Core. Collaborate. Delegate.

Is your enterprise data strategy keeping up with the changing digital economy?

Pop quiz: A researcher—or maybe an analyst or a paralegal—approaches your department with 2 TB of data they need to house for immediate access. What do you do?

We’ve all been there. The options are often not pretty.

House it inside? …On whose budget?

Outsource it? …With what security guarantees?

The solution is almost always more complicated than they expect. One thing is sure, though: between cheap storage and free cloud solutions, if you don’t work with them, they will go on without you.

The role of enterprise data strategy is to unlock the value of information for an enterprise. It’s the underpinning for a framework of capabilities that, when executed together, let a company acquire and maintain accurate, consistent data to meet their business requirements—and put roles, principles, and tools in place to increase the value of the information.

As a discipline, enterprise data strategy encompasses policy and governance, master data management, data and system architecture, security and access controls, lifecycle and archiving. That’s a lot of moving parts. The key to a successful enterprise data strategy is to not only protect the company’s interests but also to create business value through deliberate strategic alignment with corporate objectives.

For instance, the basic corporate mandate to increase shareholder value could drive a goal of better performance on strategic investments. We know better forecasting supports better investment decisions. What supports better forecasting? How about cleaner and more timely data? A good enterprise data strategy ensures that even the humblest data quality project aligns with strategic corporate goals such as investment, customer satisfaction, and operational improvement by providing measurable improvements in key business indicators such as forecast accuracy, client churn, transaction costs, or cycle times.

The key to a successful enterprise data strategy is to not only protect the company’s interests but also to create business value through deliberate strategic alignment with corporate objectives.

So how can you ensure that your enterprise data strategy is aligned with your company’s best interests? And how can you make practical decisions in the moment that preserve your alignment while still meeting the immediate needs of the business?

Strategic alignment can be obtained by following a 3-part mantra:

Core.
Collaborate.
Delegate.

  • Core: Identify your central competencies—the things you can control that contribute to the strategic goals of your company.
  • Collaborate across the organization to make sure your core competency is contributing to the organization’s success.
  • Delegate, either to another part of the organization or to a vendor, things that are not part of your core competency.

Core

Your core competency is the unique set of capabilities you have that deliver strategic value to your company and its customers.

Note that this concept is completely scalable. Executives and board members are responsible for making sure a company stays focused on its core value proposition. Directors and managers have a similar responsibility to understand their areas’ core value to the company and its customers, and to make sure that their teams or processes are actively contributing to the organization’s success.

Think about this question: “What do I (or we) do on a regular basis that contributes measurably to the overall success of the company?”

Think broadly: where do you see the effects of your work? What strategic aims does it support?

Think creatively: you’re not necessarily limited to your what you already do. What strategic aims could you impact, if you were able to?

Think practically and realistically: just because you can (or could) do something doesn’t mean you should. “Capability” means what you have the power to accomplish. If there are limitations on your capabilities, where are they coming from, and what would it take to remove them? If it’s too hard to remove them, then those capabilities are probably not part of your core competency.

It’s important to make sure that everything you define as part of your “core” contributes clearly to one or more strategic goals of the company. This will form the basis of your strategic corporate alignment. If a function or capability can’t be aligned, then it may be superfluous. If a particular activity or responsibility actually interferes with your ability to perform core functions, then it’s a good candidate for collaboration or delegation.

It’s important to make sure that everything you define as part of your core competency contributes clearly to one or more strategic goals of the company.

In the case of a strategic enterprise data capability, the core competency might include

  • Policy — Principles for enterprise data governance
  • Processes — Guidelines for implementing policies so that actual use meets governance principles
  • Technology — Scalable tools to enable capabilities
  • Taxonomy/Dictionary — Standardization and enhancement of data descriptions
  • Metrics — Monitoring and measurement of performance/impact

Collaborate

If “core” describes what you do for your organization, then “collaborate” defines how you do it. Collaboration is what you do to ensure that your work is actually contributing to the ongoing success of the organization.

With enterprise data strategy, collaboration might focus initially on clarifying how data are used and the controls needed to maintain high data quality. From there, it could extend to determining key data elements, codifying business roles, defining standards, and performing root-cause process analysis to identify strategic improvements.

Collaboration is what you do to ensure that your work is actually contributing to the ongoing success of the organization.

It’s important to note that collaboration doesn’t come “after” you’ve developed all the tools to support your core competency. Creation and deployment of a successful strategic enterprise data framework depend on harnessing independent expertise from across the organization through cross-functional collaboration. Workgroups wanting guidance on data governance don’t need to cultivate their own expertise in data quality root-cause analysis—any more than data analysts need to be able to read x-rays or climb communication towers. But the respective teams do need to know how to talk to each other and agree to work together for the good of the organization.

