# An expanded and more mobile-friendly version of the Data & Analytics Dictionary

A revised and expanded version of the peterjamesthomas.com Data and Analytics Dictionary has been published.

The previous Dictionary was not the easiest to read on mobile devices. Because of this, the layout has been amended in this release and the mobile experience should now be greatly enhanced. Any feedback on usability would be welcome.

The new Dictionary includes 22 additional definitions, bringing the total number of entries to 220, totalling well over twenty thousand words. As usual, the new definitions range across the data arena: from Data Science and Machine Learning; to Information and Reporting; to Data Governance and Controls. They are as follows:

Please remember that The Dictionary is a free resource and quoting contents (ideally with acknowledgement) and linking to its entries (via the buttons provided) are both encouraged.

If you would like to contribute a definition, which will of course be acknowledged, you can use the comments section here, or the dedicated form, we look forward to hearing from you [1].

The Data & Analytics Dictionary will continue to be expanded in coming months.

Notes

 [1] Please note that any submissions will be subject to editorial review and are not guaranteed to be accepted.

Another article from peterjamesthomas.com. The home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases.

# Measuring Maturity

The author, engaged in measuring maturity – © Jennifer Thomas Photographyview full photo.

In the thirteen years that have passed since the beginning of 2007, I have helped ten organisations to develop commercially-focused Data Strategies [1]. I last wrote about the process of creating a Data Strategy back in 2014 and – with the many changes that the field has seen since then – am overdue publishing an update, so watch this space [2]. However, in this initial article, I wanted to to focus on one tool that I have used as part of my Data Strategy engagements; a Data Maturity Model.

A key element of developing any type of strategy is knowing where you are now and the pros and cons associated with this. I used to talk about carrying out a Situational Analysis of Data Capabilities, nowadays I am more likely to refer to a Data Capability Review. I make such reviews with respect to my own Data Capability Framework, which I introduced to the public in 2019 via A Simple Data Capability Framework.

Typically I break each of the areas appearing in boxes above into sub-areas, score the organisation against these, roll the results back up and present them back to the client with accompanying commentary; normally also including some sort of benchmark for comparison [3].

A Data Maturity Model is simply one way of presenting the outcome of a Data Capability Review; it has the nice feature of also pointing the way to the future. Such a model presents a series of states into which an organisation may fall with respect to its data. These are generally arranged in order, with the least beneficial state at the bottom and the most beneficial at the top. Data Maturity Models often adopt visual metaphors like ladders, or curves arching upwards, or – as I do myself – a flight of stairs. All of these metaphors – not so subtly – suggest ascending to a high state of being.

Here is the Data Maturity Model that I use:

The various levels of Data Maturity appear on the left, ranging from Disorder to Advanced and graded – in a way reminiscent of exams – between the lowest score of E and the highest of A. To the right of the diagram is the aforementioned “staircase”. Each “step” describes attributes of an organisation with the given level of Data Maturity. Here there is an explicit connection to the Data Capability Framework. The six numbered areas that appear in the Framework also appear in each “step” of the Model (and are listed in the Key); together with a brief description of the state of each Data Capability at the given level of Data Maturity. Obviously things improve as you climb up the “stairs”.

Of course organisations may be at a more advanced stage with respect to Data Controls than they are with Analytics. Equally one division or geographic territory might be at a different level with its Information than another. Nevertheless I generally find it useful to place an entire organisation somewhere on the flight of stairs, leaving a more detailed assessment to the actual Data Capability Review; such an approach tends to also resonate with clients.

So, supposing a given organisation is at level “D – Emergent”, an obvious question is where should it aspire to be instead? In my experience, not all organisations need to be at level “A – Advanced”. It may be that a solid “B – Basic” (or perhaps B+ splitting the difference) is a better target. Much as Einstein may have said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler [4], Data Maturity should be as great as necessary, but no greater; over-engineering has been the downfall of many a Data Transformation Programme.

Of course, while I attempt to introduce some scientific rigour and consistency into both my Data Capability Reviews and the resulting Data Maturity Assessments, there is also an element of judgement to be applied; in many ways it is this judgement that I am actually paid to provide. When opining on an organisations state, I tend to lay the groundwork by first playing back what its employees say about this area (including the Executives that I am typically presenting my findings to). Most typically my own findings are fairly in line with what the average person says, but perhaps in general a bit less positive. Given my extensive work implementaing modern Data Architectures that deliver positive commercial outcomes, this is not a surprising state of affairs.

