Data Utopia – steps to reality

What is a data driven organisation? Getting a bunch of reports delivered to business users in the organisation or building some beautiful looking dashboards that executives have access to is just a start. The next step of using the data and insights to support any decision taken within the organisation seems to be a step too far for most companies.

So how do you go from let’s create reports of what happened in the past to let’s take decisions only when we have modelled them mentality.

Avoid the buzzwords and keep it simple

First and foremost, please avoid the likes of Big Data, Data Lakes, Master Data, Enterprise Data Warehouse. Let the business and not IT buzz words drive the change. In my prior corporate career as a Management Consultant and heading up BI in large organisations, I have been guilty of such buzzword overload myself. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this was intentional. But when you have a task in hand, everyone starts with potential solutions they are used to and have expertise in.

If you get down to the basics, every decision you take has options and outcomes of these options. Let’s for a minute forget the fact that there are calculations (both hypothetical and real) using data points that affect these options. So in a simple world, you need a framework to identify what the potential options are and score these options based on perceived outcomes. Once you determine the scores, it is easier to decide what option to go for. What technology you build this framework is immaterial, spreadsheets, bespoke IT application, piece of paper or a collaborative decision modeller (disclaimer – DataQuarks is building one on the cloud, so definitely I am biased as to what the best framework is, but opinions differ).

Build a workflow around this framework

Having a framework and building models alone won’t take you down the data driven culture. How many times have we seen spreadsheets languishing in shared network folders or circulated using email chains without anyone even opening them? Get the people involved to talk to each other on the data, models, outcomes, business rules, dashboards, charts. Enable a notification mechanism to alerts stakeholders when new data is being added, new models are created, new outcomes have been calculated.

Can’t help at this point but to quote my all time favourite band, ‘Pink Floyd’ and the song ‘Keep Talking’. It starts with how imagination of the mankind was unleashed when we started talking. Applies in the corporate world too!

Unless your models are incorporated into the workflow of decision making process and get all the relevant stakeholders to sign-off the model, it is difficult to drive this cultural change. No sign-offs means no decisions right? Steering committees, PMO, board meetings, senior executives meeting whatever is your ultimate decision point, when the head honchos are on board with this decision making process, the middle management involved would eventually give up the resistance and embrace the process.

Business language only please

So you want the executives to decide only after modelling the outcomes and middle management to own the models. This is possible only if the models are communicated using business language. You are not going to get the Managing Director or a CFO to open a 10 MB Excel file, modify some variables to see the impact? Definitely you wouldn’t expect this to happen during a high level executive meeting with a definite time deadline and agenda in mind.

So one common approach is to build the models in spreadsheets, explain them using PowerPoint presentations and distribute using email chains. This will work, but is there a better way to achieve the same result with better efficiency. If they don’t understand the model, there is going to be delays in the approval process and eventually in making those decisions. Can we communicate with each other and incorporate workflow process and sign-off procedures in a simpler fashion.

What if the models themselves are built using natural business language. What if the executives can visualise the outcomes, view the definitions and communicate with analysts and other decision makers using the same platform? What if the workflow status is tracked in the platform itself?

Senior executives depend on their gut feeling to come up with strategic vision and decisions. With a little help from scenario modelling and collaboration, they can support their decisions with numbers that matter.


You may wonder, what does this picture have to do with the topic? Hey when I started thinking about Utopia, first thing that came to my mind is the beautiful English country side on a warm summer day. What better way to portray the concept of Utopia than a famous John Constable painting of Suffolk countryside.



Image credit – Willy Lott’s Cottage by Matthew Kirkland on Flickr