs will become easier.

b. Quicker reaction to potential problems, by being able to foresee trends and plan ahead.

c. Unlock patterns and trends on how the business operates and use findings to improve collaboration and streamline processes.

d. Enable people to perform higher-value work by unlocking bandwidth not previously available.

Key Takeaways

Becoming a data-driven organization is not an IT project, it’s instead, a people project. In essence, it is about changing the mindset of people and how they work and creating a culture that fosters a deep understanding of the business and uses data to drive efficiency and innovation.

Although tools are important, organizations can see huge benefits from starting small and using common back-office applications such as spreadsheets to analyze data. What really matters is that people incorporate the simple task of taking the time to see and analyze the data into their daily or weekly tasks. It needs to become a habit.

The biggest challenge is to change management related to people and to incorporate this new habit of analyzing the data to make better decisions. This simple task of visualizing the data proves to be very challenging since the day-to-day responsibilities consume most out of everyone and “thinking” is not generally considered a productive activity.

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