Trailblazers: Notes from the new data frontier

Trailblazers have to overcome obstacles, both old and new, as they navigate new terrain. And their reward for choosing to pioneer, rather than follow, gives them a first-mover advantage.

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Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Podium Data Executive Advisory Council (EAC). The EAC is comprised of a group of senior executives and advisors from TD Bank, Cigna, the International Institute for Analytics (IIA) and several others. These companies are on the leading edge of transforming their businesses with agile analytics and self-serve data marketplaces. One attendee described the group as “trailblazers”; I could not agree more.

Yet they are not trailblazers because they are leading their peers in accelerating analytics and democratizing data (which they are), or that they are successfully putting big data technology into production (which many firms are not.) They are trailblazers because they have developed a completely new way to turn their data into a high-value business asset, which is incredibly disruptive to the status quo. They are in truly unchartered territory – where traditional organizational boundaries are being breached, long-standing customs and practices are changing, and well-accepted roles and responsibilities are getting redefined.

They shared how data marketplaces challenge orthodoxy in two ways:

  • Self-service data access and preparation. The main attraction of the marketplace is that business analysts can find, understand, and prepare the data they need on their own, in minutes. This not only shifts data work (data sourcing, ETL) away from IT, it adds new responsibilities (data quality, preparation) to these analysts. Broadening direct access to data requires data security and appropriate use policies – that were often tacitly known by IT – to be embedded in the marketplace. This transition cannot happen overnight.
  • A shared data asset. A healthy marketplace has a catalog of data from across the enterprise, ready at your fingertips. This is how one client's analytics team answers any pressing business question in an average of two days. However, several EAC members discussed how legacy chargeback models discouraged any group to go first, and how they faced ingrained skepticism about a shared asset being responsive to each business. It took a year of consistently delivering unparalleled agility to win over the critics.

In lively discussion, the group shared some principles to address these challenges and pave the way for success:

  • Get started! They all agreed that this is not a technology initiative – it is a data initiative. Do not spend enormous amounts of time trying to pick the perfect platform. Set up a platform that allows end users and governance teams (not just programmers) direct access to the data, and let what you find guide your priorities and build-out.
  • Start small, but scale fast. It takes time to fully populate a data marketplace. Most companies started with a specific project to begin populating the marketplace, which allowed them to deliver value quickly while building a repeatable foundation for growth. Use that success to rapidly expand the data available, because there needs to be a critical mass of data ready in the marketplace to drive broader adoption. After creating an initial marketplace with 30 data sources for one business, one executive drove the on-boarding of 300 more in 6 months to serve all business units and international.
  • Agility in everything. Use the marketplace to continuously drive faster delivery. One company had a 6-week process to get data into the marketplace, which included passing data from group to group, spreadsheet documentation, and manual analysis. After creating a secure data ingestion area in the marketplace, a combination of automated rules and user collaboration processes could provision new data in hours or days.

Trailblazers have to overcome obstacles – both old and new – as they navigate new terrain. And their reward for choosing to pioneer, rather than follow, gives them a first-mover advantage and the satisfaction of making a difference. I am lucky to be learning with all of them.

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