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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Finding Your Own North Star to Guide Analytics Initiatives

Each data and analytics organization needs to first determine what their core purpose is and then use that North Star to drive their projects, plans, and resourcing.

Ancient mariners used the heavens to guide them forward on their journeys. On the seas, sailors were often limited in terrestrial options to use as landmarks to mark progress towards their destination. Landmasses sank on the horizon and they were left only the vastness of the water around them as they navigated. As they looked to the skies the stars appeared to move as the night progressed from dusk to dawn.

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Sailors sought something in the heavens that would be permanent and fixed and allow them to use it as a marker to navigate their course. As they watched the movement of the stars, they noticed that one single star, the North Star (Polaris), was constant and in a fixed place in the heavens from night to night and as the night progressed. If they found that heavenly landmark, they could orient themselves and use it to guide them to their destination.

As analytics leaders, the world around us is changing and we often are searching for that same defined target that we can pursue relentlessly. We want our North Star to drive us forward whether on calm or choppy seas, whether we can see other landmasses around us or not, and whether the rest of our plans and projects are in a state of constant change or flux.

This North Star becomes our purpose.Our strategies, project planning, and staffing spawn from our understanding of who we are and where we ultimately are headed. Each data and analytics team must look towards the business objectives and determine what the business most needs them to accomplish.

As you search for your North Star, you will want to determine what type of data and analytics program you are going to have. Let me offer four possible focal points for your organization: service delivery, service optimization, business enablement, and data productization. Determining your strongest area of focus will allow you find a base for the rest of your strategy and project planning.

Service Delivery

If your focus is on service delivery, your North Star will be data quality. Your goal will be to ensure that the data in your operational and analytics systems is accurate and reliable. Your focus will be on system effectiveness, scalability, and availability for the masses to consume and make decisions.

This focus will drive your data and analytics team to execute projects that increase the effectiveness of delivering high-quality data within the timeframes established as acceptable by the business.

Key roles in organizations focused on service delivery include:

  • Information architects who know where the data is, how it is architected to ensure governance and data quality, and how it is used to meet business targets
  • Quality assurance engineers who are sampling and validating data in the systems and constantly ensuring it is reliable and accurate
  • Data managers who are setting and executing guidelines to ensure information governance is happening effectively
  • Project managers who are overseeing the day-to-day operations of the team and ensuring an effective balance of scope, schedule, and budget

Service Optimization

If your focus is on service optimization, your North Star will be business process efficiency. Your goal will be to use the data in your systems to identify ways to optimize your business processes. You will use the data to inform upstream processes as to how they can be tweaked and morphed so that they can improve cost or process optimizations.

This focus will drive your data and analytics team to execute projects that concentrate on business process optimization backed by sound data analysis and evidence. Along with business process improvements, measuring and monitoring the effectiveness of these changes will be your primary responsibility.

Key roles in organizations focused on service optimization include:

  • Business process engineers who understand clearly how the business processes work and can interpret the data to determine how changes will ultimately have a positive or negative impact
  • Business analysts who can qualify these changes in terms that can be understood by those implementers on the information technology side who will ultimately adjust your production systems

Business Enablement

If your focus is on business enablement, your North Star will be business growth. Your goals will be to support the business in its growth targets. Whether that is revenue or profit targets or more altruistic non-monetary-driven mission goals, your alignment is critical.

This focus will drive your data and analytics team to execute projects that both push your company towards its intended strategic targets and support the measurement associated with how close the business is coming to achieving those targets. Projects for teams focused on business enablement will be tied to corporate strategy.

Key roles in organizations focused on business enablement include:

  • Product owners who understand the business intimately and can guide the data and analytics product in a direction parallel to the business
  • Information strategists who can take the vastness of the data landscape and identify patterns that, when elevated to informational assets, will drive business decisions and ultimately business results

Data Productization

If your focus is data productization, your North Star will be innovation and monetization. Your goals will be to find new and creative ways to use your data to develop products that can be monetized and consumed by external customers. This requires a heavy focus on who the customer of the data product will be, how they will use the data, what value they will generate from it, and how to market, promote, and sell this product.

This focus will drive your data and analytics team to work the entire product development and deployment life cycle. This will include all aspects from product ideation to operationalization and monetization of the data product.

Key roles in organizations focused on data productization include:

  • Innovators who can see a need in the public for a data product and can match that with internal data assets. They can envision a path to fulfill that demand with assets that the team can supply.
  • Product owners who can lead the team through all the stages and gates of the product development life cycle.
  • Product advocates who can effectively market and sell the data product. This includes the marketing and sales to internal stakeholders to keep the product life cycle moving forward and ultimately pitch the data product to end consumers.

Your North Star

As you look at your data and analytics organization and assess where you want to go, first decide what your North Star is and how it will influence the decisions you make about your future path. Assess whether you have the right types of resources on your team to match that target destination.

Finally, assess your project plan and ensure that the projects you have on the map are taking you in the direction your organization wants to go. Just as the ancient mariners used the North Star to guide them on the seas when they had no other landmarks, if you establish your key role as an organization, you can map out the rest as you journey towards your target destination.

About the Author

Troy Hiltbrand is the senior vice president of digital product management and analytics at where he is responsible for its enterprise analytics and digital product strategy. You can reach the author via email.

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