If a hypothetical organisation is at level “D – Emergent”, then the Model’s description of the next level up, “C – Transitional”, can provide strong pointers as to some of the activities that need to be undertaken in order to ratchet up Data Maturity one notch. The same goes for if more of a stepped-change to say, “B – Basic” is required. Initial ideas for improvement can be further buttressed by more granular Data Capability Review findings. The two areas should be mutually reinforcing.

One thing that I have found very useful is to revisit the area of Data Maturity after, for example, a year working on the area. If the organisation has scaled another step, or is at least embarked on the climb and making progress, this can be evidence of the success of the approach I have recommended and can also have a motivational effect.

As with many things, where you are with respect to Data Maturity is probably less important than your direction of travel.

If you would like to learn more about Data Maturity Models, or want to better understand how mature the data capabilities of your organisation are, then please get in touch, via the form provided. You can also speak to us on +44 (0) 20 8895 6826.

Notes

 [1] In case you were wondering, much of the rest of the time has been spent executing these Data Strategies, or at least getting the execution in motion. Having said that, I also did a lot of other stuff as per: Experience at different Organisations. You can read about some of this work in our Case Studies section. [2] The first such article is Data Strategy Creation – A Roadmap. [3] I’ll be covering this area in greater detail in the forthcoming article I mentioned in the introductory paragraph. [4] There is actually very significant doubt that he actually ever uttered or wrote those words. However, in 1933, he did deliver a lecture which touched on similar themes. The closest that the great man came to saying the words attributed to him was: It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933.

Another article from peterjamesthomas.com. The home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases.

# The peterjamesthomas.com Data Strategy Hub

Today we launch a new on-line resource, The Data Strategy Hub. This presents some of the most popular Data Strategy articles on this site and will expand in coming weeks to also include links to articles and other resources pertaining to Data Strategy from around the Internet.

If you have an article you have written, or one that you read and found helpful, please post a link in a comment here or in the actual Data Strategy Hub and I will consider adding it to the list.

Another article from peterjamesthomas.com. The home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases.

# The latest edition of The Data & Analytics Dictionary is now out

After a hiatus of a few months, the latest version of the peterjamesthomas.com Data and Analytics Dictionary is now available. It includes 30 new definitions, some of which have been contributed by people like Tenny Thomas Soman, George Firican, Scott Taylor and and Taru Väre. Thanks to all of these for their help.

Remember that The Dictionary is a free resource and quoting contents (ideally with acknowledgement) and linking to its entries (via the buttons provided) are both encouraged.

If you would like to contribute a definition, which will of course be acknowledged, you can use the comments section here, or the dedicated form, we look forward to hearing from you [1].

The Data & Analytics Dictionary will continue to be expanded in coming months.

Notes

 [1] Please note that any submissions will be subject to editorial review and are not guaranteed to be accepted.

Another article from peterjamesthomas.com. The home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases.

# A Simple Data Capability Framework

Introduction

As part of my consulting business, I end up thinking about Data Capability Frameworks quite a bit. Sometimes this is when I am assessing current Data Capabilities, sometimes it is when I am thinking about how to transition to future Data Capabilities. Regular readers will also recall my tripartite series on The Anatomy of a Data Function, which really focussed more on capabilities than purely organisation structure [1].

Detailed frameworks like the one contained in Anatomy are not appropriate for all audiences. Often I need to provide a more easily-absorbed view of what a Data Function is and what it does. The exhibit above is one that I have developed and refined over the last three or so years and which seems to have resonated with a number of clients. It has – I believe – the merit of simplicity. I have tried to distil things down to the essentials. Here I will aim to walk the reader through its contents, much of which I hope is actually self-explanatory.

The overall arrangement has been chosen intentionally, the top three areas are visible activities, the bottom three are more foundational areas [2], ones that are necessary for the top three boxes to be discharged well. I will start at the top left and work across and then down.

Collation of Data to provide Information

This area includes what is often described as “traditional” reporting [3], Dashboards and analysis facilities. The Information created here is invaluable for both determining what has happened and discerning trends / turning points. It is typically what is used to run an organisation on a day-to-day basis. Absence of such Information has been the cause of underperformance (or indeed major losses) in many an organisation, including a few that I have been brought in to help. The flip side is that making the necessary investments to provide even basic information has been at the heart of the successful business turnarounds that I have been involved in.

The bulk of Business Intelligence efforts would also fall into this area, but there is some overlap with the area I next describe as well.

