Over the last decade, “data” has become synonymous with “value.” Metaphors abound, of which the most common- if imperfect- is that of data as “the new oil.” Venerable publications like The Economist refer to data as the “world’s most valuable resource” and Venture Capitalists and other investors have poured tens of billions of dollars into the space.

All of this bodes well for the data community. Warts and all, data aficionados, data scientists, and those obsessed with data-driven decision-making are having a large impact on organization life and business outcomes. We can observe this impact across the board- from consumer-connection to areas like AgTech and FinTech—data-driven companies develop comparative advantage.

But, indeed, there are warts. Of these, the most glaring is also the most obvious: Just because data can be a source of value, it does not follow that “the more data the better.” In this sense, data is more like water than it is like oil. No country or government ever said “gosh, we have too much oil!” But water—water cuts both ways. Just as it enables life, it can also snuff it out. Fields bloom with water but they are laid to waste if water-logged. Businesses are no different!

To deal with this- and other- issues, organizations must develop a data culture.

Let’s look at five incremental steps you can take, each building on the other, towards that goal. No one step is sufficient in itself. Indeed, in an evolving business, no one step will ever be complete. But together they should help you set out in the right path.

1. Know your data

Do you really know what data you have in your organization – how it is stored, managed, and used? You may think all your data is in your ERP system or your data warehouse, but in that case you are almost certainly wrong. Every organization has departmental data, desktop data, even external data brought in from outside. There’s a good reason the Data Catalog has been a hot technology in recent years. The more data you have – the more you need to be classify it and govern its use. So first, assess what you have available.

2. Empower your people, don’t restrict them

IT departments in the past often acted like gatekeepers: holding the data close, for very good reasons. But business users, driven by a need to make better, faster decisions still found ways to get the data they needed – exporting reports to Excel is still a common method. They are not trying to break the rules: they are just trying to do their job. So enable them – with high quality, sanctioned data, which is fit for purpose but safe to use with sensitive information removed or masked. If you stand in their way, you don’t solve the problem, you just push it underground

3. Don’t get hung up on tools

Every data and analytics vendor promises that their platform or their tools hold the key to a data culture. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great thing to invest in the best platform and toolset you can. But there’s still a lot of good work to be done with Excel and a relational database. Chasing after the latest tools is an expensive distraction. Be guided by the work your users are doing and their tools of choice, rather than imposing an enterprise standard from above.

4. Live the data culture

If you want to build a data culture … use data! By which I mean, ensure that, as a leader, you set an example in meetings, communications and your daily work. Show that you support your own decisions – tactical or strategic – with relevant data, and use data stories, visualizations and analysis to make your points. A true data culture is pervasive.

5. Encourage communities

As the use of data expands in your organization, natural communities of practice will evolve. Some people will be really focused on source data, integration, databases and other architectural components: great – encourage them to meet, discuss and share best practices. Data visualization is one area where users always like to share the latest and greatest (and coolest) techniques and tips. Encourage them to do so. Communities of practice can support each other, encourage each other and accelerate your journey to a data culture.

These five steps to building a data culture will set the organization in good stead as it looks not only to navigate the world of data but to truly harness its value.


Written mutually by Romi Mahajan & Donald Farmer