Senior executives who have been making hollow promises about embracing data-driven strategies need to be convinced that now is the time for real action. Here are some ways that data professionals can gain the support they need.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

February 16, 2018

5 Min Read

Data professionals in business units and IT have known for years, really decades, how important data is to the success of the business. But for as long as they have known the importance and value of data, they have also tried to convey this to executives to no avail.

Platitude statements such as “Data is an asset” or “We are becoming a data-driven company” have been executive lip service with little to no investment in the data programs themselves. Now the tide has turned and executives from all industries are not only starting to pay attention to the importance of data, they are actively seeking to change and grow the business with data.

I often say you should do one of three things to garner executive attention – make them money, save them money, or keep them out of jail (or the headlines). While it may sound over-simplified, when we look at the top reasons executives are suddenly heeding the importance and value of data, these three drivers underpin them all.

So what finally got their attention?

Security/privacy wake up calls. Often expressed in a conversation that starts with “We don’t want to be the next [fill in the blank with the most recent company in the headlines for a security breach]”, executives share the fear that their name and company could be smeared across the headlines at any point for a personal data mishap. And, it’s not just security breaches that have them worried. A data mishap can be anything from internal misuse to embarrassing data quality errors that shamefully put the company in an unwanted spotlight.

While they may altruistically say that they want to take every effort to protect their customer’s information (and it is likely true), what executives are really concerned about is their personal and brand reputations. Perhaps before you share your next budget proposal or roadmap in the board room, you should consider starting with, “Do you want to be the next inserted from the most recent headline news?” You will have their undivided attention.

Transformation. It's one of the many hot corporate buzzwords on the street these days. There are several variations we hear executives touting – digital transformation, going digital, modernization, or even couched in terms of classic business transformation rhetoric. They all represent the same sentiment: “We need to do something different with our business. We may not know what it is, but our competitors are doing it so we should too.”

While some leaders will have more of a digital vision than others, they all know that data will be the foundation for their strategy moving forward. What they likely don’t know is how. Identify what transformation means to your CEO or executive team and then help them understand how data will enable it. If you want to use another trendy buzzword with them, introduce digital disruption. Edgy leaders like nothing more than to be disruptive. Exploit it.

Customer experience and expectations. Executives know the business must provide multiple channels to engage customers and meet their varied, ever-changing expectations. Consumers are hyper-aware of and sensitive to how companies use data. Non-transparency of data use, especially in digital channels, introduces the creepy factor and the imminent demise of your customer relationships. As customer experience is noted in almost every analyst’s 2018 top ten list of executive priorities, it is certainly not something to jeopardize.

The four most important factors for consumers when it comes to data use and the customer experience are value, effort, trust and control. They want to recognize value relative to their specific needs in a trusted environment that is easy to navigate and interact where they have the ultimate control over how their data is used. Executives are on board to give consumers what they want, so let them know you can make it happen.

Ethical and social responsibility. Related to wanting to stay out of the headlines and meet customer expectations, executives want to ensure their businesses remain in good standing with consumer perceptions. Companies gain bonus points in the consumer world for initiatives that promote social or environmental wellbeing. Don’t mistake these bonus points as insurance or insulation from damage of data mishaps, but when done right, using data to facilitate good corporate citizenship will help your company stand out when the competitive market is strong. #DataForGood

Innovation. The art of the possible. It is what gets the executive’s juices flowing. My boss sometimes refers to this as “Airline Magazine Syndrome.” Executives get it when they have read a great article on the last leg of their flight home. They get so excited about what can be done with data that they show up in your office with the idea and expectation that it can all be done tomorrow. Don’t stifle their excitement, capitalize on it. They don’t know what they don’t know about data. (Bless their hearts.) But, there is something to the value of the magazine article. It isn’t a roadmap or an architecture diagram. It is a story to which they can relate. They understood it. They connected with it. And they got excited about it. When it comes to innovation that’s exactly what you need to do. Don’t focus on the data part (yet). Engage them in the story, the possibilities and the excitement. Let them sense the impact. Then ease them to understanding that data makes it happen. Everyone listens to a good story. We should. We’ve been doing it since childhood.

So, while it is tempting to mutter under your breath (or maybe even say in your outside voice) that you have been spouting the importance of data for years (and by years, we mean YEARS!), don’t do it. Instead, take full advantage of this new found revelation and get what you have wanted for so long. Nod and smile, and tell them how right they are. Now, go dust off all of those great ideas you’ve had and fast track them to success. It’s finally time. Nobody puts baby data in a corner. Go get ‘em!


Anne Buff is a Business Solutions Manager and Thought Leader for SAS Best Practices, a thought leadership organization at SAS institute. As a speaker and author she specializes in the topics of analytic strategy and culture, governance, change management, and fostering data driven organizations.


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