Leverage of Data to generate Insight

In this second area we have disciplines such as Analytics and Data Science. The objective here is to use a variety of techniques to tease out findings from available data (both internal and external) that go beyond the explicit purpose for which it was captured. Thus data to do with bank transactions might be combined with publically available demographic and location data to build an attribute model for both existing and potential clients, which can in turn be used to make targeted offers or product suggestions to them on Digital platforms.

It is my experience that work in this area can have a massive and rapid commercial impact. There are few activities in an organisation where a week’s work can equate to a percentage point increase in profitability, but I have seen insight-focussed teams deliver just that type of ground-shifting result.

Control of Data to ensure it is Fit-for-Purpose

This refers to a wide range of activities from Data Governance to Data Management to Data Quality improvement and indeed related concepts such as Master Data Management. Here as well as the obvious policies, processes and procedures, together with help from tools and technology, we see the need for the human angle to be embraced via strong communications, education programmes and aligning personal incentives with desired data quality outcomes.

The primary purpose of this important work is to ensure that the information an organisation collates and the insight it generates are reliable. A helpful by-product of doing the right things in these areas is that the vast majority of what is required for regulatory compliance is achieved simply by doing things that add business value anyway.

Data Architecture / Infrastructure

Best practice has evolved in this area. When I first started focussing on the data arena, Data Warehouses were state of the art. More recently Big Data architectures, including things like Data Lakes, have appeared and – at least in some cases – begun to add significant value. However, I am on public record multiple times stating that technology choices are generally the least important in the journey towards becoming a data-centric organisation. This is not to say such choices are unimportant, but rather that other choices are more important, for example how best to engage your potential users and begin to build momentum [4].

Having said this, the model that seems to have emerged of late is somewhat different to the single version of the truth aspired to for many years by organisations. Instead best practice now encompasses two repositories: the first Operational, the second Analytical. At a high-level, arrangements would be something like this:

The Operational Repository would contain a subset of corporate data. It would be highly controlled, highly reconciled and used to support both regular reporting and a large chunk of dashboard content. It would be designed to also feed data to other areas, notably Finance systems. This would be complemented by the Analytical Repository, into which most corporate data (augmented by external data) would be poured. This would be accessed by a smaller number of highly skilled staff, Data Scientists and Analytics experts, who would use it to build models, produce one off analyses and to support areas such as Data Visualisation and Machine Learning.

It is not atypical for Operational Repositories to be SQL-based and Analytical Repsoitories to be Big Data-based, but you could use SQL for both or indeed Big Data for both according to the circumstances of an organisation and its technical expertise.

Data Operating Model / Organisation Design

Here I will direct readers to my (soon to be updated) earlier work on The Anatomy of a Data Function. However, it is worth mentioning a couple of additional points. First an Operating Model for data must encompass the whole organisation, not just the Data Function. Such a model should cover how data is captured, sourced and used across all departments.

Second I think that the concept of a Data Community is important here, a web of like-minded Data Scientists and Analytics people, sitting in various business areas and support functions, but linked to the central hub of the Data Function by common tooling, shared data sets (ideally Curated) and aligned methodologies. Such a virtual data team is of course predicated on an organisation hiring collaborative people who want to be part of and contribute to the Data Community, but those are the types of people that organisations should be hiring anyway [5].

Data Strategy

Our final area is that of Data Strategy, something I have written about extensively in these pages [6] and a major part of the work that I do for organisations.

It is an oft-repeated truism that a Data Strategy must reflect an overarching Business Strategy. While this is clearly the case, often things are less straightforward. For example, the Business Strategy may be in flux; this is particularly the case where a turn-around effort is required. Also, how the organisation uses data for competitive advantage may itself become a central pillar of its overall Business Strategy. Either way, rather than waiting for a Business Strategy to be finalised, there are a number of things that will need to be part of any Data Strategy: the establishment of a Data Function; a focus on making data fit-for-purpose to better support both information and insight; creation of consistent and business-focussed reporting and analysis; and the introduction or augmentation of Data Science capabilities. Many of these activities can help to shape a Business Strategy based on facts, not gut feel.

More broadly, any Data Strategy will include: a description of where the organisation is now (threats and opportunities); a vision for commercially advantageous future data capabilities; and a path for moving between the current and the future states. Rather than being PowerPoint-ware, such a strategy needs to be communicated assiduously and in a variety of ways so that it can be both widely understood and form a guide for data-centric activities across the organisation.

Summary

As per my other articles, the data capabilities that a modern organisation needs are broader and more detailed than those I have presented here. However, I have found this simple approach a useful place to start. It covers all the basic areas and provides a scaffold off of which more detailed capabilities may be hung.

