Saturday, 25th January 2020

Dare to know: how to build an insights-driven culture

The expression “dare to know,” or in Latin “sapere aude,” was the motto of the age of enlightenment. In today’s climate of echo chambers, conspiracy theories, and misinformation, this 18th century idea that pursuing knowledge takes courage has never seemed more relevant. Every day we see more examples of how reluctance to accept and act on facts is harming people’s health, livelihoods, and society. By Doug Bordonaro, Field CTO, ThoughtSpot.

The consequences don’t just impact individuals. Businesses are exposed to considerable risk when their cultures discourage people from raising inconvenient truths. Often referred to as ‘drinking the Kool-Aid,’ corporate groupthink has famously led to many companies’ downfalls. Seemingly invincible market leaders Enron, Kodak, and Swissair all fell from grace after failing to act on hard data, changing business models, and urgent warnings from courageous staff members.

It’s easy enough to take a swipe at these companies now that their failures are well documented. However, we should cut their leaders a little slack. Huge corporations can’t just pivot without having to let large swathes of people go, introduce massive culture change, and cut shareholder profits - at least in the short term. Unquestionably, leaders need courage to make tough decisions. But dramatic changes of direction also must be backed up by watertight, timely factual arguments in order to win over shareholders, employees, union leaders, and other stakeholders.

A major obstacle to corporate truth-seeking is that false narratives are much faster and easier to construct than true data stories. It’s all too easy to find online information - often out of context or unreliably sourced - that backs up personal, often biased, convictions. Knowledge workers are becoming increasingly adept at constructing persuasive arguments using this flawed information.

Corporate data coming from operational systems has the advantage of being objectively ‘real’. These systems of record are sources of incontrovertible facts relating to sales figures, employees, marketing leads, insurance premium rates, and countless other data points. The problem, historically, is that business analytics systems have been too slow, cumbersome, and complex for mere business mortals to use.

Fortunately this is changing. Forrester’s recent report “Build an Agile BI Organization to Support an Insights-Driven Culture” helps businesses achieve business “enlightenment” by taking advantage of new technologies and introducing culture change. The report urges companies to organise for agility, empower business users and look internally for BI talent. Its findings are consistent with five home truths we’ve written about in our blog about the BI and analytics industry:

Complexity was the wrong problem

For more than 50 years vendors have been rolling out tools built to handle increasingly complex queries, requiring the support of specialist IT or data talent. Consequently, the only people who benefited were senior executives whose decisions were ‘valuable’ enough to warrant the time and effort required. This remained the focus despite the fact that most business people just wanted to get fast answers to simple data questions on their own in order to make decisions. Most queries weren’t complex at all. What overwhelmed data teams was the volume and variety of requests for answers to slight variations of the same question: for example, how many iPhones did we sell in Leeds vs Gloucestershire last month?According to the Forrester report: “Earlier-generation BI programmes...focused on project management, architecture and technology first, leaving clients without the proper outcomes...they created an insights-to-action gap.”

Finally after decades of chronically low adoption rates, vendors are focusing on the right problem: delivering speed, agility, and simplicity to end users. This leads into our next point....

It’s time to shut down the report factory

The traditional BI report is only useful in the minority of instances where an identical set of data queries needs to be repeated and presented in the same format, such as financial reports required by regulators for compliance. Most data queries are just small iterations of previous, simple questions. These can be handled today with numerical search and visual drag and drop tools like pinboards, rather than having to build full-blown reports or construct new OLAP cubes. Forrester advises that with modern technology like in-memory data exploration and search-like UIs, “Few application development and delivery (AD&D) professionals should spend their time designing BI dashboard layouts”.

Success depends on IT & business partnerships

As Forrester’s report states: “BI requirements are often out of date even before the first set of specifications has been collected and documented”. After several cycles of the so-called BI pendulum swinging between IT (centralised data governance) and the business (self-service and agility) it has now settled in the middle. There seems finally to be consensus that to build truly data-driven organisations, IT and the business need to be equally invested and involved. Forrester advises building an ‘insights-driven’ centre of excellence to deliver flexibility and agility, and orchestrate analytics across different organisational silos.

New generations of workers won’t adopt old BI

If Baby Boomers and Gen X employees wouldn’t adopt traditional BI platforms at rates above 20 percent, you really can’t expect Millennials and beyond to embrace them. The more fully saturated a generation is in online, social media, and mobile, the more conditioned its members are to expect instant gratification, personalisation, and a user experience that’s so intuitive that virtually no training is required to get started. Fortunately new analytics systems are offering search and AI-driven experiences that are increasingly analogous to those in the consumer online world.

Data literacy isn’t enough - aim for data fluency

Like being fluent in a language, data fluency enables people to express ideas about data in a shared language. In a business context, data fluency connects employees across roles through a set of standards, processes, tools, and terms. Data fluent employees can turn piles of raw data into actionable information because they understand how to interpret it, know the data that is and isn’t available, as well as how to use it appropriately.

Data fluency rejects the conventional wisdom that only a select few should be gatekeepers of information. Data fluent workers spread knowledge, widening data access across an organisation, and as a result, improving decision-making for everyone.

I finish on this point because all the technology in the world won’t build an insights-driven culture. The data fluent are those who champion the notion of “sapere aude”. The more data fluent people an organisation can cultivate, supported by modern analytics systems, the more likely it is to walk the path of truth, enlightenment and success.

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