Data-Driven Leadership: Is there any other choice?

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(The following article includes Kirk’s Foreword to the 2016 book “Data-driven Leaders Always Win” by Jay Zaidi.)

In the beginning was data. How do we know this? Because many (if not all) creation stories from all cultures were essentially developed as an explanation of the world as observed by humans. Whether it was the great flood, or mysterious eclipses of the Sun, or seasonal changes, or the diversity of life forms, or the existence of diverse substances (earth, fire, wind, and water), or any number of other observed facts, in all of these cases, human societies used stories to explain the evidence that was presented before them. Though the early interpretations of the evidence (i.e., the data) were not exactly scientific, the process was scientific – based on data, substantiated by data, and driven by data. Thus, it is a very natural and innate characteristic of humans to be data-driven!

I am not sure who first said “Knowledge is Power”, but the phrase has been found in Latin text attributed to the 17th century founder of the modern scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon. There is also some evidence of that phrase in Arabic a full millennium earlier, from the 7th century. It is interesting that Bacon (Sir “Scientific Method” himself) is connected to this very important understanding, that knowledge (as derived from data, evidence, and information in conjunction with hypothesis-driven questioning and validation) carries such enormous weight in human affairs. Whether one is fighting the war against cancer, or the battle to stop infectious diseases, or the cybersecurity war, or the battle to win the hearts of your customers, or pricing wars within competitive marketplaces, or engaged in other battles, the winners will most certainly be those who are the most data-driven and have the most knowledge of their domain – those who truly appreciate that knowledge is power.

The era of big data has changed the business and organization landscape radically. We are now on the verge of quantifying and tracking just about everything in our domains – including mobile, social, web, and other digital signals, plus ubiquitous sensors in the Internet of Things (IOT). The technologies that enable and empower this transformation are often referred to as SMAC: Social, Mobile, Analytics, and Cloud. All of these technological areas have contributed to and have benefited from data, data, data! In “social”, the application of sentiment analysis on social media data is commonplace in many industries. In “mobile”, the whole experience is associated with, driven by, and a producer of data! In “analytics”, well, you know… it is all about the data – remember that the two most important things in data science are the data and the science (reference: Sir Francis Bacon). And finally, “cloud” computing was developed as a means to share resources (computing and data) easily and on-demand, from anywhere. SMAC technologies are data-driven!

The phrase “360 view” is common jargon in the data analytics conversations of many organizations. Instead of relying on stale, sparse samples and limited demographic attributes, we are now able to explore and exploit fast, wide, and deep data collections about the objects that we care most about. These data can (and will be) augmented by great sources of contextual information (from the IOT) that will truly drive a cognitive analytics revolution in coming years. Our digital sensors (including web logs, social media, mobile interactions, measurement devices, and more) will capture data faster, across a broader set of dimensions, for comprehensively deep samples of the objects in our areas of focus. Consequently, to be a modern digital business is to be data-driven. To be otherwise is to be left behind.

Data drives results for at least three major functional requirements in any domain (whether it is business, or science, or government, or education, or whatever): discovery, decision-making, and value-creation (i.e., innovation). The best ROI metric (if you can quantify it) would be Return On Innovation through data-driven processes, people, and products.

Data collections are now recognized as a core business asset, a new natural resource, a driver of business change and innovation, a source of increased and/or new revenue streams, a creative force for new products and new markets, and a job opportunity bonanza for those with essential data skills.

One might say that data is the new oil, and there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the data analytics rainbow within your organization. If you play along with these metaphors for just a moment, you might notice that the way to the golden pinnacle of success is a slippery (oily) slope that is fraught with numerous technological, cultural, and human resource challenges. This shouldn’t scare us away from being data-driven. On the contrary, we should embrace this process of discovery and improvement. Someone once said: “Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.” So, data-driven leadership accepts this process of informed growth and iterative quality improvement.

To address the challenges and rewards that are now facing data-driven leaders, Jay Zaidi has written a timely book that is based upon his many years of data management, governance, and analytics experience. Jay presented some of his knowledge on this topic in his talk on “Bridging the Data Governance Chasm” at a recent MapR Big Data Everywhere event in Tysons Virginia. His book is not another hype-driven cheerleading treatment of the subject, but it is a practical, evidence-based, and experience-backed look at both the power and the pitfalls of the modern data-driven leader. The key theme is expressed in the book’s title “Data-driven Leaders Always Win” – which emphasizes that the way to win the battles that your organization is facing is through the power of data (and knowledge).

To be Data-Driven is first and foremost the drive to be objective and evidence-based in your organizational decisions. Those decisions involve products (manufacturing, supply chain, placement, pricing, and social/mobile/web content), processes (monitoring, detection, discovery, prediction, and optimization), and people (employees, customers, stakeholders, and new engagement opportunities). Jay Zaidi’s book examines the complexity of this organizational ecosystem in the context of how data informs better outcomes, drives change, and creates new value.

One of the most practical and immediate steps to data-driven success is to recognize the importance and necessity of a new officer in the corporate executive suite. That data-driven officer may have different titles (and roles) in different organizations, but their importance is real: the CDO (Chief Data Officer), the CDS (Chief Data Scientist), or the CAO (Chief Analytics Officer). In some cases, for more market-focused organizations, the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) may be the data-driven leader of digital business transformation. Jay Zaidi’s book looks at these roles and reviews the parameters of their duties, the politics that may arise, the perils of the position, and its power to bring winning solutions based upon evidence, facts, and data.

Data-driven discovery, decision-making, and innovation – that is what humans are good at. Shouldn’t your leaders be good at that also?

To help your organization grow in data-driven leadership, MapR offers a rich ecosystem of data analytics products and services. Check out the top 10 reasons why others choose MapR. Bring all of your data and analytics resources into one data-driven decisioning framework with the MapR Data Platform. If training is what your organization needs, then MapR has a great collection of free comprehensive online training courses for data engineers, data scientists, analytics staff, IoT developers, and more.

This blog post was published June 14, 2016.

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