As the year draws to a close I imagine many of us are looking forward to time off to recharge and relax. Given the challenges of the past eighteen months, I would say this is a well earned break. For business leaders, this period of reflection also presents an opportunity to think about plans for the future. Specifically, having survived (fingers crossed) the worst of the pandemic, how can they ensure their company thrives in a changed world?
Remote working, digital transformation, a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion, supply chain issues, changing consumer behaviour and so on – the list of challenges and opportunities is long. What we have seen is that the companies that have approached these challenges well are those that had the technical infrastructure aligned with the expertise and structure to quickly pivot to a digital only business environment. Underpinning all of this was a keen awareness of the power of data to inform and enhance their decision making and processes.
These data driven businesses can provide great inspiration for leaders considering how they can approach new challenges in 2022. Crucially, becoming data-driven isn’t an all or nothing affair. It’s a journey that any business, no matter their resources or size, can embark upon. This means that it applies just as much to businesses that struggled during the pandemic and are looking to rebuild, as it does to those that thrived and are looking to kick on.
There is of course no singular journey every business takes – instead it is better to think about becoming ‘data driven’ as adhering to a set of principles:
- Using the insights generated from data to inform decision making.
- Educating and training staff at every level to understand data and apply it to their work.
- Providing the technical infrastructure that enables data to be collected, managed and used efficiently.
- Breaking down barriers between departments to enable the free flow of information and ideas.
- Creating policies and procedures that encourage use of data.
- Building a data-first and testing culture.
- Embracing innovation and new ideas.
The end goal is to have every facet of the business – from product development, marketing and customer service through to HR, finance and commercial strategy embedded with data. You will know your business is successful when every decision no matter how small is influenced by insights gleaned through data. In short, people will decide their next steps not because, ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’, or ‘gut feel’, but rather, ‘that’s what the numbers say is the best choice’.
Luckily very few, if any, businesses need to start from scratch. Chances are you and your team are already using a lot of information to carry out your jobs. Your business probably already holds, or has the capacity to collect, a lot of useful data. Moving from what is probably an informal or ad hoc approach to something more systemic begins with technology.
In my experience, getting the right data infrastructure in place is where the majority of companies fall down. This is because there can be a preconceived notion that the right technical platforms will be too expensive, existing platforms can be modified to do the job or simply that it’s too tempting to jump ahead and start getting ‘results’. Doing the hard yards of assessing and procuring the right systems can seem daunting. However, it’s important to remember that there are a huge number of options out there that can cater to any budget. The benefit of expending capital and time up front is paid back tenfold through the efficiency and effectiveness it will enable.
So what infrastructure do I mean? Again, there’s no set tech stack. However, broadly you will need platforms that enable data to be collected, stored, managed, analysed and integrated back into your workflows. Ideally, it will be a system that is flexible, scalable and will easily ‘speak’ to your existing platforms. How powerful and complex this infrastructure is will depend on your initial goals. For example, if you plan to start by focusing on marketing – look at a system that will integrate well with your existing CRM and will enable data analysis around marketing effectiveness – such as identifying when customers are likely to churn, or the best time, channel or frequency to send communications.
When you decide what you need, the next step is empowering your team to use it. What you really need to avoid is the concentration of skills within one department or group. Not only does this create a single point of failure and bottlenecks it also means that insights are limited to the skills and knowledge of the team members within this group. I often see marketers entirely reliant on their data scientists or analysts for the most rudimentary insights. Similarly, marketers and data scientists often need to rely on the dev team to make the simplest changes to their platforms.
Training needs to cover both understanding data and using the platforms to actually do the job. Critically, it needs to be tailored to the individual. The aim isn’t to create a team of data scientists or IT experts – it is to create a force of specialists who have all the skills needed to be experts in their respective fields and job functions.
The best way to approach this is to start with a pilot. One of the most obvious applications of data in the current environment is within HR. Remote working has meant a lot of the mechanisms ‘traditional’ HR used to monitor and assess factors such as performance or morale are unavailable. Clever use of data can help fill these gaps and make HR decision making much more powerful. It also has the capacity to remove internal biases that have played a big part in the lack of diversity at many companies.
After piloting a project you will soon come to understand what processes and procedures need to be embedded in your business. These learnings will be invaluable as you begin to expand to different functions.
Finally, it’s important to remember that training, processes and infrastructure alone will not create the data driven culture your business needs. This will take time. People need to feel like they are being brought on the journey with you, not sidelined or rendered obsolete. I recommend being fully transparent with your plans and consulting closely with team members of all levels on what they want and need. The senior team also needs to walk the walk and talk the talk. This means undertaking training and upskilling so they are also ‘data driven’.
Natalie Cramp, CEO of data science company Profusion.