How to Get Your Board Members to Love Big Data

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Click to learn more about author Oksana Sokolovsky and Rohit Mahajan.

As folks in the technology business, we tend to see the best possibilities for emerging technologies; we can easily visualize how the latest and greatest can be used to make us more productive and profitable.  Even when we’re hesitant to be the first to implement, we’re thinking along the lines of, “how can this stuff make us better?”

Not everyone, however, thinks that way…and getting them to change their minds, even incrementally, can be a huge challenge.  Alessandro Merendino is a researcher at Coventry University in England.  Alessandro and his colleagues (Sally Dibb, Maureen Meadows, Lee Quinn, David Wilson, Lyndon Simkin, Ana Cahnoto) recently issued the results of a number of interviews with C-level executives and decision makers at some of the United Kingdom’s largest firms.  To his surprise, Merendino and his colleagues found that many board members at those firms were hesitant, even wary, of Big Data and its promise.

Dr. Merendino was recently the guest at an online webinar, where he discussed the findings of their research.  He and his colleagues discovered that many top-level executives were afraid that in a Big Data environment, they were getting too much information too quickly, which was liable to change the results of their analysis on a moment’s notice.  And that, they told him, was simply not the way they had learned to do business for years.

“Our results show a potential negative impact on capabilities with particular consequences for individual directors, where an excess of data causes a ‘cognitive overload’ for the board,” he wrote.  “Such ‘cognitive overload’ can lead to ‘information overload’, with the result that an excessive level of information does not necessary yield improved competitive advantage because decision-makers are unable to process significant amounts of the data.”

One respondent noted that Big Data had disrupted the company’s traditional decision-making process, which caused some anxiety:

“We frequently come across situations where there are big variances in data; because measuring stuff is complicated; it’s really tough sometimes. Even in the simplest scenario often things go a little bit wrong and you could be making poor decisions.”

Obviously, Dr. Merendino is not suggesting that companies disregard Big Data and its potential.  But he says there are clear-cut steps firms should take when they decide to move in that direction, to minimize any confusion or uncertainty, and maximize the chances for success.  Among them:

1. Start with the corporate strategy:  Companies, he says, should regard Big Data initiatives as a way to accomplish its larger goals.  The technology, in and of itself, is little more than a tactical approach on what to do with the data under a firm’s control.

2. Prompt Discussions in the boardroom:  Consistent buy-in from top executives must happen, and that buy-in must be made clear across the company.  Too often, as with any major initiative, inertia among staffers can lead to a project’s failure.  Making it clear that Big Data is a strategic element in the company’s future is something that should be discussed and regularly communicated.

3. Think which data may be useful to get; smart data discovery:  All kinds of data exists throughout the organization; finding it, determining where it resides, and who has access to it must be accomplished, especially with the increased focus brought by regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).  Trying to achieve data discovery manually is simply no longer a viable option, certainly not with data that seemingly expands exponentially by the day.  Smart data discovery powered by augmented (or artificial) intelligence is increasingly a “must-have,” as a way for companies to determine the data they know about, as well as the so-called “dark data,” or data they don’t even know they have stored away.

4. Start to transform and improve your business:  Nothing succeeds like success, of course.  Showing reticent board members and others that Big Data projects have produced tangible results is the clearest way to get them to take the next step and expand the scope.

Dr. Merendino says that by doing this and more, companies can move from regarding Big Data as a strategic resource, paying definite benefits, rather than a potential obstacle.  And by keeping your top executives and board members clearly informed into what’s happening and why, they’ll be able to see how Big Data…”this stuff”…can make them better informed leaders, capable of making the decisions that will get them and keep them ahead of their competition.

(By the way, if you’re interested in reading the entire paper, it’s available in the Journal of Business Research at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0148296318304132.)

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