I just want to quickly provide a filter for those that are questioning whether or not to read this. If you are in a newly appointed data role (from either business or technology), are a technologist or architect that has been carrying the burden of enterprise data, or are a business executive thinking about pursuing investments into Data Science, Data Governance or looking for new ways to drive operational efficiency, then this post is for you — read on!
This is always a favorite topic of mine, since I of course am “from the business”! I’ve spent the largest portion of my corporate career and certainly all of my consulting career in managing game changing data initiatives that have always been directly tethered to business. In my corporate roles I’ve always had a reporting structure that was directly through the CFO, COO or Head of Sales. My job was very clear — make the business better! Data has always been my medium of choice, because it is so fundamental and in the DNA of every part of any organization.
In my early days, I used data as an angle – a way to drive operational excellence and complete process re-engineering by using the data of the organization to understand what the “ego-less” organization really looked like — strip people, technology & bureaucracy and see what you are left with. Much like an archeologist looks at left over remnants of previous cultures to understand those cultures, we can use data today as the “remnants” of functional groups, departments and individuals to get a sense of how they operate within their proverbial walls. Later in my corporate career I applied these same principles and concepts in financial operations to optimize close periods, to upgrade talent within the organization, and create insane organizational efficiency and cost savings. The most incredible part to all of this is that in both of the examples described above (and every project I lead for clients today), I was in a purely business role — not a technologist! In most of the initiatives I’ve led, the benefits created so much organic buzz (not “HR” or “Change Management” fabricated buzz) around the organization that it gained board level attention.
So, what’s the secret, how do you get business in your data initiatives? It’s simple (here comes a novel concept) — make it about the business! Take all of the transformation strategy roadmaps that you paid at least a half-a-million or more to have constructed by the “safe choice” big four system integrator, and burn them. For data, those approaches are absolutely worthless! Data, in the way that it ubiquitously exists and is immediately identifiable, is much more comparable to dollars than IT systems, so STOP trying to make data about technology! Start instead with rolling up your sleeves, picking a business process, find the people that live in that process and begin mapping both their process steps, the data that is created, changed or consumed in those steps, the key metrics of that business process and lastly (and I mean last) get the systems that they use to manage or run the process. That’s it.
For two days of effort, they just got a great map of their organizational processes and way of life — it has been my experience that majority of most functional business groups don’t really or completely understand their business processes across that business functional area or group. On a side note, I had a corporate treasure (senior vice president) once by me a drink for doing this very thing in his group. He had recently taken the job and was coming from M&A, so treasury in it’s current state was completely new to him, and this was going to help make him be successful and to get acquainted with his team much faster than normal, which made him a long-term supporter.
I’ve been reading a lot of Tom Peters lately, and following his tweets (@tom_peters), and his message is so in line with what is needed to solve problems — get something done today and learn something today. Those are both two incredibly lost aspects in many corporate cultures. One of the greatest business leaders of our life time, whom I had the immense pleasure to work for, said “Pain + Reflection = Progress” (R Dalio). The reason that most of the “data people”, architects, technologists and even some of the business people that are working in the data space aren’t successful in truly engaging the business is because it requires hard work and constant learning — both of which are very painful, and if you do them at the same time the pain is almost unbearable.
Back to my guidance on driving and facilitating the understanding of business processes. In these work session, in addition to GIVING immediate value, you have also RECEIVED a ton of information about the data that the business folks use in their processes — you are now on your way to an insanely valuable case study & rich sales pitch for the rest of the organization!
If you have existing metadata capabilities you can relate this information to the physical data sources, systems & create a really valuable visualization of that organization’s ecosystem — like a real ecosystem, not the buzzword version everyone is throwing around these days. When I say ecosystem, it means you can visualize people, process, data and technology of a given area within the business model. This capability is absolutely huge!!! This is a view that any COO will kill to see on some frequency, especially when it’s time to cut costs or to make operational changes — being able to model impact is often the difference between success and failure when millions of dollars are on the line.
The statement “Engage the business” has been used as a description of what needs to be done, as risks, as barriers and even causes associated with data initiatives, and the solution to the problem is not only staring us in the face, but it even says it in the statement! If you want to “Engage the business” then get up and do it, engage the business. Tomorrow morning, grab a cup of coffee and go talk to five business people about what you are doing. Hit the floor and start talking to people now!