A leader’s guide to building a data-driven culture

How can organisations harness the power of data while making sure employees realise its importance?
Databricks Article 5 Fix

Data is the lifeblood of many modern companies. It’s what powers progress, informs decisions, and is intuitively involved in hiring and firing choices – as well as key questions of investment. 88% of executives increased their investments into data, analytics and AI in 2022, with a further 84% expecting that to continue this year. 

Big money is being ploughed into data tools in the hope that it keeps businesses competitive, or offers them an edge over their competitors. But all that spending can be for nought without also considering the culture change that needs to come along with this. It’s no use spending millions on a new data-driven platform if staff don’t trust it, or don’t feel confident using it. 

Building a data-driven culture alongside integrating data use in daily processes is vital to make the most of the time and investment put into data solutions. “It’s people, process and technology,” says Robin Sutara, field chief technology officer at Databricks. Implementing features like the data lakehouse can help create a single source of truth for an organisation, and help with making key decisions. However, more work is needed. “Where many organisations tend to fall down is they don’t think about the people and process that go behind that. Just because you’ve built the technology platform doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to change the way the organisation has always operated in the past.”

The changing face of CDOs

The roles of chief data officers (CDOs) and chief technology officers (CTOs) have now changed from simply managing data to managing the human interactions and foibles around that data. They increasingly need to be advocates within their organisation for the value of taking a data-driven approach, managing misgivings and soothing stresses along the way. 

There’s a fear factor, there’s a trust factor that creeps in

To do that, says Sutara, CDOs and CTOs need to understand the pain points involved in integrating data, and work to alleviate the concerns that workers have about utilising data within their organisation. That burden doesn’t need to fall solely on one person’s shoulders, however: “build champions across the business,” says Sutara. “The biggest successes that I’ve seen have been when somebody in finance or somebody in HR becomes your champion to say, ‘I can be more effective or efficient’, or ‘I now have time to do these other things that bring value to the business, and don’t have to spend as much time doing manual tasks.’” 

Having champions helps break down resistance and prevents changes from looking like a top-down diktat, adds Dael Williamson, EMEA field CTO at Databricks. “A lot of these more traditional organisations have got used to working a particular way,” he says. “And you’re kind of nudging them to work in a different way. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty that comes with that kind of nudge.” Williamson compares it to swinging a clock in a different direction after decades of it ticking one way: “there’s a fear factor, there’s a trust factor that creeps in,” he says.

Winning over workers

Diana Kennedy, CTO at Bupa, has set her company a challenge. Across the 85,000-strong firm, she has asked colleagues to replace “I think” with “I know because the data tells me,” or “I don’t know, but I will look at the data.” Kennedy recognises that is a significant change for some, and so is offering support to do so. “For many businesses, this requires a cultural shift that can be challenging – particularly in global organisations with a raft of teams performing very different functions, with varying levels of data literacy,” she says. 

The way that Bupa instils its data-driven culture is by developing learning packages that will help people feel more confident when they come across data, and better understand how to analyse the message that data is sending. “We’re tackling this at Bupa with global initiatives that encourage people who might not cross paths in their day-to-day roles to work together on hackathons and come together in an annual data summit,” she says. 

“When you encourage international and cross-functional collaboration – for instance, care home directors in the UK, working to solve a distinct challenge with data analysts from Spain – you break down barriers and misconceptions around data, and spark fresh thinking in the process,” says Kennedy. “Wider democratisation of data can be incredibly powerful and is a definite focus for many of the CTOs I speak to.”

Evolution, not revolution

One of the key challenges is convincing people that the technology is designed to make their life easier, not to replace them. Obsolescence, and the fear of being replaced by machines, preys large on workers’ minds. They’ve read the same reports everyone has about the robot and AI revolution and how it’s coming for all areas of jobs, not just low-skilled or manual ones. Reassurance that the organisation is looking to support or augment a worker’s skills, rather than replace them, is crucial to building an honest, supportive data-driven culture. 

Take it a piece at a time, a small bite at a time, and make gradual changes across the organisation

A key way to do that is for leaders to ensure they’re presenting the shift in a positive light. Many workers automatically feel resistant to anything that they think is a top-down edict, so framing the argument for a data-driven culture in a more grassroots method is important, says Williamson. “Often the CEO goes: ‘I want to become more data and AI-driven,’” he says. “Somehow that lands its way into the CTO, CDO and CIO camp, and the rest of the business functions getting on with making money for the business are going: ‘I don’t know what they’re doing.’ 

To avoid that, Sutara advises adopting a more traditional business solution: applying traditional change management. Explaining decisions, driving awareness and outlining why the organisation is becoming more data-driven can all help. “I can’t tell you how many organisations feel like they build the platform, and then magically everything’s going to happen across the organisation, and everybody’s going to come running to use it,” she says. “Take it a piece at a time, a small bite at a time, and make gradual changes across the organisation, as opposed to waiting for one fell swoop.”

To find out more, visit databricks.com