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Posted June 3, 2016

data cultural evolution

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Many executives believe, rightly so, that keen instinct has made them masters of their domain. Some believe they’re successful because they’ve always made business decisions in a certain methodical, tried-and-true way; others attribute their decision-savvy to their finely tuned ability to make big decisions on a dime. But they’ve got to make room for big data, because what might have started as a trend is now a reality.

Data as a Corporate Asset

Thinking of data as merely decision support, however, underestimates its potential. True, thanks to the adoption of new technologies in the workplace, decision-makers have access to more actionable information than ever before. And better yet, executives are learning how to leverage it to meet business goals: increase revenue, improve process cycle times, reduce operating expenses, et al. (Explore this further in Six Big Data Hurdles Payments and Financial Professionals Need to Overcome.) Forward-thinking organizations are taking it to the next level—making the most of it, company-wide—using data as an opportunity to build culture.

An Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report on driving a data-centric culture explains culture’s place in the evolution of organizational tech adoption. Corporate focus has shifted from (1) investing in the right technology and tools, to (2) acquiring the right talent and skills, to (3) building the right organizational culture that can realize the business value of powerful big-data analytic tools. This means that when employees understand and appreciate the reasons behind their company’s enhanced use of data—and it becomes an accepted and even enjoyable part of their daily work-lives—the organization can make the most of the resources at their fingertips.

Steps to Success

One of the challenges facing organizations today, according to Forbes, is that data is often siloed in multiple departments, limiting its access and analysis. In 5 Steps To Building A Data-Driven Culture, they recommend companies take a look at what data-driven organizations share in common:

  1. Data-oriented mindsets and infrastructure support metrics. They define KPIs and communicate them to staff, and at least one employee serves as a big data “champion” dedicated to gathering info and analysis.
  1. Data is centralized and organized. They efficiently gather and organize information from across the organization and keeping data fresh and up-to-date; they’re wary of information overload and aim for simplicity.
  1. Policies govern data access. They have a traceable chain of custody and carefully control user access.
  1. Data access is layered. They ensure that each metric is well-defined and clearly linked to organizational function and desired outcome.
  1. Analytics are integrated into tools. They provide employees with intuitive interfaces set behind the corporate firewall, through the cloud and on mobile devices to support the many ways people work.

Culture is About People

As with any corporate culture initiative, instilling a special place for big data requires a top-down approach. Yet one-third of executives responding to the EIU survey consider the lack of understanding about how to apply big data to their role or function as the most common internal obstacle to greater use of big data analytics. Executives need to be on the same page with respect to why data is taking center stage and how it will be used. It will change the way decisions are made, challenging the comfort level of many who will have to adapt to the need to act quickly on insights, often in real-time and outside the constraints of the established review processes.

While leadership agreement is key, buy-in is needed at all levels across the organization in order for a data-minded culture to permeate. Rank-and-file employees and middle management employees also need to engage with data analytics. It’s imperative that employees and teams receive education and training on their systems and what they intend to derive from their data. This can help align thinking and foster a positive attitude about data and it’s value to the company. Take note that 25% of the EIU survey respondents said they have no experience with the human aspect of big data initiatives. This highlights the importance of employing effective change management and communication tactics when seeking to build workplace culture.

For a look into big data and payments, read Unlock a Treasure Trove of Insights in AP Data.


Kurt Thearling

Kurt Thearling

Kurt Thearling is Vice President of Analytics at WEX, where he is responsible for accelerating the use of data and analytics across the company. He has twenty years of experience in analytics and has worked in industries ranging from financial services to biotechnology. Kurt joined WEX from advertising agency Digitas, where he led the advanced analytics practice in North America. Prior to Digitas he held leadership positions at Vertex, Capital One, and Wheelhouse, building data science teams and capabilities that identified and extracted new insights from data. Kurt received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and has multiple undergraduate engineering degrees from the University of Michigan. He has written numerous articles on the topic of analytics and was one of seven data scientists profiled in Wayne Eckerson's 2012 book "Secrets of Analytical Leaders."