The Data Provocateur: Providing Data-Driven Success to the Enterprise

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cr_dp_062216“Most data is bad in most companies,” said Thomas Redman, “the Data Doc,” of Data Quality Solutions in a recent DATAVERSITY® interview. Enterprises are buried in data, whether it’s legacy data floating around in old data warehouses or a seemingly incalculable range of newer Big Data assets sitting in any number of NoSQL database platforms, waiting to be consistently organized and analyzed. Companies are lost in data and therefore companies lack Data Quality. Or, to turn that around, it’s the lack of Data Quality that is causing companies to be lost. According to Dr. Redman, “Everything in the data space runs through Data Quality,” and therefore everything in the business space begins and ends with Data Quality – without trustworthy data a modern enterprise lacks the ability to reliably compete in the marketplace; no matter the market, no matter the industry, no matter the company or its size. Such problems often stem from a lack of consistent and organized focus on Data Quality, and that is where the Data Provocateur comes in.

“It might be sexier to be working on Big Data or data-driven cultures or something like that, but you just can’t do anything in the data space unless people trust the data,” said Dr. Redman. “You can’t expect people to make data-driven decisions unless they trust the data. You can’t expect anybody to trust a Big Data analysis unless they trust the data.”

Trust is a central feature of high quality data. Without it, decision making processes lack clarity, reports are misleading at best, and every unit from marketing to HR to IT to the C-level suite  does not have the ability to responsibly perform their duties – they cannot trust the data assets under their control. “The problem is that most companies don’t really think about Data Quality very much, though they spend an enormous amount of time and money on it,” said Dr. Redman. A problem with the data occurs (or is discovered), and what should have been a routine fix can end up taking days, weeks, and even longer. “That’s where most of our Data Quality dollars are being spent: in these hidden ways, where people are doing work day in and day out, and continue to run into enormous problems.” Such problems often stem from a lack of consistent and organized focus on Data Quality, and that is where the Data Provocateur comes in.

Pulling on a Thread

The Data Provocateur is someone who says, “Enough of this, enough of this. It’s time that we can trust the data coming in here every day, and it’s time for the next person in line to be able to trust the data I provide them.” According to Dr. Redman, the Data Provocateur has now become a central piece of the entire Data Management puzzle. They are not whiners, rabble rousers, blamers, rebels, or agitators. They are “terrific corporate citizens” who say “Maybe we ought to do something different, maybe there is a better way” to go about dealing with the data problems within their department.

In the more than two decades that Dr. Redman has been working within the data space, he has met many of these people and heard their stories, and it is through his experience that such a revelation has now emerged with more clarity.

“Over the years,” he commented, “I’ve made lists of people who were successful at their jobs in making the data better and using the data better in their companies. What was really interesting is that their stories are remarkably similar.”

The Data Provocateur is not someone who stands up and proclaims themselves the savior of the company, they are merely agents of change who have seen a problem, pulled on that proverbial thread, worked within the existing systems and structures, and in the end brought about significant change within the data of their companies. “It’s not about charging up a hill against guns blazing,” said Dr. Redman. “It’s about being really smart and doing this in a proactive way and creating some results for your company that they wouldn’t have before.”

A Movement, Not a Title

Since the original release of the idea of the Data Provocateur, the feedback has been remarkable. “The name ‘provocateur’ really appealed to a lot of people,” he said. There have been many people who are now saying they will put Data Provocateur on their business cards, on their desks, in their email signatures, and overall such excitement is wonderful. “I’m glad that people are attracted to the idea,” he said. “But in the end it’s not the title that matters, it’s doing the work and creating the results.” The Data Provocateur doesn’t set out to blow up the management system, remarked Dr. Redman. Such people are not seeking glory, but instead are just trying to make their jobs work better for everyone — not in a selfish manner, but because they love data and they want the data to be better. It’s the change in momentum, the data movement that matters, not the title.

