As an IT professional, I find that IT plays a major role in fostering a Data Culture within an organization. Information Technology is the backbone of nearly every organization, and the changes that IT promotes —whether they be infrastructure or technology strategy—impact every aspect of a company. IT not only runs on data, like from the applications that the organization uses, but touches the systems and processes that enable everyone to use data in all aspects across the company.
You might be wondering how IT can leverage and enable the change to a Data Culture within an organization. There are some key tenants that help foster this goal: trust in the data and a change in mindset around how people work with information and disseminate it to others.
Why might we need these elements in IT? The answer is a very simple one. Without trust, no one will believe in the data, which means they won’t use it. And without the right mindset, people won’t fundamentally change how they interact with data and they won’t have the confidence to innovate or challenge the status quo.
Establishing trust in data and people
First and foremost, as IT professionals, we need to foster and create a sense of trust—in individuals and the data itself. Trust is easily given and easily lost, so it is important to start your Data Culture journey with a small project to establish this trust.
Oftentimes this starts with a discovery and documentation process. Start questioning what you know about the data, find its sources, and understand how people are using it—what is being calculated from it and why—and determine if there are dependencies from other areas. Through this discovery, you can start to create some meaningful documentation. Don’t go overboard with your documentation. It’s perfectly fine to leave something at a higher level without going into the minutia of every detail.
Think of it this way—if someone was seeing the data for the first time, what details would they need to understand it? That is how you should approach your documentation, for both IT and end users. This might include some formulas or calculation, but if so, make sure to keep the information relevant and relatable. The last thing that anyone needs is documentation that needs its own training class to even understand. This will lay the groundwork for the governance and understanding that you’ll need to help everyone get value out of data—to be an enabler and not a barrier to the creation of governance practices around the data.
IT as the catalyst for a Data Culture mindset
Once you have successfully built the groundwork for trust in the data and its delivery, as IT professionals, you can start to be the catalysts for a cultural change in your organization. To start, us IT professionals can drive change by leading by example, setting up the structure and framework for wider data access and showcasing best practices and use cases.
Part of this is to contribute to a healthy mindset around data. We’ve all probably had the guilty pleasure of watching one of those shows about hoarders and how horrible that can be for a person’s wellbeing. It can be the same with information. Don’t limit or “hoard” data. By holding too tightly onto the reins of the data in a group or area, it creates silos and restricts other areas from gaining key insights.
You might be wondering, why do these silos emerge? In most cases, it is due to organic organizational growth, leading to new reporting and data needs. This can often lead to ad-hoc requests that are meant to serve one specific use case without a long-term vision. The initial intent and structure of the data might not be bad, but in most cases, this approach will not easily integrate with other areas, further leading to the “hoarding” of the data.
In an age where information is the lifeblood of organizations, that type of mindset has kept that information from being able to help drive key decisions and insights in a company. Instead, IT professionals can be early adopters of a Data Culture mindset, empowering non-technical users to access and drive value from data. But this also creates an added responsibility. IT needs to be careful and thoughtful in their data management and data dictionaries so that these non-technical users can easily understand how to use the data. Otherwise, they might see a correlation of unrelated data where it might not exist, leading to poor insights and ultimately, a decrease in trust in the data and your processes.
When a mindset change happens at the IT level, it can have a powerful impact on other teams and departments. When people trust the data and trust in IT to set up a system that supports self-service analytics, people feel supported and confident working with data, sometimes for the first time. This could lead to a decrease in gut-based decisions. An example could be something like, “Lots of people watch the Super Bowl, so let’s advertise there.” Instead, people might shift their first instinct towards the use of statistics, causing them to find insights like, “Fewer people are watching than in previous years so we should find another way to leverage marketing for our customers.”
The point being, when people feel empowered to use data, it can create an internal change, but also a positive shift in how your organization serves its customers. The more actionable data and information that can be provided to an organization, the more people can drive quality analyses and decisions.
How an increase in trust and a new mindset can affect infrastructure decisions
IT is responsible for providing necessary data to the business, but they should also be able to communicate details about the data to others in the organization, even non-technical people. When they have more context into how the business uses the data, IT can take existing datasets and provide the framework and structure needed to store and house that information.
For example, let’s say an organization is deciding if they want to migrate their data to the cloud. First, they would likely look at all their options, including investing in their existing infrastructure. They would look to the data available and use that information make the right decision to fit their needs.
Change is sometimes hard, and organizations often tend to gravitate towards the norm. However, if the data shows that the change would allow them to easily focus on scalability and the future needs of their people, they might see the cloud as the right option. The data might also show that they may not need the level of agility that cloud provides and instead update existing infrastructure. This example shows the importance of a people-focused mindset—to think about how IT can support data ubiquity in our day-to-day decisions and our larger infrastructure discussions.
IT has unique insight into data like no other department in an organization. We have insight into nearly every aspect of an organization due to who we are and what we do to enable the business. This allows us to put forward the mindsets needed to move into the future, whatever that may be for our organizations, while focusing on practices that instill trust in the data.
I’ll leave you with one last thought from a favorite quote of mine from physicist William Pollard: “Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit.”