4 Unexpected Insights We Learned from Data Leaders

New survey findings on data strategy and the importance of OSS and a hybrid data approach.

istock 1223789411
iStock

“We saw an immense uptake in our online business when the challenges of COVID hit us. At one point, we started seeing Black Friday-type volumes every given day, and that had everything to do with having the people, process, and technology to scale out and really provide unparalleled service.”

-- Fahim Siddiqui, SVP, information technology, The Home Depot

The Home Depot accomplished something pretty amazing when COVID-19 struck. In a matter of weeks, the home improvement company was able to deliver curbside pickup functionality to its customer-facing app when the pandemic made this strategic shift critical to business continuity.

A big reason The Home Depot was able to make such a significant change so quickly was its reliance on a modern data stack built on powerful open source software.

We knew from our research and our experience working with many of the world's largest and most data-intensive enterprises that those using an open data stack—one that comprises some combination of Elasticsearch, Apache Kafka, Apache Pulsar, Kubernetes, Apache Cassandra, and Apache Spark—were more than 2x more likely to attribute more than 20% of their revenue to data and analytics.

But we wanted to know more. We wanted to validate patterns and practices beyond technology alone that set up companies like The Home Depot for success, while learning about steps that others less far along on their data-driven business transformations could follow to accelerate their progress.

To get there, we had a series of in-depth conversations with dozens of executives and technical practitioners. We used what we learned to develop 70 strategic, technical, and cultural attributes that might predict success in deriving business impact and improved customer experiences from data. We then built a survey that we fielded to more than 500 executives and technology specialists.

The results of this latest research revealed some surprising new insights into how business and technology leaders are managing data to win. Here are the four most unexpected findings we uncovered.

Data leaders have established crystal clear data strategy ownership

Among nearly all the data leaders (95%), it was extremely clear who owned the responsibility for turning data into products. Primary accountability for the data governance that enables this universally (99%) sits with business domain leaders at these organizations.

This doesn’t, however, diminish responsibility for IT. In fact, it sharpens the focus. When data leaders align technology infrastructure strategy to a data strategy that’s focused on a business goal, IT’s mission becomes even more important than ever: to enable the highest-value uses of data that have been identified by the people with the deepest knowledge about customers.

Data leaders appreciate a hybrid data structure

We’ve noticed a maturity curve when it comes to hybrid data architectures (where data is managed both on-premises and in the cloud). Organizations first commit to a hybrid cloud strategy. Then, as awareness increases that data needs to be a “first class citizen” in the architecture, these organizations embrace a hybrid strategy for their data, one that takes a similarly mindful approach to ensuring consistent data access patterns and portability across on-prem and multiple clouds.

In our latest research, data leaders told us about their need to make the most out of their data while preserving flexibility. Nearly all of them are building a hybrid data structure (97% of respondents said so, with two-thirds feeling this “strongly” describes the organization’s direction). 

Data leaders lean into open source

Legacy data architectures weren’t designed to meet modern market expectations for high-value use of data. Evidence of this surfaces in the choices that data leaders make about their data architectures. We found that they are leaning in to using more open source software (OSS), and are four times more likely to have deployed Apache Cassandra, Kubernetes, and two of any of the following open source technologies: Apache Spark, Apache Pulsar, Apache Kafka, or Elasticsearch.

Perhaps more importantly, a strong majority of data leaders believe that their modernized infrastructure gives them a competitive advantage (71%, with more than half characterizing it as a “big advantage”).

Data leaders recognize the importance of immediate, well-supported action

We uncovered compelling evidence that data leaders understand the importance of urgency during times of disruption and throughout the recovery that follows. Eighty-eight percent of these organizations said that adapting to COVID-19 has increased the pace of innovation.

Data leaders also said that data strategy is a board-level discussion at their companies, and that they have funding sufficient to fuel innovation.

As a CIO told me during a recent roundtable, it’s not particularly challenging to convince their board of directors of the importance of moving quickly with building data products.

“We have our eye on hundreds of millions of dollars of EBITDA,” this CIO said. “That’s how we find use cases.”

What about everyone else?

Naturally, not all organizations have reached the advanced capabilities and success of data leaders. We broke the rest of the field down into four different stages of progress toward using data to deliver value to customers and drive revenue like data leaders do. We divided the remaining respondents into organizations that are:

  • Rearchitecting infrastructure to unlock the next wave of innovation
  • Reorienting toward a culture where data is core to everyone’s job
  • Scaling a good start into true competitiveness
  • Starting to treat data as more than an afterthought

For each of these segments, our report identifies the biggest hurdles organizations face, and offers recommendations on the best moves they can make to progress on their data journey. For example, companies that fall into the “reorienting” category rate culture a bigger barrier to progress than technology—by more than two-to-one. Our data suggests that a good move at this point is to make data strategy a board-level discussion, with the aim of making it a company-wide change initiative.

There are many more findings we share in our new report, “The State of the Data Race 2021,” but here’s one overarching, important takeaway: you might not be among the data leaders, and you certainly might view these organizations as a competitive threat to your business. But it’s also true that the way to become a data leader—the technology, the architecture, the strategy and practices—is all proven. Anyone can accelerate their progress toward it.

Download the free DataStax report, “The State of the Data Race 2021,” to learn more.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.