How to make a data platform a valuable team member

What should be on leaders’ radars when slotting a data platform into a business?
Databricks Article 4 Fix

Staff are at the heart of every business. They’re the people that ensure success or spell failure – and are the secret sauce that can keep an organisation running. Investing in staff is important, as is investing in a data platform that can help free up staff to do their best work. Judicious use of a data platform can help achieve efficiencies that get the most value out of the humans in a team – but it comes with a caveat.

More and more people are worried about the impact that the march of big data and technology has on their future. Around one in three jobs are at potential risk of automation by the mid-2030s, according to PwC – which hasn’t escaped the attention of workers concerned about cutbacks. 

Bringing in efficiencies is a must-do for businesses at a time when data leaders are under pressure to deliver results and do more with less. But it’s also important to manage expectations and concerns for staff – and convince the humans that a data platform can be a valuable team member. “There are a lot of ways that you could start to think about how you measure the value that data brings to your business,” says Robin Sutara, field CTO at Databricks.

Winning over staff

One of the main hurdles to overcome when thinking about how to integrate data platforms into an organisation is ensuring that staff don’t feel like they’re being replaced by technology. “There’s a lot of job insecurity out there right now,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester’s Business School. “You need to ensure you’re making it clear that any changes will benefit people, rather than result in job losses. Presenting it as augmenting, rather than supplanting, their work is important.”

While you’re looking for efficiency, you’re also looking to facilitate people doing the best work of their lives

It’s also important to signify to staff that integrating a more data-driven culture doesn’t mean overhauling the way the business works. Without due care, the data platform can become a bone of contention for staff because it is often far more efficient – and can make them look bad. “The problem with having your key metric being, ‘how do I create incremental efficiency?’ is you tend to drift into becoming a high-performance culture, and a high-performance culture that doesn’t have a counterbalance tends to burn up people really quickly,” says Dael Williamson, EMEA field CTO at Databricks.

Williamson isn’t advising against a performance-focused culture, but is instead highlighting that replacing people in an organisation with data platforms has a human cost. “There’s almost a constraint that has to be applied,” he says. “While you’re looking for efficiency, you’re also looking to facilitate people doing the best work of their lives, rather than facilitate them running at 100 miles an hour.” Presenting it instead as an opportunity to drive efficiency on the tasks that can be automated, and give people the space to be innovative and creative in ways that machines can’t, is a way to win people over.

A more holistic ROI 

It’s not just about profit and loss, but about freed up time. Focusing on the bottom line when considering return on investment doesn’t tell the whole picture of why integrating a data platform into a business can be a boon. “The more efficiently I can create data space, the more I can inject efficiencies into the business space, and that can start with important stuff, like security and privacy,” says Williamson.

Take Spotify, which is able to keep on top of fast-changing developments in its sector, rolling out new products and features because its accounting and finance departments are so agile. “It’s a cascade effect,” says Williamson, “but it starts with getting the efficiencies in the core of your data.”

To get those efficiencies, leaders have to carefully decide what they’re hoping to achieve from integrating a data platform into their business, and what their achievable goals will be. “You have to put tangible business outcomes on what the data is driving for you,” says Sutara, who has led successful data platform integrations across businesses in the past. The most successful ones of those, she says, were ones where outcomes were made clear. 

“Data is a nebulous thing,” Sutara explains. Having identifiable KPIs that will be affected by the widespread adoption of data and can be tracked and monitored, will help evidence successes and make the case better to management that data management platforms have benefitted the business.

Tackling low-hanging fruit 

Another surefire way to make the case that a data platform is a valuable team member is to tackle the low-hanging fruit first, before moving on to the larger, thornier, trickier issues. “I always tried to tackle the metrics that were horribly out of whack in the first place,” says Sutara. “If I can tackle the things that are keeping my CEO or CFO up at night and say it’s not going to require new incremental CapEx expenses, that’s great.”

I always tried to tackle the metrics that were horribly out of whack in the first place

Sutara calls more closely integrating data platforms into an organisation “free innovation”. However, that innovation needs to be carefully defined for maximum success. “We really have to get very specific and prioritise the things that we’re going to implement as an organisation,” she says. 

Even by tightly drawing those initial use cases, leaders quickly find that the cascading benefits will tumble down across the organisation beyond the specific initial use. “There’s this incremental efficiency that you can create in a cascade of chain of higher order systems,” says Williamson. “That can actually help switch some of these huge fundamental problems.” The result is a faster-running, more efficient, better-resourced business where people and technology are working harmoniously towards goals – but it’s a challenge to get there, so leaders must tread carefully.

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