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How to Perfect Your Data Culture Recipe

Establishing data culture within an organization is about making the right behaviors desirable, simple and repeatable, argues Sam Netherwood, Behavioral Change Design at data and machine learning company Mudano

How to Perfect Your Data Culture Recipe

Written by Sam Netherwood on Oct 16, 2019 12:35:44 PM

Data and Analytics

One of the first questions new clients generally ask us is: “How do we maximize the value from our data?”

This is the wrong question to ask. A much better question is: “How do I capture the value of our data at an organizational level?” Or, better: “How do I influence my organization to act upon the value of our data?”

This is the crux of the problem facing many organizations today. It is not so much in understanding the value of data. But rather, it is in how best to unlock that value and embed its use throughout the wider company.

The key to establishing a route to value is in understanding how modern businesses work, and especially how they are structured. This is because modern business behaviors are embedded in archaic value systems and operating principles.

The Industrial Revolution saw the mass creation of factories on an unprecedented scale. This scaling of production changed the way we viewed, observed and understood what work is.

“These businesses had been set up with the creation of a product in mind, rather than the experience of the employee or the capturing of data”

Today, business has changed. But how much have the philosophies and methodologies really changed around the delivery of goods? How many organizations have truly adapted to optimize the customer experience? How many are set up to realize the potential value of their data?

As prominent management consultant Gary Hamel once said: “We have 21st century technology and 20th century practices, built upon 19th century management principles.”

This system fits badly with the requirements and demands placed on organizations today. It must be replaced with one that can unleash the true power of data. But in order to enact organizational change systematically, we must first change behaviors on a pragmatic level.

Three Ingredients for Establishing Data Culture

As an exercise in behavior adoption, think about the one meal you make for yourself more frequently than any other. It could be as complex as a boeuf bourguignon or as simple as a grilled cheese.

The steps you take to prepare this dish have probably evolved over time. Your ability to make it, and make it well, has been brought about by a series of behavioral micro-structures:

  • Preparing the ingredients. By now you know the exact quantities of each ingredient that’s required down to the smallest element.
  • Internalizing the skills. Even if your favorite meal is a sandwich, you know how to avoid cutting your fingers off each time, instinctively.
  • Mastering the process. You’ve nailed the timings and cooking requirements at every stage of your meal

But how did you end up behaving this way? Behavior is ultimately a function of the motivation to do something, the ability to do it and a prompt to remind you that a specific behavior is needed:

  • Motivation: I like this meal. I have the freedom to make it. Therefore, I am motivated to make it well and often
  • Ability: I have the right tools and know the steps by heart. They have become simple for me, even if the set of steps are quite complicated when you consider the meal as a whole
  • Triggers: I know when it is best to make this meal. I associate it with certain times or events. Others even ask me to make it, because it’s just so good

These same behavioral principles can be applied at work. The key is to make sure everyone’s knows what’s good about adopting data-driven business processes, internalizes the steps involved and understands when those steps should be executed.

In this way, you can begin to create a wider reaching set of solutions and establish a clear route to unlocking the value of your data.

Refining Your Recipe for Data Culture

Of course, there is no one ‘recipe’ to embed a successful data culture. But there are better ways to think about behavioral change when it comes to using data. To understand the current state of data culture within your organization and teams, we advocate a straightforward yet iterative process.

Consider the behaviors and environment people see around them with respect to data literacy, confidence, democratization and innovation. This will help you understand where you are now and where to focus in order to change the way people think about and use data.

The best way to achieve this is to survey a broad cross-section of people within your organization. (Surveying only your data scientists or those who work within the chief data office will result in skewed data.)

“In the first instance, you’re looking for a broad, honest and aggregated reflection of what type of data company you are”

This is a key step towards becoming a data-driven business. It helps to establish a baseline from which you can measure progress, iterate accordingly and determine your success parameters.

Consider the dimension of ‘data literacy’, for example. It can be useful to develop a set of ‘data personas’ to help embed data culture within a company’s organizational structures. Staff can then answer simple questions to identify their ‘data personas’ and understand how their actions impact the whole organization.

Establishing individual personas in this way helps organizations to spot knowledge gaps, identify needs and support individuals on their journey to becoming more data literate and data-oriented.

Thinking in this way, data leaders can develop data culture at the macro level, not in vague terms, through ambiguous visions or top-down change initiatives. Therefore, a more organic data culture can be established which is iterative and scalable.

The process should be fluid and tailored to your company requirements. Balance any initiatives against the needs of your people to make the process as authentic as possible. The aim is to ensure the development of good behaviors and habits, not enforce rule following.

We have found that establishing a data culture in your organization in this way is the key to truly unlocking the value of its data.

Sam Netherwood is a learning and organizational development specialist at data and machine learning company Mudano. He helps the company develop effective, sustainable solutions to drive corporate learning, organizational performance, experience design and engagement.


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