The framework has been informed by what I have seen and done in a wide range of organisations, but of course it is not necessarily the final word. As always I would be interested in any general feedback and in any suggestions for improvement.

Notes

 [1] In passing, Anatomy is due for its second refresh, which will put greater emphasis on Data Science and its role as an indispensable part of a modern Data Function. Watch this space. [2] Though one would hope that a Data Strategy is also visible! [3] Though nowadays you hear “traditional” Analytics and “traditional” Big Data as well (on the latter see Sic Transit Gloria Magnorum Datorum), no doubt “traditional” Machine Learning will be with us at some point, if it isn’t here already. [4] See also Building Momentum – How to begin becoming a Data-driven Organisation. [5] I will be revisiting the idea of a Data Community in coming months, so again watch this space. [6] Most explicitly in my three-part series:

Another article from peterjamesthomas.com. The home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases.

# A Retrospective of 2018’s Articles

This is the second year in which I have produced a retrospective of my blogging activity. As in 2017, I have failed miserably in my original objective of posting this early in January. Despite starting to write this piece on 18th December 2018, I have somehow sneaked into the second quarter before getting round to completing it. Maybe I will do better with 2019’s highlights!

Anyway, 2018 was a record-breaking year for peterjamesthomas.com. The site saw more traffic than in any other year since its inception; indeed hits were over a third higher than in any previous year. This increase was driven in part by the launch of my new Maths & Science section, articles from which claimed no fewer than 6 slots in the 2018 top 10 articles, when measured by hits [1]. Overall the total number of articles and new pages I published exceeded 2017’s figures to claim the second spot behind 2009; our first year in business.

As with every year, some of my work was viewed by tens of thousands of people, while other pieces received less attention. This is my selection of the articles that I enjoyed writing most, which does not always overlap with the most popular ones. Given the advent of the Maths & Science section, there are now seven categories into which I have split articles. These are as follows:

In each category, I will pick out one or two pieces which I feel are both representative of my overall content and worth a read. I would be more than happy to receive any feedback on my selections, or suggestions for different choices.

Notes

[1]

 The 2018 Top Ten by Hits 1. The Irrational Ratio 2. A Brief History of Databases 3. Euler’s Number 4. The Data and Analytics Dictionary 5. The Equation 6. A Brief Taxonomy of Numbers 7. When I’m 65 8. How to Spot a Flawed Data Strategy 9. Building Momentum – How to begin becoming a Data-driven Organisation 10. The Anatomy of a Data Function – Part I

Another article from peterjamesthomas.com. The home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases.

# More Definitions in the Data and Analytics Dictionary

The peterjamesthomas.com Data and Analytics Dictionary is an active document and I will continue to issue revised versions of it periodically. Here are 20 new definitions, including the first from other contributors (thanks Tenny!):

Remember that The Dictionary is a free resource and quoting contents (ideally with acknowledgement) and linking to its entries (via the buttons provided) are both encouraged.

People are now also welcome to contribute their own definitions. You can use the comments section here, or the dedicated form. Submissions will be subject to editorial review and are not guaranteed to be accepted.

From: peterjamesthomas.com, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases

# Offence, Defence and the Top Data Job

Football [1] has been in the news rather a lot of late; apparently there is some competition or other going on in Russia [2]. Presumably it was this that brought to my mind the analogy sometimes applied to the data arena of offence and defence [3]. Defence brings to mind Data Governance, Master Data Management and Data Quality. Offence suggests Data Science, Machine Learning and Analytics. This is an analogy I have briefly touched on in these pages before [4]; here I want to expand on it.

Rather than Association Football, it was however the American version that first crossed my mind. In Gridiron, there are of course wholly separate teams for each of offence, defence, kicking and receiving, each filled with specialists. I would be happy to learn from readers about any counterexamples, but I struggle to think of any other sport that is like this [5]. In each of Association Football, both types of Rugby, Australian Rules Football and indeed Basketball, Baseball (see previous note [5]) Volleyball, Hockey, Ice Hockey, Lacrosse, Polo, Water Polo and Handball, the same players form both the offence and defence. Of course this is probably due to them being a bit less stop-start than American Football, offence can turn into defence in a split-second in some of them.

To stick with Football (I’m going to drop “Association” from here on in), while players may be designated as goalkeepers, defenders, mid-fielders, wingers and attackers (strikers), any player may be called on to defend or attack at any time [6]. Star strikers may need to make desperate tackles. Defenders (who tend to be taller) will be called up to try to turn corner kicks into goals. Even at the most basic level, the ball needs to be transferred from one end of the field to the other, which requires (absent the Goalkeeper simply taking what is known as route one – i.e. kicking it as far as they can towards the other goal) several players to pass the ball, control it and pass again. The whole team contributes.

