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Technology / Data

To Cultivate A Data Culture, Let’s Look to Anthropology

Last year, the UK held its first ever public Flat Earth convention in Birmingham with about 200 attendees, and according to a recent report, one third of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are either confirmed ‘flat-earthers’, or are simply unsure.

Everywhere you look, the notion of truth, even when it is backed by long-established scientific evidence, is being challenged by a groundswell of ‘alternative facts’ and fake news. The demand for critical thinking skills has rarely been so important as it is today, writes James Eiloart, Senior Vice President of EMEA, Tableau Software.

In fact, educators around the world are responding with courses designed specifically to teach students how to identify markers of manipulation and propaganda. Faced with a daily tidal wave of information from both niche and mainstream sources, critical thinking – driven by data and analytics – will play an increasingly central role in helping society identify truth from fiction.

data culture tableau
Tableau Software’s James Eiloart

These same principles are of enormous relevance in the commercial world, where businesses are not only generating huge amounts of data, but more employees have greater access to it and are tasked with generating business insights from it.

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The benefits of being data-driven are clear – a recent report by Forrester shows that companies which are data-driven across the organization are growing at an average of more than 30 percent annually. And yet, a McKinsey report shows that only 8 percent of companies are achieving analytics success across the business.

Why so few? 

The answer is that organisations are struggling to create a data driven culture. This is easier said than done. Humans are not creatures of change, so what is required to cultivate a marked organisational shift? We can learn much by looking at anthropology and the key characteristics of how successful cultures grew and developed. In looking back at our past, I’ve identified three key attributes:

Establish a Common Language

Common language is the bedrock of human culture. Language evolved because of our need for survival, but also to create a mutual understanding about concrete and abstract ideas. A common language helped us to hunt and gather, but also to warn the larger group of dangers.  It allowed us to work together in order to achieve a common goal.

And while some companies are uncovering huge business benefits thanks to speaking a common data language, many haven’t fully cracked it.

Creating a data literate workforce, one confident in the language of data, is vital to achieving business success.  According to Gartner’s fourth annual Chief Data Officer survey, poor data literacy was rated the number one roadblock to creating a data-driven culture and realising its business benefits.

Commercial real-estate powerhouse JLL serves as a great example of an organisation willing to tackle this issue head-on – they can attribute $50 million in documented benefits over the past five years, thanks to creating a data literate workforce.  JLL has been able to achieve such business value by helping everyone within the organisation become proficient in data and analytics. Ensuring the entire workforce is speaking a common, data-driven language every day is fundamental to creating a successful data culture.

Collective Storytelling

The second anthropological trait is the importance of sharing to create successful and sustainable cultures. By coming together to debate ideas, beliefs, values and experiences, our ancestors grew in their knowledge and wisdom. Collectively, this led to an overwhelming surge in action and achievement which couldn’t be stopped.

Credit: Jordan Donaldson, Unsplash.

Collective storytelling helps share wisdom and values through a group and helps it grow into an inspired community.

Businesses that cultivate a passionate community of data thinkers are pivotal to building a data culture that drives business value while generating collective excitement about data. How do they achieve this?  Very simply by encouraging an environment of sharing – even lunch-and-learn sessions, data visualisation competitions and internal user-groups where people can discuss data challenges and debate solutions can have a profound impact.

Sharing has the power to ignite a data culture within an organisation. As soon as a few people share what they can do with data, it creates a momentous force where people become empowered through learning and achievement and want to tell others. Keep in mind that even small changes can lead to a major cultural shift within companies.

Balancing Freedom and Control

The final trait is arguably the most important, as it helped our ancestors ensure stability within growing cultures. This trait is balancing flexibility and control. As new ways of thinking and innovative methods began to challenge tradition, societies quickly realised the need for creating collective laws that could govern and protect, while also allowing flexibility and freedom.

The same is true for modern-day organisations. Effective data culture must have the right balance of control and freedom. If businesses give employees too much freedom with data, then they risk creating an environment of chaos, but if they enforce too much control then they stifle innovation. In truth, too much control can lead people to rebel and create shadow systems, meaning organisations risk ending up with data anarchy rather than data culture.

Organisations that have succeeding in instilling data culture across the business have the right governance in place to provide the balance between control and freedom. When done well, this balance gives employees confidence to find new insights, opportunities and ultimately, drive the business forward.

This is Only the Beginning

By looking back at our past, we can observe how the rapid pace of innovation has shaped our societies for centuries. But if you observe history right up to today, you’ll see a proliferation of innovations tethered to the democratisation of information.

And when it comes to the democratisation of data, this is just the beginning.

When we can put data in the hands of people who know and understand it, the potential for innovation is unbounded.  Fostering a successful data-driven culture is only possible when organisations create a common language of data, a community focused on sharing and the right governance to encourage innovation whilst protecting the business. The alternative is to risk casting oneself as the business world’s equivalent of the ‘flat-earther.’

See also: EU Courts Consider Vital Data Transfer Tool


This article is from the CBROnline archive: some formatting and images may not be present.

CBR Staff Writer

CBR Online legacy content.