Staying afloat in a sea of data

Paul Alexander, co-founder and CEO, Beyond Analysis

Knowledge, so we’re told, is power. Therefore, as that prevailing wisdom suggests, the more knowledge a business possesses, the better its prospects are. I have no desire to sound contrary for the sake of it, but feel that I must sound something of a contradictory tone.

Reflecting on recent conversations with peers, partners and clients in a range of different industries, I think that it is indeed possible to have too much material. Having amassed vast data riches, they have come to acknowledge that possessing and understanding it can be two entirely different things.

Some have only realised this after considering all the effort and expense of trying to ready themselves for the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May next year. Much publicity about its impact has focused on the need to have as much statistical material as possible. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Regulation is explicit in only allowing companies to retain information which is “adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary”.

However, too much is not just a potential problem from a regulatory point of view. I believe that, in addition to observing due process, it’s imperative that firms are able to establish a data strategy which is clear to individuals at all levels of a business.

Quite often, data acquires a sense of mystery: executives appreciate that it has some value, but don’t know how to extract it themselves and so delegate it to junior, usually more technical personnel because they’re thought more likely to figure out what to do with it. Then, there are those individuals who reckon that controlling data is the secret to building their own power base and so jealously repel others’ attempts to access it.

It’s behaviour which can lead to compartmentalisation and conflict, as well as a series of managers all of whom hold to their own version of what they believe the “truth” of commercial success to be. The opposite is, in fact, true. Companies which maintain a principle of shared ownership of a single truth - developed by colleagues skilled enough to be able to distinguish the most critical elements - are more able to prosper.

Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, has gone on record as placing great value on how firms visualise and communicate data. While it’s vital firms have specialists who can reduce data down to the insights which really matter, those then need to be provided to directors and CEOs with the kind of clarity that enables them to make decisions better.

It’s equally important that such knowledge isn’t retained at the top of an organisation, but is shared with staff on the frontline to take almost instant actions immediately to address and improve local performance. Speed, as well as simplicity, is of the essence of successfully utilising data.

I was reminded of that while dealing with one client which we asked for the most recent tranche of data stretching back several months. It was presented to us on a trolley in dozens of boxes, each containing hundreds of pages of spreadsheets. This was actually a company keen both to abide by data regulations and to realise what potential existed in a picture of the “here and now”, not a statistical snapshot of recent history.

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