During the interview Dr. Redman placed the rise of the Data Provocateur within the current Data Revolution. He discussed how the Industrial Revolution shifted the primary engine of growth from agricultural output to industrial output. “It didn’t mean that agriculture got smaller,” he said. A similar change is going on today with the Data Revolution:

“It’s absolutely clear that in our economy as a whole, and in most companies, the primary source of growth is no longer manufacturing. It is factors around data. It’s, ‘How are we going to use data better? How are we going to get better information on products? What discoveries are we going to come up with through Advanced Analytics?’”

Everyone now depends on data and Data Management with all its numerous sub-categories and associated practices. No matter whether it’s Data Governance, EIM, Machine Learning, Data Analytics, Data Science, Smart Data, Big Data, Data Modeling, or so many others, data is the driving force of the modern economy – and thus the modern enterprise.

The point of the Data Provocateur is the momentum they affect. “We think of an organization as having a momentum—they are going in a specific direction at a specific speed.  Provocateurs change that direction, and they increase the velocity.” In Data Quality this means changing the focus from finding and fixing errors to preventing them. Such provocateurs are not only in the Data Quality space, though certainly that is where they are badly needed. They could also exist within the Data Analytics space, within the Data Governance space, within any data space that needs help – and likely every data space within most organizations needs help.

Such agents of change don’t need titles; they already have titles within their given companies. They exist at all levels. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Redman discussed such levels and the fact that everyone is a potential Data Provocateur:

“Data managers and scientists of all sorts (not just Data Scientists) are obvious candidates, as are people who work in finance, planning, logistics, customer service, and the back office of most companies. I also urge less-obvious candidates to see themselves as provocateurs, such as senior managers who are simply trying to run their departments in the face of reports they don’t trust.”

The Data Provocateur is unsatisfied with the status quo and works diligently within the management system to change that status quo. In numerous instances from Dr. Redman’s research, they also end up causing significant changes with the way data is managed across the entire landscape of their enterprises.

Real Results are Key

In the end, just saying a change is needed is not enough. Shaking the boat, causing waves, rabble rousing, and other associated synonyms may be helpful – certainly many companies need such movements. “There is going to be resistance to such change, no matter how big or how small,” said Dr. Redman. “But everybody who is on my list of provocateurs actually made something significantly better that produced a business benefit. They drove a result.” He discussed the nature of fear within many organizations and how fear is often the part of the equation that stops any significant momentum change. People are afraid to step outside of their comfort zones due to reasons ranging from corporate inertia to losing their jobs to not getting an important promotion to getting a reputation as a troublemaker, and so many more. Yet, it is precisely that fear that does not stop the Data Provocateur. “They are just a bit different,” he said. “They don’t perceive fear in the same way.” Real Data Provocateurs step through that fear, face the resistance, and push forward with their ideas because they believe that such changes are necessary.

“They work within the system, and when you do that there is less reason to be fearful. But, they have an idea, an important idea. So they decide they want to try do X, and while they start doing X they keep their bosses informed of what they are doing and why it’s important. They know they could fail, but if they do fail they want to make sure that they are completely transparent. They aren’t hiding anything, because they don’t need to. They know what they are doing is needed and so they move forward.”

Many Data Provocateurs have been with their companies for a number of years, upwards of ten to fifteen. So in most instances they have experience, they understand the culture, they are known quantities within the system. The Data Provocateur is proactive with the responsibility to solve a problem. They see a problem, they investigate it, they run the numbers, show the advantages, communicate the need, and press forward. In the end, they attain results. Real results.  “A result is something that has to be definitively better,” said Dr. Redman. They ask the difficult questions and in the end provide the answers that allow for data-driven success at all levels of an enterprise.



TCR-Headshot-2016Tom Redman, the “Data Doc,” helps companies, including many of the Fortune 100, improve data quality.  Those that follow his innovative approaches enjoy the many benefits of far-better data, including far lower cost.  His recent article, “Data’s Credibility Problem,” (Harvard Business Review, December 2013) showcases what’s possible.  Tom’s Data Driven, (Harvard Business Press, 2008) is the guiding light for companies seeking to build their futures in data.  Tom started his career at Bell Labs, where he led the Data Quality Lab.  He has a Ph.D. is in Statistics and two patents.

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