How to nurture a healthy Data Culture in 3 steps

Truly modern enterprises cultivate what’s increasingly being described as data culture. This begins with internal communities and user groups connected by common goals, practices, and social ties. Here's how to nurture these communities in your organization.

This article was first published in partnership with Forbes BrandVoice.

Every company is a data company. But truly modern enterprises also cultivate what’s increasingly being described as a data culture.

Why? Because data doesn’t drive success on its own—only when people mobilize around data, putting facts at the center of every conversation, does data unlock collaboration, lead to strategic insights and enhance decision-making.

99% of corporate executives at large firms surveyed in 2018 said their firms are attempting to establish a data culture, but only one-third said their firms have succeeded.

Asked to define data culture, Ashley Howard Neville, senior technical evangelist for the business intelligence company Tableau, puts it simply: “A data culture is a group of people who value, practice and encourage using data to make decisions. They use data because they want to—not because they have to.”

That begins with what Howard Neville calls “internal data communities,” user groups connected by common goals, practices and social ties. “Community is the thing that accelerates an organization’s transformation in achieving a data culture,” Howard Neville says.

As a business leader, how can you begin that journey?

Here are 3 actionable ways to begin cultivating internal data communities at any organization.

1. Provide a time and space

Deploying the appropriate enterprise software is only the beginning of creating a data community. “Having the physical space is so important,” Howard Neville says, explaining that employees need places and scheduled times to meet, congregate, pore over data-related projects together and learn new skills. “I think that’s often overlooked in an organization.”

That can mean carving out a monthly meeting where employees get together to solve problems using data or creating an online data forum.

Howard Neville often visits customer organizations to understand the different ways that organizations create community. The most successful data cultures focus on sharing as a core element. “The Tableau community within organizations becomes very active,” Howard Neville says. “They are passionate and energetic. They’re not just focused on their own success. They really believe that if they can enable others in their organization to use data, then they can actually create a better organization.”

“It’s not simply enough to invest in infrastructure,” she adds. “You have to be investing in the people who utilize that infrastructure and the processes to support it.”

2. Develop community leaders

According to Howard Neville, there are three key roles in every data community: executives who set a standard for the organization, individuals who employ data to make decisions and experts, like a head of analytics, who help oversee technologies, innovate and foster best practices.

To grow and preserve community, it helps to identify and encourage community leaders, who might be data experts or just power-users, perhaps self-taught, who have made innovative use of data. Tableau calls these leaders “community champions,” but they might also be known by other names denoting their special status. These people are “helping their fellow employees see what the possibilities of data might be,” Howard Neville says. “They serve as leaders within their community. They’re often people who started out in an analyst role themselves.”

Champions can also help their companies by empowering non-technical employees with data, even if they aren’t considered traditional data-savvy analysts. Howard Neville cites the example of one Tableau customer, a bank and stock brokerage firm, that equipped client-facing employees with data and analytics tools. “They realized that the people who at the end of the day had the ability to make the most impact were the people interacting with customers,” Howard Neville says. “They used Tableau to better get data into the hands of these financial advisors.”

Advisors could then use that data to nurture relationships with customers, tailoring solutions to them. “It helped them better develop trust with the people whose accounts they were managing,” Howard Neville says. By arming advisors with useful financial data, the firm demonstrated “a belief that even frontline employees can really take advantage of the data that they have.”

3. Make data fun and relatable

Many Tableau customers engage their communities by hosting dynamic data-centric activities and games. Tableau calls these planned events user group meetings, and they serve as an opportunity to foster enthusiasm for data-based discussions among employees. “They’re really promoting collaborating and sharing of best practices between teams and individuals,” Howard Neville says.

Activities can range from lunch-and-learns to hackathons—consisting of what Tableau calls “viz games”—in which teams compete to achieve a goal, like creating the most-useful dashboard or solving a data-cleaning problem. Tableau Blueprint, the company’s guide to creating a data culture, provides examples and supporting materials for numerous activities organizations can make use of themselves.

With some clients, the benefits of these games go beyond just engagement. Sometimes they yield genuine strategy-shaping insights. One Tableau customer, a greeting card company, said its internal user groups created a “constant drumbeat” of analytics. One of its data engineers reported that these groups became a “crucial way to drive new ways of looking at data” to achieve maximum impact.

Another Tableau customer, a large airline, sparked engagement by holding visualization contests that encouraged employees to use any data set that interested them, ranging from sports statistics to reality dating shows. “By lowering the stakes with fun data sets, people can set aside their fear and engage with curiosity,” Howard Neville says. This company has since grown adoption of analytics tools across its organization. As individuals’ confidence with data grew, teams started to see transformative impact in areas like maintenance, engineering and customer satisfaction.

"Fun is important—and it doesn’t have to take away from meaningful work,” says Howard Neville. “You can have a good time in addition to doing work. The thing that brings people together is that sense of common purpose."

And that's what leads to an essential change in mindset. "At the end of the day, you can do all you want to invest in a technology and deploy a technology, but if you're not changing how people approach the technology," Howard Neville says, "they're not going to be successful. You actually have to shape and mold the organization to do things differently, to value different things than they did before."

A healthy data culture does just that.