I have written before about the nomenclature maze that often surrounds the Top Data Job [7] (see Further Reading at the end of the article). In some organisations the offence and defence aspects of the data arena are separate, in the sense that both are headed by someone who then reports into a non-data-specialist. For example a Chief Data Officer and a Chief Analytics Officer might both report to a Chief Operating Officer. This feels a bit like the American Football approach; separate teams to do separate things. I’m probably stretching the metaphor [8], but a problem that occurs to me is that – in business – the data offence and data defence teams will need to be on the field of play at the same time. Aren’t they going to get in each other’s way and end up duplicating activities? At the very least, they are going to need some robust rules about who does what and for these to be made very clear to the players. Also, ultimately, while both offence and defence teams in Gridiron will have their own coaches, these will report to a Head Coach; someone who presumably knows just a bit about American Football. I can’t think of any instances where an NFL team has no Head Coach and instead the next tier of staff all report to the owner.

Of course having multiple senior data roles reporting into different parts of the Executive may be fine and many organisations operate this way. However, again coming back to my sporting analogy, I prefer the approach adopted by Football, Rugby, Basketball and the rest. I like the idea of a single, cohesive Data Function, led by someone who is a data specialist, no matter what their job title might me. In most sports what seems to work well is a team in which people have roles, but in which there is cross-over and a need to just get done. I think this works for people involved in data work as well.

You wouldn’t have the Head of Tax and the Head of Financial Reporting both reporting to the CEO, that’s what CFOs are for (among other things). It should be the same in the data arena with the Top Data Job being just that, the one person ultimately accountable for both the control and leverage of data. I have made no secret of my opinion that this is the optimum approach. I think my view is supported by the overwhelming number of sports where offence and defence are functions of the same, cohesive team.

Notes

 [1] Association of course. [2] My winter team sport was always Rugby Football, of the Union variety. But – as is evident from quite a few articles on this site – for many years my spare time was mostly occupied by rock climbing and bouldering. The day after England’s defeat at the hands of Croatia, the Polish guy I regularly buy my skinny flat white from offered his commiserations about yesterday. I was at a loss as to what he had done to me yesterday and he had to explain that he was referring to the World Cup. Not all Brit’s are Football fanatics. [3] Offense and defense for my wife and any other Americans reading. [4] This was as part of Alphabet Soup. [5] The only thing I could think of that was even in the same ballpark (pun intended) was the use of a designated hitter in some baseball leagues. Even then, the majority of the team have to field as well as bat. [6] There are indeed examples of Goalkeepers, the quintessential defensive player, scoring in International Football. [7] With acknowledgement to Peter Aiken. [8] For neither the first time, nor the last: e.g. A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools and Analogies.

From: peterjamesthomas.com, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases

# How to Spot a Flawed Data Strategy

I was recently preparing for an data-centric interview to be published as a podcast [now available to listen to here, it is the second podcast]. A chat with the interviewer had prompted me to think about the question of how you can tell that there are issues with your Data Strategy. During the actual interview, we had so many things to talk about that we never got to this question. I thought that it was interesting enough to merit a mini-article, which is the genesis of this piece.

I have often had my services retained by organisations to develop a Data Strategy from scratch [1]. However, I have also gone into organisations who have an established Data Strategy, but are concerned about whether it is the right one and how it is being executed. In this latter case, my thought processes include the following.

The initial question to consider is, “are there any obvious alarm bells ringing?” Some alarm bells are ones that would apply to any strategy.

First of all, you need to be clear which problem you are addressing or which opportunity you want to seize (sometimes both). I have been brought into organisations where the Data Strategy consists of something like “build a Data Lake”. While I have nothing against data lakes myself, and indeed have helped to create them, the obvious question is “why does this organisation need a Data Lake?” If the answer is not something core to the operations of the organisation, it may well not need one.

Next implementing a technology is not a strategy. The data arena is unfortunately plagued by technology fan-boyism [2]. The latest and greatest visualisation tool is not going to sort out your data quality problems all by itself. Moving your back-end data platform from Oracle to Hadoop is not going to suddenly increase adoption of Analytics. All of these technologies have valuable parts to play, but the important thing to remember is that a Data Strategy must first and foremost be a business strategy. As such it must do at least one of: increase sales, optimise pricing, decrease costs, reduce risks or open new markets. A Data Lake will not in and of itself do any of these, what you chose to do with it may well contribute to many of these areas.

