by Valeh Nazemoff

Beyond Acronyms: Humanizing big data and information governance through mindful storytelling

Jun 23, 2016
Big DataC-SuiteComputers and Peripherals

Six tips for effective data storytelling, as learned from work being done at the Navy.

“Data governance applies to everything that we do,” shared Janice Haith, Department of Navy’s Deputy CIO. And, being responsible for complex, mission-critical initiatives such as enterprise architecture, software licensing, information assurance, data and help desk consolidation, and compliance, to name a few – means there is a lot of data to be dealt with. But, just like with any organization, IT must tell impactful stories that convey why an initiative must be undertaken and how it affects the end-user.

Those who work in the armed forces know all too well the avalanche of acronyms used every day, but acronyms don’t impart emotion, cause and effect, or urgency. So how do those in charge humanize the importance of projects in a way that garners buy-in from all necessary parties? The answer may surprise you – through effective storytelling.

6 Tips for effective data storytelling, as learned from work being done at the Navy:

1. Speak the same language – If you’re telling a story in a foreign language, no one will understand it. Definitions must be consistent among all parties. A recent audit proved illuminating, as Haith relayed “We call it an apple, the Air Force calls it a duck, and Defense…calls it a banana, right? But it’s all the same thing! We’re doing the exact same thing, we’ve just all named it differently…” As such, her group, in collaboration with others, are working to standardize taxonomies as much as possible, so that there is consensus on definitions.

2. Tell the story, then show the pictures – Heath Muchmore, HPE’s Chief Technologist for the US Navy and Marine Corp, advocates setting the stage for less tech-savvy audiences before showing graphics. “Don’t put up a graphic followed by a story of how a serial port got compromised to somebody who’s a policy person because that’s not really going to [make sense]. Everybody’s minds are a little bit different, so the approach to the audience is [important].” Muchmore likens this concept to the familiar red / green dashboards we’ve seen so often. In today’s big data deluge, it’s often necessary to use more complex visuals, but it must be done carefully. “If you just throw a graph up there with a legend in it, if they’re going to be overwhelmed the first thing they’re going to ask you is, ‘What am I looking at?’ If you tell the story before you hit them with the graphic it really conveys the message a lot cleaner and allows the conversation to move through quicker to make those governance decisions.”

3. Develop your characters – Muchmore has “drawn up characters on whiteboards sometimes to … provide the context so that they understand where it relates to them. If they’re responsible for it or accountable to it, they need to see that…You have to set the scenario, which is to say, ‘Hey, there’s a bad hacker out there and this is the kind of data that they’re looking for,’ so we’re going to set the character. We’re going to set the scene. We’re going to say why it’s a problem, create that tension so they get it and understand it.”

4. Show “What-If?” – Another aspect to effective storytelling is to pose “what-if” scenarios? Muchmore does just that by using the HP Enterprise Maps tool that shows potential impacts to a project in the event of a hacking or other incident. By seeing what modifications would need to be made and how other pieces would be affected, end users get a better picture of the cause and effect relationship with the flow and security of the data.

5. Document commonalities and differences – Haith shared, “internal documentation is important… [we] need to standardize internally so that we’re all saying and doing the same things… But externally, the defense’s five [uniformed] services [Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard] don’t fight the same… You have to find the balance…. Where you have commonality we need to embrace it, but where there’s a difference you have to accept the nuance.” To make sure that time is not wasted arguing about differences in expectations, using internal documentation such as service level agreements is key to moving stories forward to a mutually beneficial ending.

6. Continuously improve – There are times when CIOs must take a high-level look at the stories unfolding before them to figure out their next improvement initiative. An increase in mobile technology has resulted in personnel receiving updates all the time. But, is this big data deluge telling a real-time story, or is it telling it in bits and pieces that negatively affect the ultimate decision? Muchmore put it in the context of an end-user combatant commander to explain. “A combatant commander has a UAB [transporting medical patients] flying over some foreign entity and the data coming back says that there’s a threat. If the person who isolated it and said there’s a threat there can’t story that up to the higher command levels, then the decision can’t be made quick enough to react to actually do something about that.” Seeing that as an improvement opportunity, the IT group can address the back-end technology to make sure that the commander receives exactly the right amount of data, in real-time, via mobile technology to be able to share the right story with superiors that leads to the necessary action.

Are you mindful of your data’s story? Can you present it differently? Are you beginning to see that there may be a better way to frame your messages to result in quicker buy-in and support?

Next time you are pushing forward a complex big data governance initiative, keep in mind the above-mentioned lessons from work being done at the Navy. Identify your audience and figure out how your project affects them. Craft a message imparting how they will be impacted and what it means to them personally and to the organization. Make sure they know their role within the framework, and help them feel accountable and responsible for the project’s success.

Storytelling isn’t just for rug-time in elementary school. Harness its power and see how it can help your business today.