Data is the new oil. Those that figure out how to use it more effectively than their competitors are realizing significant, strategic benefits. But what's so unique about data-first companies? Technology? People? Culture? It turns out, there's more than meets the eye.
Data usage is changing the competitive landscape. The businesses that know how to leverage it are changing the rules of the game, whether they are true disruptors or companies that have found a way to out think their competitors.
Even gradual changes, given their accelerated rate, can be confusing, let alone game-changing shifts. A common assumption among those falling behind is that technology will make all the difference, but there's more to the story. Companies have to change the way they think and operate.
The Natives Have an Advantage
Despite being categorized as something else -- ecommerce giants, entertainment subscription services, or ride-sharing services -- it's data that drives companies such as Amazon, Pandora, Netflix, and Uber. Because analytics has been baked into their DNA from Day One, it's a natural part of their technology stack and an integral part of their culture. Other organizations that historically have not considered analytics part of their core competency are having to change the way they think and operate as more of what they do becomes digitized and connected.
All companies have data, of course, but not all of them are using it with the same level of mastery. More organizations are using analytics, but for many of them it can be difficult to operationalize their data, particularly when "business as usual" is getting in the way.
Agility comes naturally to most data-first companies because they're primarily software companies. Their young engineers and founders "grew up with" agile software development practices, so the overriding theme is continuous improvement. From a business standpoint, that means executing on a vision while simultaneously anticipating change. From a product standpoint, they're constantly experimenting, learning, and refining, often in production, using their vast user bases as live labs for A/B experimentation.
Technology and business models are changing so rapidly that any company clinging to its past will find itself outdone by a more forward-looking competitor. To weather the storm, companies need to become more nimble than they have been. If they want to understand the winds of change, they need to be better informed by data.
One sign of data-driven maturity is a company's culture, specifically, how data is expected to be used. It's one thing to put BI systems or analytics in place, and another to make data an integral part of how the company conducts business. Becoming data-driven necessitates change, from the C-suite to the front lines, which is easier said than done.
Data-first companies realize that everyone must be aligned if they are going to meet their strategic goals, not just the people in the C-suite. The company's goals are reflected in individual compensation, and there often are other incentives that further inspire employees to do something that makes a positive difference to the business. At Lyft, for example, outstanding employees are recognized at a bi-weekly meeting and given a personalized reward for an individual achievement.
Importantly, ideas can come from anywhere, whether it's a public competition such as the Netflix prize or someone -- anyone -- working for the company. In Spotify's case, an intern figured out a way to use deep learning to understand the acoustics of a song so the service can better anticipate which new artists would likely interest individual listeners..
They Listen to Data
Asking questions of data is one thing. Organizations have been doing that for the last couple of decades. Data-first companies listen to what the data is saying, and they're using machine learning, not only to improve a core competency, but to uncover business opportunities. For instance, PayPal isn't just offering an alternative payment method. It's now https://www.paypal.com/stories/us operating in the promotions space, pushing relevant offers from merchants to consumers.
Quite often, a competitive edge comes not from what is known, but what was previously unknown – patterns that machine learning has uncovered.
How Does Your Company Stack Up?
Becoming data-driven is a journey, not a destination. How has your company evolved? How is it evolving? We'd love to hear about your experiences and observations in the comments section below.
Lisa Morgan is a freelance writer who covers big data and BI for InformationWeek. She has contributed articles, reports, and other types of content to various publications and sites ranging from SD Times to the Economist Intelligent Unit. Frequent areas of coverage include ... View Full Bio
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