A further consideration is “what else is going on in the organisation?” This is important both in a business and a technological sense. If the organisation has just acquired another one, does the Data Strategy reflect this? If there is an ongoing Digital Transformation programme, then how does the Data Strategy align itself with this; is it an enabler, a Digital programme work-stream, or a stand-alone programme? In the same vein, it may well make sense to initially design the Data Strategy along purist lines (failing to do so at least initially may be a missed opportunity for radical change [3]), however there will then need to be an adjustment to take into account what else is going on in the organisation, its current situation and its culture.

Having introduced the word “culture”, the final observation is in this area. If the Data Strategy does not envisage impacting corporate culture (e.g. to shift it to focus more on the importance and potential value of data), then one must ask what are its chances of achieving anything tangible? All organisations are comprised of individuals and the best strategies both take this into account and were developed as a result of spending time thinking how best to influence people’s behaviour in a positive manner [4]. Absence of cultural and education / communication elements from a Data Strategy is more a 200 decibel claxon than a regular alarm bell.

Given I am generally brought in when organisations want to address a data problem or seize a data opportunity, I have to admit that I probably have a biassed set of experiences. Nevertheless one or more of the above issues has been present whenever I have started to examine an existing Data Strategy. In the (for me) hypothetical case where things are in better shape, then the next steps in evaluating a Data Strategy would be to get into the details of each of: the Data Strategy itself; the organisation and what makes it tick; and the people and personalities involved. However, if a Data Strategy does not suffer from any of the above flaws, it is already more sound than the majority of Data Strategies and the people who drew it up are to be congratulated.

If you would like help with your existing Data Strategy, then please consider our Data Strategy Review Service. If you want to kick-off the process of developing a Data Strategy from scratch, then we can help via our Data Consultancy Service. Or just feel free to get in touch.

Notes

 [1] A matrix of the data-centric (and other) areas I have been accountable for at various organisations appears here. Just scroll down to Data Strategy, which the is the second row in the Data-centric Work section. [2] And fan-girlism, though this seems to be less of a thing TBH. [3] See: [4] I cover the cultural aspects of Data-centric work in many places on this site, perhaps start with 20 Risks that Beset Data Programmes and Ever tried? Ever failed?, both of which also link back to my earlier (and still relevant) writing on this subject.

From: peterjamesthomas.com, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases

# Building Momentum – How to begin becoming a Data-driven Organisation

Introduction

It is hard to find an organisation that does not aspire to being data-driven these days. While there is undoubtedly an element of me-tooism about some of these statements (or a fear of competitors / new entrants who may use their data better, gaining a competitive advantage), often there is a clear case for the better leverage of data assets. This may be to do with the stand-alone benefits of such an approach (enhanced understanding of customers, competitors, products / services etc. [1]), or as a keystone supporting a broader digital transformation.

However, in my experience, many organisations have much less mature ideas about how to achieve their data goals than they do about setting them. Given the lack of executive experience in data matters [2], it is not atypical that one of the large strategy consultants is engaged to shape a data strategy; one of the large management consultants is engaged to turn this into something executable and maybe to select some suitable technologies; and one of the large systems integrators (or increasingly off-shore organisations migrating up the food chain) is engaged to do the work, which by this stage normally relates to building technology capabilities, implementing a new architecture or some other technology-focussed programme.

Even if each of these partners does a great job – which one would hope they do at their price points – a few things invariably get lost along the way. These include:

1. A data strategy that is closely coupled to the organisation’s actual needs rather than something more general.

While there are undoubtedly benefits in adopting best practice for an industry, there is also something to be said for a more tailored approach, tied to business imperatives and which may have the possibility to define the new best practice. In some areas of business, it makes sense to take the tried and tested approach, to be a part of the herd. In others – and data is in my opinion one of these – taking a more innovative and distinctive path is more likely to lead to success.

2. Connective tissue between strategy and execution.

The distinctions between the three types of organisations I cite above are becoming more blurry (not least as each seeks to develop new revenue streams). This can lead to the strategy consultants developing plans, which get ripped up by the management consultants; the management consultants revisiting the initial strategy; the systems integrators / off-shorers replanning, or opening up technical and architecture discussions again. Of course this means the client paying at least twice for this type of work. What also disappears is the type of accountability that comes when the same people are responsible for developing a strategy, turning this into a practical plan and then executing this [3].

