Data Simplicity

In the future, the only organisations that will survive are those that can rapidly adapt to overcome challenges more frequent and profound than ever before.

The current phenomenon of disruption threatens the survival of every organisation operating in every sector around the globe. Seemingly indomitable market leaders can fail overnight. Organisations can no longer simply hope to survive and thrive by responding to each new challenge ever faster. They must make fundamental changes so that they become able to adapt to the future with a sure-footed agility.

But how?

As we are all aware, data underpins every facet of the modern world. For so many of the world’s organisations, not only does data enable their operations, but increasingly their products and services are entirely fabricated from data. And, if it is true that data flows provide the vital lifeblood of organisations, then a significant part of any transformation must be to cleanse and revitalise these flows.

The prize will be to deliver substantial benefits from data that will drive forward sustainable success. But to attain this will require a fundamental redefinition of an organisation’s relationship with its data. We need to refocus our organisations to adopt data-centric approaches that awaken their true innovative potential and rouse them from their slumbering data inertia.

The Era of Agile

However, we cannot transform our organisations by exclusively concentrating on data. The systematisation of our data is here to stay and is the only non-negotiable certainty of our future. Thus we must integrate data transformation with a transformation of our system delivery approaches. Recently, Agile and DevOps has become the de-facto norm for delivery and thus our transformation must also mesh with this trend.

But we require a more radical approach than the marginal improvements that Agile + DevOps can produce; instead we require a radical data-centric transformation of an organisation. We must rethink and rebuild an organisation’s partnership with its data. We must move data delivery and not technological delivery to centre stage. To achieve this, requires us to strip away the noise, myths and misunderstanding that increasingly obscure our basic understanding of data.

Towards Data Simplicity

Our goal must be to move data out from the shadows cast over it by technology and legacy thinking, to become the driving force of change and innovation. Unleashing the true power of an organisation’s data relies on establishing a foundation of very simple building blocks. These enabling blocks can be used to drive the transformation of our organisations to become truly data agile.

Transformation can suggest revolution. However, we should not throw away everything. Starting from scratch would be a catastrophic mistake. Instead, we must largely re-engineer what we already have, repurposing it to become the framework to enable our future. We will also need to augment what is already there. Successful transformation will engineer change, but of course we are already in an era of constant change. Simply showering down yet more may help, but the effects on our organisations may be short-lived and even counterproductive. Indifference, or even resistance, can be symptomatic of innovation overload and fatigue.

Some people will also question why this transformation is even required at all – in times of plenty, there seems no looming threat necessitating upheaval. And, they will argue that our organisations are already able to identify problems and take actions to remedy them. However, this ignores the truth that typically an organisation’s approach to problem solving is episodic and ad-hoc. Whilst it solves one set of immediate problems, it can also create new problems in its wake. All too often with hindsight we realise that the adopted solution has added more complexity and thus inertia to the still unresolved problem – adding sticking plasters on top of sticking plasters.

Tennis Coaching and Transformation

So, what will our approach to a successful data transformation be?

To answer this question, I’d like to use an anecdote of when my friend Ray offered to coach me at tennis. This experience taught me many things, foremost of which was the realisation that I will never be a great tennis player!

Ray and I met at the tennis courts for his review of my technique. We had a ‘knock about’ for a while to let Ray assess the challenges ahead. After watching me puff and pant around the court for a few minutes, he looked me in the eye and said, “Dave, I think we had better start with the very basics!”. Although I was quite disappointed by this – it was tremendous advice. There was no point in trying to graft spins onto my inept returns, because the underlying foundations were deeply flawed and the results would have been at best ‘unpredictable’.

I needed to strip back my game to the very basics of position, timing and technique and build changes onto that solid foundation. After a few months of adopting this approach, my play substantially improved. Each new skill could be rapidly adopted by being built on top of the previous skills. The court hadn’t changed, the racket and ball were as before, but something fundamental in me had started to change. Sure, I was a little fitter and stronger, but far more importantly, I was now in the correct position at the right time and able to confidently return the ball over the net.

This transformation would never have taken place if Ray had just yelled at me to run faster and try harder.

Yet strangely, this can be exactly the approach we adopt within our organisations.

Delivering Data Centricity

We cannot deliver sustainable success simply by telling people to deliver more stuff ever faster. To engineer successful long-lived changes to our organisations, we too will have to go back to the very basics, strip away the noise of the now and concentrate on creating basic building blocks. Each of these will be used to construct a foundational framework with sure-footed increments. This framework will also re-shape our thoughts, decisions and practises and therefore transform our data culture.

Thus, we will not only improve what we do today, but radically transform what we are able to deliver in the future.

At the heart of our transformed organisation, will be an ability to constantly and sustainably adapt to change. Our organisations will be able to dramatically liberate the untapped power of their data, irrespective of their unknown futures. Remembering back to the tennis coaching, it was hard for me to shake off my delusion and bad habits and listen to Ray’s patient guidance.

However, for all of us who care about data outcomes, the challenges will be so much harder. There is, after all, a whole organisation we need to transform!

This article is based upon an exract from my book entitled “datagility – powering success for tomorrow’s organisations” which is available worldwide from all the usual retailers including from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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