CIOs Talk Data Strategy

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Data and artificial intelligence (AI) have become “the universal engine of execution,” according to Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani. In their book, “Competing in the Age of AI,” the two argue that data and AI are transforming business models and the concept of scale.

To become data leaders, CIOs need to become internal data champions by proving the value of data to other business leaders. They also must build foundational data processes alongside data literacy. Data literacy is the ability to draw valid conclusions from data, including understanding the limits of interpretation and awareness of common biases. According to a recent survey, only 25% of firms say all of their departments are data literate. And less than half have put in place a collaborative data governance program. So where should a CIO start?  

Data Literacy Makes Everything Easier

“Data literacy makes everything a lot easier,” said CIO Martin Davis. Education needs to happen across the board according to former CIO Joanna Young. “CIOs should be prepared to educate the board, C-Suite, and lines-of-business on data and the importance of data literacy. In this process, it is important to establish a baseline and common language. CIOs need to influence a common rubric for value or else risk a squeaky wheel syndrome.”

Business leaders need to understand that great data requires work to be usable and trustworthy. CIO David Seidl said, “I think that an understanding of what good, usable data is, and how it can be used, is huge. Then there’s how to get to, use and even be aware of the data and data tooling you have.” Taking it one step further, CIO Jim Russell said CIOs need to “enable businesses to understand how data relates to truth and reality. This is foundational to data integrity, data-informed decision-making, and ultimately measurable improvement.”

Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe added, “data literacy represents one of the most significant issues in getting to higher digital maturity. It is key to a modern organization. Understanding when and how to use data-driven capabilities is something that executives, managers and line workers all need to know. On top of this, data literacy will inform those to be careful when:

  • Data quality is too low.
  • Data is shown correct, but is overly biased or incomplete.
  • Data is too old.
  • A situation is not easily quantified.”

Related Article: How to Improve Data Literacy Among the Non-Quants in Your Organization

Creating Data Literacy With Business Users

Young believes everything starts by “ensuring that IT is using common language and leveraging teachable moments. CIOs should make sure to be evangelists. At the same time, it is important they create agreement and understanding of the data sources, related formulas used to visualize, and business outcomes measurement. CIOs need to get their leadership excited and engaged in using data to have meaningful discussions and make decisions. Often the CIO is the leader with the greatest depth and experience and they must drive and influence. Anecdotally, CIO searches recently have been asking for leadership in data.”

Without a CDO, CIOs must be the data leaders. But the initiative shouldn’t rest solely in the IT realm. Russell suggests it should be a “broad collaborative process with at least one functional owner outside IT and initiatives both from the bottom and top. I think the best outcome is improving the questions we ask. These can always be improved, and processes and answers can yield outcomes that improve everything.” In this process, Davis said, “IT needs to be an enabler and help the business to grab hold and run with a day driven strategy. I have often had success with small pilots that show real value, working with customers that are already bought in. Then building on that.” As part of this, Hinchcliffe urged CIOs take the following steps:

  • Educate and build skills.
  • Change management.
  • Center of excellence.
  • Leadership by example.
  • Capability building.

Analyst Dan Kirsch added to the list, saying: “There needs to be agreement and understanding of the data of sources, related formulas used to visualize and measure business outcomes is so important. Get leadership excited and engaged in using data to have meaningful discussions and make decisions.”

Related Article: Why CIOs Need a Data Readiness Strategy

Building Effective Data Processes

Seidl claimed everything starts by “business analysts or other helpers at processes and the need is critical. Understanding business needs, sorting out what data exists, its quality, lifecycle, usability for purpose … all important stuff to be part of it.” 

In terms of business ends, Russell suggested the “processes should be built to achieve business goals. They should tie back to those goals and support congruent transactional processes. For me, this involves the same muscles as DevOps, but flexibility with data and environment might make it closer.” 

Chief data architect Steve Jones agreed and suggested, “the biggest thing for the CIO is to get the business to lead with the CIO as a facilitator. You can’t force a process or have it be successful. Should it be agile? Yes, but the process is a business challenge.”

Young added “having applied agile with great results, get visualizations in front of leaders ASAP, with rapid feedback loops. Rinse and repeat. And seek out teachable and collaborative moments.” Agreeing with this, Kirsch said, “DevOps technologies are cool, but the biggest change is culture and processes. The same needs to happen with data. Teams can’t clutch their data and only share static, outdated data with others.”

As a part of process, Hinchcliffe said a CIO’s data strategy should do the following:

  • Cultivate open master data.
  • Cull data silos.
  • Invest in data management.
  • Provide self-service data access + analytics.
  • Publish microservices-based business graph/API.
  • Educate, evangelize.
  • Story tell data successes.
  • Govern it.

The Role of Data Governance

Without question, a fine-tuned, people-centric data governance program matters. Russell says, “data governance is a data process. But note, governance needs may change or shift over time and that there may be space for both push and pull in terms of access, control, innovation, etc.” Seidl adds, “I find myself wanting to quip that it’s an ‘istence,’ as in existence of the CIO’s data processes. If you don’t have it at least at a basic level, you may not continue to exist — or at least, succeed in the longer term.”

Hinchcliffe suggests, “I’ve said in the past that data is the one truly irreplaceable and most vital asset of an organization. Also, it is its most underleveraged asset. As the world becomes far more data-driven, most organizations must make comparable investments in better data governance.” Jones ends by saying, given data is the primary driver of new business value then governance is essential. But it’s not the CIOs job, they don’t operationally control the data, the CIO needs to help the business take control and have the CIO provide the “ilities” of data and compliance.”

Quantify the Value of Great Data

Data needs people and resources. And this means great data requires people willing to attest to its value. How do CIOs do this? Young said the value is about the “time-to-decision, increased and accelerated effectiveness often top values.” McBreen said, “he has shown use cases for both analytics and operations on the cost of bad data.”

Kirsch took a more strategic view: “Years ago, security solutions always had to have an ROI story, but today most companies get that you need cybersecurity. The same needs to be true for data and analytics — quantifying the ROI can be a challenge, but successful companies need a data and analytics strategy.” 

Meanwhile, Hinchcliffe said so many CIO conversations over the years boiled down to a few things: How can I take the best collective insights that we have as an organization and use them to make strategic decisions faster and better than my competition? The value of great data can be summarized as:

  • Using best-in-class to become a market leader.
  • Driving revenue/growth/profitability.
  • Creating sustainable competitive advantage.
  • Reducing business risk.

Parting Words

Today you can’t be great at analytics and transformation without being great at data. This starts with building a data culture and data literacy. CIOs have an important role in achieving this. Without question being great at data is essential to winning with customer experience. CIOs should be data leaders, and data is a great place to demonstrate the value of IT.

Myles Suer, according to LeadTail, is the No. 1 leading influencer of CIOs. Myles is director of solutions marketing at Alation and he’s also the facilitator for the #CIOChat.

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