3. Focus on the cultural aspects of becoming more data-driven.

This is both one of the most important factors that determines success or failure [4] and something that – frankly because it is not easy to do – often falls by the wayside. By the time that the third external firm has been on-boarded, the name of the game is generally building something (e.g. a Data Lake, or an analytics platform) rather than the more human questions of who will use this, in what way, to achieve which business objectives.

Of course a way to address the above is to allocate some experienced people (internal or external, ideally probably a blend) who stay the course from development of data strategy through fleshing this out to execution and who – importantly – can also take a lead role in driving the necessary cultural change. It also makes sense to think about engaging organisations who are small enough to tailor their approach to your needs and who will not force a “cookie cutter” approach. I have written extensively about how – with the benefit of such people on board – to run such a data transformation programme [5]. Here I am going to focus on just one phase of such a programme and often the most important one; getting going and building momentum.

A Third Way

There are a couple of schools of thought here:

1. Focus on laying solid data foundations and thus build data capabilities that are robust and will stand the test of time.

2. Focus on delivering something ASAP in the data arena, which will build the case for further investment.

There are points in favour of both approaches and criticisms that can be made of each as well. For example, while the first approach will be necessary at some point (and indeed at a relatively early one) in order to sustain a transformation to a data-driven organisation, it obviously takes time and effort. Exclusive focus on this area can use up money, political capital and try the patience of sponsors. Few business initiatives will be funded for years if they do not begin to have at least some return relatively soon. This remains the case even if the benefits down the line are potentially great.

Equally, the second approach can seem very productive at first, but will generally end up trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear [6]. Inevitably, without improvements to the underlying data landscape, limitations in the type of useful analytics that be carried out will be reached; sometimes sooner that might be thought. While I don’t generally refer to religious topics on this blog [7], the Parable of the Sower is apposite here. Focussing on delivering analytics without attending to the broader data landscape is indeed like the seed that fell on stony ground. The practice yields results that spring up, only to wilt when the sun gets hot, given that they have no real roots [8].

So what to do? Well, there is a Third Way. This involves blending both approaches. I tend to think of this in the following way:

First of all, this is a cartoon, it is not intended to indicate actual percentages, just to illustrate a general trend. In real life, it is likely that you will cycle round multiple times and indeed have different parallel work-streams at different stages. The general points I am trying to convey with this diagram are:

1. At the beginning of a data transformation programme, there should probably be more emphasis on interim delivery and tactical changes. However, imoportantly, there is never zero strategic work. As things progress, the emphasis should swing more to strategic, long-term work. But again, even in a mature programme, there is never zero tactical work. There can also of course be several iterations of such shifts in approach.

2. Interim and tactical steps should relate to not just analytics, but also to making point fixes to the data landscape where possible. It is also important to kick off diagnostic work, which will establish how bad things are and also suggest areas which could be attacked sooner rather than later; this too can initially be done on a tactical basis and then made more robust later. In general, if you consider the span of strategic data work, it makes sense to kick off cut-down (and maybe drastically cut-down) versions of many activities early on.

3. Importantly, the tactical and strategic work-streams should not be hermetically sealed. What you actually want is healthy interplay. Building some early, “quick and dirty” analytics may highlight areas that should be covered by a data audit, or where there are obvious weaknesses in a data architecture. Any data assets that are built on a more strategic basis should also be leveraged by tactical work, improving its utility and probably increasing its lifespan.

Interconnected Activities

At the beginning of this article, I present a diagram (repeated below) which covers three types of initial data activities, the sort of work that – if executed competently – can begin to generate momentum for a data programme. The exhibit also references Data Strategy.

Let’s look at each of these four things in some more detail:

1. Analytic Point Solutions

Where data has historically been locked up in either hard-to-use repositories or in source systems themselves, liberating even a bit of it can be very helpful. This does not have to be with snazzy tools (unless you want to showcase the art of the possible). An anecdote might help to explain.

At one organisation, they had existing reporting that was actually not horrendous, but it was hard to access, hard to parameterise and hard to do follow-on analysis on. I took it upon myself to run 30 plus reports on a weekly and monthly basis, download the contents to Excel, front these with some basic graphs and make these all available on an intranet. This meant that people from Country A or Department B could go straight to their figures rather than having to run fiddly reports. It also meant that they had an immediate visual overview – including some comparisons to prior periods and trends over time (which were not available in the original reports). Importantly, they also got a basic pivot table, which they could use to further examine what was going on. These simple steps (if a bit laborious for me) had a massive impact. I later replaced the Excel with pages I wrote in a new web-reporting tool we built in house. Ultimately, my team moved these to our strategic Analytics platform.

