To Get the Most from Data Analytics, Reward Intellectual Curiosity Across Your Company
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Data Analytics Operations Sep 1, 2017

To Get the Most from Data Ana­lyt­ics, Reward Intel­lec­tu­al Curios­i­ty Across Your Company

Don’t rel­e­gate big data to sales and mar­ket­ing. Let it per­me­ate the culture.

Data analytics are used to design an office.

Morgan Ramberg

Based on insights from

Thomas O'Toole

Data sci­en­tist has been named the sex­i­est job of the 21st cen­tu­ry.” It has also been deemed the best job of the year” — for two years running. 

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But enthu­si­asm doesn’t trans­late eas­i­ly into impact for your organization. 

There’s an enor­mous amount of effort and invest­ment and focus on data ana­lyt­ics right now,” says Tom O’Toole, a senior fel­low and clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, who was for­mer­ly CMO at Unit­ed Air­lines and CMO and CIO at Hyatt Hotels Cor­po­ra­tion. But the real­i­ty is that com­pa­nies are still hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty fig­ur­ing out how, in prac­tice, to con­nect ana­lyt­ics to busi­ness outcomes.” 

One fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is that com­pa­nies typ­i­cal­ly approach the roll­out of ana­lyt­ics as a tech­ni­cal chal­lenge: hire data sci­en­tists, adopt the right soft­ware, then reap busi­ness gains. But achiev­ing real busi­ness val­ue from ana­lyt­ics, says O’Toole, requires deep­er enter­prise change. 

The key is for com­pa­nies to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment in which employ­ees think in terms of ask­ing busi­ness ques­tions that can be answered with data, and they are free and able to ask such questions. 

O’Toole agrees with his col­leagues’ view that ana­lyt­ics is a lead­er­ship prob­lem. After work­ing with a range of com­pa­nies, par­tic­u­lar­ly this year, I’ve seen that con­nect­ing ana­lyt­ics to busi­ness out­comes is at its foun­da­tion a cul­tur­al problem.” 

Here, O’Toole describes four ways lead­ers can lay that cul­tur­al foundation. 

Build a Cul­ture of Intel­lec­tu­al Curiosity 

First and fore­most, glean­ing mean­ing­ful data insights that result in busi­ness val­ue requires a cul­ture of con­stant questioning. 

It’s about encour­ag­ing, expect­ing, and enabling peo­ple to say, Hmm, I won­der how we could use data to pre­dict or improve or opti­mize that?’” says O’Toole.

Ques­tions should be wel­come from all cor­ners of an orga­ni­za­tion, with no parts of the busi­ness deemed off-lim­its. Although ana­lyt­ics is often dis­cussed in rela­tion to rev­enue and mar­ket­ing, its val­ue can and should extend to any part of an organization. 

O’Toole describes how ear­li­er this year he was dis­cussing ana­lyt­ics with the senior lead­er­ship team of a finan­cial ser­vices com­pa­ny, when its gen­er­al coun­sel won­dered aloud how data and pre­dic­tive ana­lyt­ics could be used to iden­ti­fy like­ly cas­es of a cer­tain type of reg­u­la­to­ry-com­pli­ance problem. 

Peo­ple didn’t expect the head lawyer to be the one to ask how to use pre­dic­tive ana­lyt­ics to address an issue,” O’Toole says, but he did. And, pre­dict­ing and avoid­ing the com­pli­ance prob­lems that he had in mind would have real busi­ness val­ue in avoid­ing the costs relat­ed to law­suits, cus­tomer set­tle­ments, and terminations.” 

Build­ing a cul­ture of intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty begins in the hir­ing process. And O’Toole says that con­ver­sa­tions about a wide range of sub­jects can offer use­ful insights into how a job can­di­date thinks in terms of data. 

For exam­ple, if you find out that some­one is inter­est­ed in what’s dri­ving crime rates in a par­tic­u­lar geo­graph­ic area — and that they use data to under­stand and reveal the pat­terns — well, that may not direct­ly relate to your busi­ness, but it can show how their mind uses data to solve problems.” 

Make Curios­i­ty a Cri­te­ri­on for Advancement 

Orga­ni­za­tions should set an explic­it expec­ta­tion that employ­ees use data in new ways to answer new ques­tions. One way to do this is to define intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty as a basic cri­te­ri­on for advancement. 

