Romi Mahajan - June 24, 2018

The promises and perils of data


Just as real estate agents emphasize “location, location, location,” progressive business leaders use a “data, data, data” mantra as they look for ways to gain competitive advantages and grow their businesses.
As with most mantras, utterance is easy but implementing the intent is quite another matter. So too with data; most organizations understand the need for data strategy but few wield data with business drivers in mind. The promise of data is therefore largely unfulfilled, even at the most forward-looking organizations.

Whenever this disconnect exists, reasons—culprits, really—are sought. For some, this chasm between theory and practical execution stems from the different cultures of IT and business. The idea here is that since data is the province of IT and since the business is the one that needs data for decision-support, conflict is inevitable. Business works with a singular, impatient urgency while IT is backlogged and forced to prioritize different things. This leads to a disharmonized and broken culture in which different groups war with each other for priority while results suffer. Data culture is a victim of this discordance, creating a real business challenge.

Other thinkers locate the problem within infrastructure. Even with the best of intentions, IT and business cannot align their timelines and priorities because infrastructure and systems simply don’t allow for the data agility that their business expects. Culture notwithstanding, the “big iron” simply doesn’t work at the required speed to provide the data and decision-support the business needs to thrive in a fast-moving and complex marketplace.

Exacerbating this (in the minds of business teams) are the processes that IT must follow. To fast-moving and often non-technical business teams, the inviolate needs of IT are misunderstood and the four focuses of IT—governance, compliance, security, and privacy—are not considered fundamental areas of importance.  For IT, these issues are in fact fundamental- breaches can lead to “company extinction” events.

From an aerial and unbiased view, both the internal conflict and the systemic constraints point to one fundamental issue:  data maturity. Reciting the mantra is not good enough. Clear and pointed investment in data maturity must be made and not as an afterthought, but as part of the organization’s strategy. Data maturity can itself be bisected—there is the evolutionary process by which an organization’s data culture matures and a synthetic process by which its data infrastructure must be matured.

The reasons for this are both extrinsic and intrinsic. If data is indeed the “new oil,” then democratizing access to timely, contextual, and comprehensive data is a prerequisite for success in business. This is an intrinsic motivation that is ignored only at the peril of any organization; put differently, an organization’s competitive advantage and sustainability are dependent on their teams’ ability to access and act on data. Growth and success—tied to data—are the greatest motivations in adopting a data culture.

Extrinsically, the four focuses of IT referred to above have two dimensions:
  1. First, there is the legal dimension in which lack of attention to these matters can produce massive legal and financial risk, and can lead to a company extinction event. 
  2. Second, there is the customer dimension in which ongoing breaches create unfavorable exchange and therefore defection of customers.  

When these dimensions are coupled, the very technology foundation that undergirds the modern organization puts it as risk as well. 

Data is core to each of these IT priorities and to both the legal and customer dimensions of risk. If we thus stipulate the importance of data then it clearly behooves us to create an infrastructure that accords with this importance; instead, we tout data’s core role in any organization’s future but we duct-tape our data infrastructure, arguing that “good enough” is, well, good enough.

It isn’t.

Times…they are indeed a-changin’. Like the robber Willie Sutton who robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” profit- and power-seeking miscreants will look to exploit data infrastructure first. In addition, either misguided or errant employees will be able to access, wield, change, and share data with impunity if data maturity is not inherent in the data infrastructure.

With GDPR, the European Union has fired a salvo at all organizations who settled for good enough. With increasing press coverage of data breaches, consumers are voting with their feet as even the titans of technology are scrambling to apologize for their inattention or downright connivance. 

Data has great promise and comes with great peril. The CIO can be at the progressive forefront of ensuring that organizations mature their data infrastructure in keeping with the complex opportunities and challenges of modern business.

Start now with some basic steps:
  • Emphasize data maturity as a key topic in all executive reviews
  • Complete a data maturity assessment
  • Create a business case for investing in data maturity (from infrastructure to culture)
  • Benchmark your progress like any business would on core metrics
  • Think “TBM,” act like data is a business

Romi Mahajan is a Director at Blueprint Technologies.  A marketer, author, and investor, Romi has written extensively on issues of technology's interface to business.

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