Ultimately, the goal of collaboration is to establish an efficient “fit” between different capabilities and competencies within an organization. Doing this well sustains all parties and can even lay the groundwork for new competencies to emerge down the road.

Delegate

Here is where things get interesting. The thing to remember is that delegation is not just a matter of passing something off to someone else. Successful delegation entails specifying a desired outcome to a responsible person or group, which is then tasked with delivering that outcome. For delegation to work well, you need to establish controls, identify limits on the scope of work, provide sufficient support, and stay up to date on progress.

We’ve already discussed ways to recognize possible activities for delegation. If there are limitations on success that you just can’t remove, then that activity could be a good one to delegate. If it’s in line with the same strategic goals you support, but carrying it out impedes your ability to do other work, then it’s an excellent candidate for delegation.

The key is to focus on results rather than procedures. In delegating, you’re drawing on someone else’s core competency to reach your desired outcomes. You also need to pay careful attention to how and when those outcomes plug back into your strategic framework, so that everyone moves together toward the same goal.

In delegating, you’re drawing on someone else’s core competency to reach your desired outcomes.

Delegation can be internal—for example, calling on business process owners within your organization to create processes in harmony with established guidelines and standards. In other cases, outsourcing can allow you hit a sweet spot of meeting your company’s mission and enabling business growth by keeping your internal resources focused on core strategic goals and leaving everything else in the hands of a vendor or strategic partner. If you do outsource, it’s important to do so dependably and judiciously, keeping your eye on the outcomes and the controls you set around them.

*  *  *

So let’s return to that researcher/analyst/paralegal with all the data…

Knowing your area’s core competency, and, conversely, understanding which activities are right for collaboration or delegation can allow you to suggest a path forward that is already aligned with your processes, compliance principles, and strategic goals. It can also allow you to speak meaningfully and realistically about the controls, costs, and service levels that would accompany that course of action. In the long run, being able to respond quickly and reasonably to this kind of request makes it less likely that groups within your organization will go their own way when faced with data needs. This makes compliance more likely, mitigation less necessary, and processes more efficient, and strategies more effective.

Core. Collaborate. Delegate. Succeed. Grow. Repeat.

Going Beyond

What do you think when you hear the phrase “Beyond the Table”? What kind of table are we talking about?

A data table? A conference table? Maybe a kitchen table? A banquet table? How about a poker table? What exactly is a table, anyway?

At its essence, a table is a space where things get done.

prep_table  You prepare.

You consume.  catering_table

poker_table  You gamble.

You decide.  conference_table

data_table  You organize.

Other qualities might come into play when we think about tables in a metaphorical sense. For instance, tables are flat. Tables are also finite: there are only a limited number of spaces at a table, or seats around it. And often they come with rules—sometimes very complicated ones governed by generations of etiquette—about who belongs where and how everyone is supposed to behave.

conference_tableIn business, “the table” represents decision-making authority. It’s where we as executives meet to set strategy. “A seat at the table” represents power. Having a seat at the table means participating in or influencing the decisions, direction, and values of a company.

Yet recently it seems we’ve begun to see more and more cracks in the traditional decision-makers’ table. In the face of new remote work habits, personal devices, social media, and the general democratization of information sources, the authority that once stemmed from the board room doesn’t seem to carry the weight it once did.

Many businesses—most recently and dramatically United Airlines—have learned that social media and instant connectedness are a double-edged sword at best. As John Bailey has observed, it typically takes a business 21 hours to generate crisis communications—during which time Twitter and the web of media outlets are exclusively in control of the message. If you believe the only thing standing between your company and financial ruin is the quick-witted intern handling your company’s official Twitter account, then strategic planning could start to feel like a luxury. (Much more on this in a later post!)

Repeatedly, business leaders are encouraged to respond to these pressures by “expanding the table,” “inviting more [or different] people to the table,” or “bringing new ideas to the table.” Likewise, managers and functional experts are urged to “earn” or even “demand” their “seat at the table.” Some have even suggested changing the purpose of the table from strategic decision-making to listening, curating ideas, or performing analysis.

A few years back, Polly LaBarre summarized a number of the pressures on the traditional decision-makers’ table in business, ending with a challenge to managers and executives to “re-set your own table.” That message stayed with me—but in the years since it came out, it seems the role of “the table” as a source of quality, strategic leadership has continued to erode. Why is this?

To explore this question, let’s go back and look at a different kind of table.

data_tableData.

Tables are meant to contain it. Name it. And, most importantly, allow it to be correlated with other data points, in order to arrive at meaningful conclusions. Data tables are everywhere in business (not to mention everywhere else), embedded in every tool we use to try to make sense of the business world: ERP, CRM, SCM, BPM, DMS, ECM.