This shows how point solutions can be very valuable and also morph into more strategic facilities over time.

2. Data Process Improvements

Data issues may be to do with a range of problems from poor validation in systems, to bad data integration, but immature data processes and insufficient education for data entry staff are often key conributors to overall problems. Identifying such issues and quantifying their impact should be the province of a Data Audit, which is something I would recommend considering early on in a data programme. Once more this can be basic at first, considering just superficial issues, and then expand over time.

While fixing some data process problems and making a stepped change in data quality will both probably take time an effort, it may be possible to identify and target some narrower areas in which progress can be made quite quickly. It may be that one key attribute necessary for analysis is poorly entered and validated. Some good communications around this problem can help, better guidance for people entering it is also useful and some “quick and dirty” reporting highlighting problems and – hopefully – tracking improvement can make a difference quicker than you might expect [9].

3. Data Architecture Enhancements

Improving a Data Architecture sounds like a multi-year task and indeed it can often be just that. However, it may be that there are some areas where judicious application of limited resource and funds can make a difference early on. A team engaged in a data programme should seek out such opportunities and expect to devote time and attention to them in parallel with other work. Architectural improvements would be best coordinated with data process improvements where feasible.

An example might be providing a web-based tool to look up valid codes for entry into a system. Of course it would be a lot better to embed this functionality in the system itself, but it may take many months to include this in a change schedule whereas the tool could be made available quickly. I have had some success with extending such a tool to allow users to build their own hierarchies, which can then be reflected in either point analytics solutions or more strategic offerings. It may be possible to later offer the tool’s functionality via web-services allowing it to be integrated into more than one system.

4. Data Strategy

I have written extensively about Data Strategy on this site [10]. What I wanted to cover here is the interplay between Data Strategy and some of the other areas I have just covered. It might be thought that Data Strategy is both carved on tablets of stone [11] and stands in splendid and theoretical isolation, but this should not ever be the case. The development of a Data Strategy should of course be informed by a situational analysis and a vision of “what good looks like” for an organisation. However, both of these things can be shaped by early tactical work. Taking cues from initial tactical work should lead to a more pragmatic strategy, more aligned to business realities.

Work in each of the three areas itemised above can play an important role in shaping a Data Strategy and – as the Data Strategy matures – it can obviously guide interim work as well. This should be an iterative process with lots of feedback.

Closing Thoughts

I have captured the essence of these thoughts in the diagram above. The important things to take away are that in order to generate momentum, you need to start to do some stuff; to extend the physical metaphor, you have to start pushing. However, momentum is a vector quantity (it has a direction as well as a magnitude [12]) and building momentum is not a lot of use unless it is in the general direction in which you want to move; so push with some care and judgement. It is also useful to realise that – so long as your broad direction is OK – you can make refinements to your direction as you pick up speed.

The above thoughts are based on my experience in a range of organisations and I am confident that they can be applied anywhere, making allowance for local cultures of course. Once momentum is established, it still needs to be maintained (or indeed increased), but I find that getting the ball moving in the first place often presents the greatest challenge. My hope is that the framework I present here can help data practitioners to get over this initial hurdle and begin to really make a difference in their organisations.

 [1] Way back in 2009, I wrote about the benefits of leveraging data to provide enhanced information. The article in question was tited Measuring the benefits of Business Intelligence. Everything I mention remains valid today in 2018. [2] See also: [3] If I many be allowed to blow my own trumpet for a moment, I have developed data / information strategies for eight organisations, turned seven of these into a costed / planned programme and executed at least the first few phases of six of these. I have always found being a consistent presence through these phases has been beneficial to the organisations I was helping, as well as helping to reduce duplication of work. [4] See my, now rather venerable, trilogy about cultural change in data / information programmes: together with the rather more recent: [5] See for example: [6] Dictionary.com offers a nice explanation of this phrase.. [7] I was raised a Catholic, but have been areligious for many years. [8] Much like $x^2+x+1=0$. For anyone interested, the two roots of this polynomial are clearly: $-\dfrac{1}{2}+\dfrac{\sqrt{3}}{2}\hspace{1mm}i\hspace{5mm}\text{and}\hspace{5mm}-\dfrac{1}{2}-\dfrac{\sqrt{3}}{2}\hspace{1mm}i$ neither of which is Real. [9] See my rather venerable article, Using BI to drive improvements in data quality, for a fuller treatment of this area. [10] For starters see: and also the Data Strategy segment of The Anatomy of a Data Function – Part I. [11] [12] See Glimpses of Symmetry, Chapter 15 – It’s Space Jim….