Strategic CxOs need analytics efforts to be difficult

Enterprise analytics is a leadership challenge. It rewires organizations in ways we can't predict. Trite MBA-isms don't cut it anymore.

Enterprising analytics

"Enterprising" is about eagerness to undertake or being prompt to attempt. It's about showing initiative and being resourceful. These are leadership traits, so to be enterprising is to lead. "Analytics" is how we use data to inform decision-making, in the context of achieving business objectives. These are management practices, so analytics is about management. 

"Enterprising analytics" is about being creative, resourceful and adventurous with decision-making to achieve business objectives. It is about the set of leadership and management practices that need to be in place for an organization to make the most of its analytics investment.

The most difficult thing in getting analytics right

For strategic CxOs, enterprise analytics is a leadership challenge, not a technical one. It’s easy to be fascinated by the technical. The technical is tangible. It’s finite, it can described. Leadership is abstract, intangible and amorphous. Good leaders earn "trust" and "loyalty" -- more intangibles. The technical suggests certainty, and we’re wired to avoid uncertainty.

Enterprise analytics is a leadership challenge because, in the same way that literacy rewires our brains, analytics rewires our organizations. And in ways that we can rarely control or predict. The extension of analytics into organizations means that CxOs are no longer in a command situation. Instead they find themselves more like gardeners, providing the basis and opportunity for growth.

Business-as-usual questioning makes for safe answers

Answers to good questions shouldn't come easily. We need to work for them. We must apply ourselves to the task at hand. And the task is less and less one that can be solved with wise and familiar MBA-isms. Every language has its limitations, and the language of business that emerged from the mass-production era is insufficient to describe what can be plainly observed in the digital era.

Answers to good questions are what shiny analytics vendors sell. But, as Pablo Picasso said to William Fifield in 1964 about computers, “They are useless! They can only give you answers.” A familiar quote perhaps, but we miss Picasso’s wider point. That an answer brings events to a close, whereas art remains unfinished. Business leadership remains unfinished because the purpose of business is to provide valuable services to society. And society is forever evolving.

Good answers prompt better questions and it’s hard for CxOs to know who is asking the best questions in today’s organizations. They won’t find them in conventional business artifacts. Especially not in carefully combed vision statements, pretty stories-on-a-page or saccharine value statements. The best questions come from people asking existential questions about the purpose and direction of the organization.

Easy promotion leads to extinction

We grow by overcoming challenges. In our delivery-focused world, we have a tendency to work on the problems and opportunities we know how to solve. Or those which we recognize and understand. We hire people to address the issues we know of. They address those issues and report, correctly, that much work has been done and much of it successful. But still we haven’t moved the chains.

Enterprise analytics challenges are social, behavioral and emergent. They are hard to recognize because they require a different eye for measurement. The cause and effect of enterprise analytics challenges aren’t readily observable, at least not with conventional business instruments. But delegated managers of analytics departments are pushed to justify their departments and their investments. Vague hand-waving won’t cut it when under scrutiny by the CFO. This pushes people to invent the observable: as Jack White wrote in "Effect and Cause": "I guess you have to have a problem / if you want to invent a contraption."

Such issues don’t bother business professionals who smuggle consumerized analytics applications into work. It’s not a problem for them because they are practicing one of the oldest human activities: applying tools to problems. They are questing for better questions and using what they can to find those questions. This is a challenge for CxOs if only because it poses hard questions like "What are managers for?" and "Why do we need functional business units anyway?"

Discovery emerges from difficult problems

Analytics investments limit us at the same time as they empower us. They fix the shape of things to come, how we think about what is possible. We fall into the trap of thinking "Now that we have our analytics platform, the insights will start coming." Sometimes yes, but not necessarily so. "Insights into what?" is the question we should ask ourselves, and of ourselves. Insights into the known anchor us in the present. That’s because enterprise analytics isn’t about explanation; it’s about exploration. And not in the conventional data discovery sense. In the sense of Magellan and Columbus. Searching for new lands.

We choose our own limits in life, and the same holds true for business. The task for CxOs on digital transformation journeys is to set the enterprise analytics limits far enough away from the familiar to promote exploration behavior over explanation behavior. To privilege possibility over constraint. To encourage impossible questions.

When careers are on the line, analytics investments have to reach (often arbitrary) ROI targets and people struggle to explain what's going on, CxOs will see a lot of solvable problems come across their desks. That might be fine in a stable and benign business environment, but when did we last have one of those?

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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