Putting Analytics and Data into Action: Organic Growth Doesn’t Occur Naturally

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Click here to learn more about author Kimberly Nevala.

I’ve recently moderated a number of executive panels on the rewards and realities of putting analytics and data into action. Across the board, the importance of nurturing “organic growth” was emphasized. Along with an equally important but oft overlooked caveat: organic growth doesn’t happen naturally.

Sure, you can sow seeds willy-nilly, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Despite all indications to the contrary, some seeds will spontaneously sprout and thrive. They are unlikely, however, to transcend whatever patch of land in which tenaciously grew. Not unlike those brave patches of wildflowers seen hanging on in patches alongside the highway. Worst case, the wrong seeds may sprout: those aggressive, nasty weeds that crowd out the light and ground for all other comers. You know the ones…

Producing a verdant organic crop that is palatable, clean and profitable is a mindful endeavor. In the same vein, an environment that supports the organic growth and adoption of data-driven practices must be carefully nurtured. Cultivation is required.

Assessing the Environment

Walk the aisles of a reputable plant nursery and you’ll notice tags denoting climate zones. Along with specifications for the amount of light and water each plant will tolerate. Gardener beware: you can plant outside the zones and environment specified but special care and feeding will be required. Even then, success may be limited by intrinsic environment factors. Ultimately resulting in a limited growing season, less flavorful produce or smaller blooms.

Nurturing organic growth – in the case of plants or people – starts with a clear understanding of both the incumbent environment and desired end state. In the case of analytics that includes clarity regarding the organization’s readiness and willingness to adopt new practices. Thereby understanding which areas are primed for production and which require additional prep.

Prepping the Ground

This doesn’t mean giving up if your organization is immature. Or has adopted suboptimal behaviors with regard to data. Consider a field previously treated with chemical pesticides. Before being certified organic, it must be recharged: either by letting the soil sit fallow until unwanted components filter out naturally or by actively replacing the soil. In some cases, new ground may need to be found altogether.

Likewise, support requirements for organic growth can vary wildly depending on each user group’s incumbent skills and maturity. Some may understand the vision but require a partner who can develop the desired analytic goods on their behalf. Others may be more self-sufficient: looking to the core team to provide access to appropriate tools and data – nothing more and nothing else. In either case, while the level of support initially required varies, “organic” growth is possible given there is a leader who understands the vision and is willing and able to engage in the process.

Fertilizing the Soil

Yes, organic cultivation eschews synthetic, chemical pesticides. But fertilizer is required nonetheless. The best fertilizer is compost: created from a stew of different organic components that together create a steaming pile of goodness. Organic analytics growth also works best when those with various skill sets, perspectives and levels of maturity are purposely mixed together. In fact, evolving discussions about the proverbial data science unicorn acknowledge the best data scientist is a team.

Not ready for full-scale data science? Encouraging open communication between different user communities – particularly those that cross traditional business process boundaries – is the most effective method to incent collaboration and inspire change without mandating it. Regardless of your organizations current maturity level. The critical success factor? Creating space and time for like-minded individuals to come together. Then letting them mingle without over-engineering or preemptively prescribing outcomes for the group.

An important point: just like composting, the process isn’t always pretty – especially in the early stages – but properly managed will produce fertile soil for growth.

Generating Demand

The prior point assumes that you have identified a potential market for your produce. All to the good to produce the best produce. The effort is for naught if consumers are not aware a good is available or educated on its use. I have often been enticed by shiny fruits and vegetables only to later contribute them, moldering, to the compost pile for lack of understanding (or waning interest) in how to best prepare them.

Cultivating BI and analytics requires a dedicated, deliberate approach to educating potential information producers and consumers on the art of the possible. Followed by deployment of a step-wise program that meets the potential consumer where they are at. Progressively introducing more advanced techniques and capabilities as individual skills and confidence grow and stoke the organization’s appetite for more exotic [e.g. advanced] analytics. This is not a once-and-done endeavor: engagement and enablement is an ongoing task if initial growth is to be sustained.

Sustaining Growth

To that end, cultivating the right environment and planting seeds is a means to the end, not the end itself. As the plant grows so do requirements for ongoing care and feeding. Once mature, produce is picked, shipped to the consumer and the cycle begins again. Often with a new crop rotated in to ensure the soil is replenished while still bearing fruit.

In addition, as the acreage being planted increases more efficient and structured methods are required to ensure consistency and quality between fields. Inclusive of more sustainable and scalable methods to deliver the goods – in our case, targeted information or access to appropriate tools and data environments – to an ever increasing, diverse and distributed user base.

Governing Proliferation

Last but not least, as information producers proliferate and consumers become more aware and self-enabled guidelines to ensure fair play are required. Just as organic produce is differentiated from all-natural or traditionally cultivated goods, data producers and consumers alike must be cognizant of and accountable for data creation, sharing and appropriate use. This is not to say all use is created equal. Edible vegetation is subject to categories which differ from decorative foliage.

In the same vein, information governance must be multi-dimensional, accounting for various usage scenarios. To stretch the organic metaphor to a final limit: consumers have a choice of data goods – their ability to select the appropriate data good depends on transparency into the quality of the good and clarity about their usage requirements. Perfect data is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Long article short? Organic growth is hard work. If properly cultivated, organic engagement (rather than the “if we build it, they will come” or “though shalt comply” approach) is the most effective method to create and sustain value-added analytics endeavors. Just don’t expect it to be easy. Or to happen naturally without the guidance of a savvy farmer.

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