Yet in the case of data, too, tables are less useful in business than they used to be. Why?

The thing about data tables is that within databases, and every relational system that uses them, you have to plan your structure first, then set up your tables, and then populate them with data. This means you have to either know in advance, or make some sweeping assumptions about, the kind of information you have—so you can name it, format it, set some basic parameters, and associate it with the right metadata. As with a banquet table or board table, everything in a data table has a specific place, title, and role to play, defined well in advance.

But what if you don’t know exactly what data you’ve got? Or what if you have so much that you can’t process it or match it up with other data points quickly enough?

For more than a decade now, businesses have been living with an explosion of “unstructured data”: juicy qualitative insights buried in digital assets. Electronic documents, email and messaging communications, images, schematics, videos. This list goes on. As leaders, we sense that these unstructured assets are where “the good stuff” is. But how can it be reached? And what can we do with it?

What if you don’t know exactly what data you’ve got? Or what if you have so much that you can’t process it or match it up with other data points quickly enough?

Even with structured data such as transactions, the volume and pace of data production are far higher than anyone can reasonably keep up with. But businesses have to keep up—because even the best ERP system doesn’t make strategic decisions. The best it can do is spit out reports based on people’s best guesses about what data they have, and what it means.

Semi-structured data, such flows of sensor data, pose an even greater challenge. These sweeping rivers of data afford a near-real-time view of how equipment and processes are working. Is it possible store, track, and comprehend such huge volumes of information, without ripping the data out of its real-time context and subjecting it to conventional analysis?

The bottom line is this: businesses are drowning in information. And the volume and kind of data we have can’t be contained in traditional structures such as tables. And—here’s the thing—it shouldn’t be. Because to really make the most of this kind of information, you need to be able to make qualitative inferences, not just static relational reports. Systems can be taught to make qualitative distinctions and learn from their own experience. But systems that learn can’t rely only on relational tables.

So in the world of data management, “going beyond the table” is not just a metaphorical idea. It is a necessity. The structures needed to turn masses of data into action and profit are not flat, or stable, or filled with named articles. In fact, they might not even be “structures” at all—they might be approaches, or algorithms, or guided interactions, or perhaps something else entirely.

Now let’s look again at the decision-makers’ table.

We know that we need to “bring more to the table” to accommodate rapidly changing customer needs, work culture, and technology infrastructure. For the past few years, the answer for what to bring to the table has resoundingly been, “DATA”.

As the volume of data blossoms (or explodes), leaders seeking innovation continue to lean hard into the promise of data-driven decisions. But it can be frustrating—especially when the some of the biggest successes seem to come from leaders who just skim the data and then rely on “gut instinct”. (The flip side, which we don’t hear about, is how many have tried that approach and failed.) I do believe we’re on the cusp of realizing genuine, comprehensive, data-driven decision-making. However, I understand why, at this moment, some can feel frustrated by masses of unintelligible data that, on their own, don’t “do” anything obvious to drive the business forward.

But what if they did? What if information was able to flow, not into giant databases for reporting, but directly to the people and tools that know what it means and how to use it? What new strategic directions might open up? Are you ready?

Leadership is on a journey; data are the map. To complete this leg of the journey and really make the most of data—in all its chaotic glory—we can’t just “bring it to the table.” We have to change the way the information is made, shared, and used for strategic purposes. Deep down, this means also changing the way strategic, directional business decisions are made. The decision-makers’ table—where everyone has a known, proscribed role to fill—isn’t big enough, or flexible enough, or nimble enough, or visionary enough to look forward into the flowing current of data, rather than backward at analytics. Adding more seats or changing the faces at the table won’t change that fact. We’re not talking about re-setting the table, or rearranging the chairs. We’re talking about getting rid of the table and building something new in its place.

So here in this forum, when we talk about “Going Beyond the Table,” we really do mean it in every sense. Stay tuned!

 

References:

Easy to Criticise—Harder to Get It Right,” by John Bailey at Ketchum Blog on April 21, 2017 (http://blog.ketchum.com/easy-to-criticise-harder-to-get-it-right/)

Expand The Table,” by Maren Hogan at Recruiter Today on September 13, 2012 (https://www.recruiter.com/i/expand-the-table/)

Who Gets a Seat at the Table?” by Polly LaBarre at Harvard Business Review on December 13, 2011 (https://hbr.org/2011/12/who-gets-a-seat-at-the-table)

‘Everybody Bring Data to the Table’, Teradata 2013,” by Nicole Giannopoulos at RIS News on October 22, 2013 (https://risnews.com/everybody-bring-data-table-teradata-2013)