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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Putting People First: Data in 2018

The technocratic mindset must change. Technologies are necessary but not sufficient.

For ideas to stick, they need to be repeated. Ask a real estate professional what's the most important factor in determining what to buy and you'll hear "Location, location, location." General MacArthur referred to his life's greatest passion as "The Corps, the Corps, the Corps" (in most retellings of the tale; his actual words were similar but not quite those.) We all remember Arthur Rubinstein's admonition to a young man asking him how to get to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, practice, practice."

For Further Reading:

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5 Tips for Getting Your Team Thinking About Data

Creating an Analytics Culture of Trust

When I was recently asked by a colleague what was most important in the business world in 2017, my natural answer was "Data, data, data."

No doubt, many will agree. One cannot live and breathe in the corporate world (or any other, really) without hearing the terms big data and data science repeated ad infinitum. I'd have to add ad nauseam as well.

Just as repetition enhances recall, it simultaneously trivializes the topic at hand. If, for instance, all companies are "doing" big data, how can any sane analyst or thinker take them all at their word? If, indeed, all companies are chasing chimeras, then isn't the whole data enterprise truly at risk of meaning nothing to anyone? Further, if a course of study of, say, 12 weeks, anoints a competent "tool user" as a "scientist," then what room is there for deep and holistic knowledge born of experience?

None of this is meant to diminish the world of data or its practitioners. In fact, constant talk of data both hurts organizational efforts to be more data-savvy and data-driven and further erodes the progress of data practitioners who are striving to improve performance with the judicious use of data. The more you refer to data, the more it is cast as a silver bullet and the more data experts are seen as magicians. We place data on a pedestal and deify its practitioners while simultaneously trivializing it by making it standard fare for PowerPoints and forgetting what it really means to be data-driven.

It the data community made one mistake in 2017, it was to reduce data to a set of technology problems and forget the holistic nature of anything -- anything at all -- that is going to truly usher in a new age in business or private life. We reduced data to a set of clever koans and punchlines.

This must end in 2018.

Four Core Principles

In 2018, we must collectively usher in a new phase in both the rhetorical treatment of data but also in how we conceive of the organizational connection to and use of data.

This reconception must be built on four core principles:

  1. Data and big data are not monolithic categories. There are enormous variations in skill with -- and use of -- both that cannot be overlooked by mere repetition of the terms.

  2. Organizations' data maturity must be moved up the stack of importance if modernization and transformation are going to be possible.

  3. Anything data must be seen as a holistic area of endeavor that is not reducible to a set of technical fixes.

  4. Real organizational data stories will be people stories first. I'll concentrate on the last of these principles -- the one I consider most important.

People, People, People

Is it just another example of marketing clap-trap? Is it one more recitation of the people are everything cliché?

No. None of the above. Instead, this is a rebuttal of the technocratic mentality that has defined the world of data for too long. It's a clear dispatch of the notion that real and meaningful transformation springs full-blown from the head of technology's Zeus.

Data means nothing without people. Without people, data is neither intelligence nor wisdom. Without people, data is abstract and not actionable. Without people, data creates foundations but not buildings, starts but not ends.

Let me explain this metaphor further. Imagine a world in which supply-chain optimization is all the rage. In this world, mantras about operational efficiency and doing more with less are ubiquitous. Thousands of people are occupied daily with finding ways to squeeze costs out of the system, to divine blood from a rock. Thousands of vendor and supplier meetings occupy the schedules of all executives. Plans for hypermodern, efficient factories and systems of transport are drawn up. Large-scale enterprise software systems are devised -- to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars -- to manage the new world wrought by this paradigm shift.

Now imagine that all this work has been done, billions of dollars spent, and years passed. What started with amazing excitement, pomp, and circumstance hasn't yielded much value. The plans were in place, the technology built, and the ideas written about and praised all over the media, yet no organization had much, if anything, to show for this.

Imagine now that you were tasked with finding out why, indeed, there was much ado about nothing, why such grandiose ideas yielded little value.

In your investigation you quickly uncover the reason behind this dismal failure. The culprit was hiding in plain sight. Despite all the plans and ideas, and despite all the spending, no organization empowered its people to act differently, to swim out of a predefined lane.

All the great plans failed on the crucible of people empowerment. Giving people access to knowledge while maintaining the same hierarchical command and control structure is the Greek Tragedy of organizational life today.

So, too, it is with data. In 2017, we saw countless amazing companies helping us discover, collate, cleanse, and visualize data. In 2018, we need to see companies dedicated to actualizing data. These companies will connect innovative technologies with innovative people strategies. Real cultures of data will come about when we put people first by democratizing and empowering them.

The technocratic mindset must change. Technologies are necessary but not sufficient.

This is our clarion call for 2018. People first.


About the Author

Romi Mahajan is director of Blueprint Consulting Services and CEO of The KKM Group, a strategy and advisory firm. In his career, he has spent the better part of a decade at Microsoft as is the Chairman of Data Infrastructure Partners. He can be reached via LinkedIn at

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