The culture of data transformation

Developing a strong data strategy is fast becoming a priority for businesses keen to harness the transformative power of information. After all, the promise of data is compelling, offering tangible benefits across all areas of a business and driving competitive advantage.

Yet many organisations fail to fulfil their full ‘data potential.’ Common reasons include, the lack of a clear business case, poorly considered goals, and all too often the misguided decision to treat the data challenge as an IT problem, as well as data being held up in siloes. A data strategy depends on data flowing freely and regularly around the business, like oil in an engine.

However, there is often a single overriding reason for failure. A factor that can make or break the strategy.


The best data strategy in the world won’t work if your culture does not support it.

Transformation is not easy. It will mean that your people will need to get used to change. They may need to alter the way they do things, embrace new initiatives and processes, and think differently about data. This can be a tall order, especially for large and mature organisations.

So, there is no point embarking on a data strategy without understanding if your organisation’s culture is fit and able to deliver success.

Here are 10 things you need to ensure are in place to develop a data transformation culture.

1. Dynamic and compelling leadership

An organisation’s data culture comes directly from the behaviour of its leaders. It is the role of leadership to identify a cultural vision, which defines the future role of data in the business. They must be seen to live and breathe this vision if they stand any chance of taking everyone else with them. Furthermore, someone must be given the responsibility to drive the data agenda and they must be supported by the entire leadership function. Increasingly, this responsibility is falling to the Chief Data Officer, the newest kid on the corporate block.

2. Sell a clear vision to your people

A strategy lives and dies on the vision it paints for the people tasked with implementing it. There must be clear and compelling reasons for people to change the way they work. A good data strategy will outline the choices and decisions that are needed to achieve business objectives and will sell the benefits of these choices. A great technique to use, borrowed from the world of psychology, is future pacing. Key business stakeholders must be asked to consider what the future holds if the business fails to transform. If that future is one where competitors overtake you and market opportunities are missed, then the need for a strategy will be crystal clear.

3. Tie it back to the benefit for your customers

Setting the need for a data strategy in the unequivocal terms of what it means for your customers will help to ensure buy-in. Your data strategy exists to enable your business objectives, which in turn should seek to better fulfil customer needs. Explicitly linking data transformation to the benefits you’ll deliver to your customers and market is the quickest route to acceptance.

4. It’s about people, not technology

Making a data strategy all about technical solutions is the fast track to failure. It risks dehumanising the process of transformation, putting faith into widgets rather than ways of working. Of course, IT will usually be part of the solution, but a roadmap of technical initiatives must be accompanied by one for organisational engagement, which highlights the critical role of people and their behaviours.

5. Leave the jargon at the door

As with all business activities, data comes loaded with industry specific hyperbole and jargon. Expecting people to learn a new language or assuming they instantly understand terminology such as ‘Big Data’, ‘distributed systems’, or ‘unstructured data’ is, at best, liable to confuse and, at worst, will switch people off entirely. If the need for something cannot be explained in plain English, then you cannot expect people to follow you.

6. Be clear on your no regrets position

Your data strategy needs to sell a vision, but it must also define the shorter-term initiatives which need to happen to begin to meet these goals. Most people are pragmatic and gaining their support for a strategy is easier when they are clear about what needs to happen in the here and now. It is good practice to be clear about your ‘no regrets’ position – the activities that need to happen, which people can get behind, to move in the right direction.

7. Have a clear plan and hold true

Data transformation isn’t easy but failing to remain true to your vision can be. A sure-fire way to lose the interest and belief of your business is if commitment to the data strategy is seen to waiver in the face of day-to-day business pressures. It is a long-term commitment to enhancing the utilisation of data for business benefit, and it should never really end. Of course, it must adapt to changing business circumstances, but not be seen to be haphazardly moved from front to back burner.

8. Don’t seek perfection, fail fast and often

A data strategy cannot sit on a shelf gathering dust; it must be agile and alive. The search for perfection in a rapidly changing data environment is unrealistic, and people will soon tire of an approach which is slow and ponderous. Adopting a test and learn ethos, which enables people and resources to move nimbly, will help create a culture driven by curiosity and experimentation. One where failure becomes accepted and seen as necessary to fulfilling business objectives.

9. Define accountability and responsibility

It is important employees’ talents are recognised and their responsibilities are clear. In many organisations the day-to-day responsibility for data is spread across teams and individuals. Achieving buy-in will be easier where all parties know their role, are incentivised to perform it, and can see how their efforts combine to deliver a shared goal.

10. Celebrate success

For most organisations developing a data strategy, it will be for the first time. For many it involves stepping in to the unknown, and a fair amount of trepidation. It is therefore important to celebrate all victories, big and small, along the way. Engendering a sense of pride and buzz around your strategy can only help foster a positive and confident data culture.

James Miller is a Client Director at Starcount.

Starcount has helped numerous organisations plan for and implement strong and successful data transformation programmes. We know how important it is to ensure your culture is data-fit. To hear more, get in touch.

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