This isn’t just how many inter­est­ing ques­tions did you ask and answer in the last six months?’” O’Toole says. This is more the eval­u­a­tion of a mind­set: How do you look at and advance the busi­ness in new ways using data?” 

Ulti­mate­ly, the suc­cess and sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the cur­rent surge of inter­est, ini­tia­tives, and invest­ment in data ana­lyt­ics will depend on pro­duc­ing busi­ness impact.”

He likens the notion to the require­ment that employ­ees com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly and work well with oth­ers in the orga­ni­za­tion. While a dif­fi­cult skill to mea­sure, it is unques­tion­ably a prac­ti­cal and impor­tant fac­tor in pro­mo­tion deci­sions, par­tic­u­lar­ly as one advances to high­er levels. 

Com­pa­nies also need to pro­vide their employ­ees enough lee­way to explore the ques­tions that inter­est them — even if these ques­tions do not present obvi­ous appli­ca­tions or quick rev­enue prospects. 

You sim­ply can’t hold every­thing to the met­ric of imme­di­ate, short-term finan­cial rel­e­vance,” O’Toole says. There are busi­ness ques­tions that can pro­duce mean­ing­ful val­ue but that it’s dif­fi­cult to put a short-term ROI on, such as cer­tain HR met­rics like the effect of employ­ee health and well-being on oth­er busi­ness phenomena.” 

So, what amount of lee­way is the right amount? 

There is no clear answer, but O’Toole believes the risk of over­feed­ing curios­i­ty is bet­ter than the cost of sti­fling it. 

Demon­strate Intel­lec­tu­al Honesty 

Curios­i­ty paired with data, can gen­er­ate unex­pect­ed insights. But these insights will be worth­less if they are dis­re­gard­ed or shut down. 

Don’t reject answers just because they are incon­ve­nient or don’t sup­port your parochial view or func­tion­al role or opin­ion, or because they call into ques­tion estab­lished prac­tices — in sim­ple terms, because they aren’t what you want to hear,” says O’Toole. Intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty is not a term you hear com­pa­nies talk about when they first jump into ana­lyt­ics, but it’s imperative.” 

O’Toole relates a sto­ry Eric Ander­son tells about when he was a young ana­lyst at a finan­cial ser­vices com­pa­ny. Assigned to ana­lyze which branch­es should be closed to max­i­mize busi­ness pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, Ander­son did a thor­ough, sound job of answer­ing the ques­tion, only to be told by a senior exec­u­tive that he was going to block the analy­sis from going for­ward because he was against clos­ing branches. 

If peo­ple are tak­ing the ini­tia­tive to ask inter­est­ing ques­tions and pur­sue the answers, then there is noth­ing worse than to be met with a reflex­ive­ly neg­a­tive reac­tion, with a no, I don’t want to hear about it,’” O’Toole says. Even sub­tle crit­i­cism from senior lead­ers can sharply cur­tail people’s will­ing­ness to bring for­ward hon­est information. 

If you want to tor­pe­do an intel­lec­tu­al­ly curi­ous cul­ture very quick­ly, that’s a good way to do it.” 

Turn Infor­ma­tion into Action Promptly 

O’Toole says it is imper­a­tive to work on how to con­nect data to the busi­ness in prac­tice to increase busi­ness effec­tive­ness and cre­ate busi­ness value. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the suc­cess and sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the cur­rent surge of inter­est, ini­tia­tives, and invest­ment in data ana­lyt­ics will depend on pro­duc­ing busi­ness impact,” he says. 

This means, of course, a com­pa­ny needs to take action based on data-dri­ven insights. Though there is no sin­gle road map for this, exe­cut­ing prompt­ly is cru­cial to success. 

Too often com­pa­nies ini­ti­ate a pro­pos­al for a mul­ti­year plan sub­ject to fund­ing approval and IT pri­or­i­ti­za­tion that will start next year to enable or act on data ana­lyt­ics,” O’Toole says. Some­times that’s nec­es­sary, but you need to be ask­ing what can be done right now — how can we use data insights tomor­row or today?” 

One key to this is open­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing across func­tions so that employ­ees tell each oth­er what they have learned from data. 

Peo­ple with a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive will often think of inter­est­ing ways to act on infor­ma­tion to ben­e­fit the busi­ness as a whole. So, if in doubt, share information.” 

About the Writer

Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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