Taking cues from anthropology to cultivate data culture

Credit: Information Age

How can companies adopt a data-driven culture? James Eiloart, Senior Vice President of EMEA, Tableau Software, explains how to harness the power of data.

Believe it or not, one-third of people aged between 18 and 24 are either confirmed “flat-earthers” or aren’t exactly sure what to believe. In fact, the flat-earth movement is so popular, the UK held its first Flat Earth convention last year.

The reason that the Flat Earth movement has gained such momentum is perhaps an indication that many people no longer rely on facts to uphold truths. In light of a fake news culture and rumours spread as fact, many commonly held beliefs – even when grounded in fact – are being called into question. This is a real concern of our times. Yet I am optimistic this groundswell of fake news and misused data is actually fueling a global demand for more critical thinking skills.

Looking at it from an economic perspective, critical thinking is crucial because its benefits to bottom line profits are staggering. A recent Forrester report reveals that data-driven companies using data to harness insights across the business are growing at an average of more than 30% annually compared to those that don’t. Companies that don’t adopt a data-driven mindset will very likely fall behind the competition.

But creating a culture of analytics is easier said than done. The common challenge many organisations face is not only how to adopt a data-driven culture but also understanding what a successful one even looks like. I argue that anthropology can teach us a lot about how we can cultivate data culture in our own businesses. After diving into the history of our world’s greatest civilizations, I’ve identified three key traits to building a successful culture. 

Adaptive culture

Our early ancestors didn’t wait for evolution to change their biology. Instead, they approached change head-on and adapted to their environment, making small, simple adjustments that accelerated the advancement of human progress. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia, for instance, established what is commonly accepted as the first form of writing.

As towns expanded into cities, they needed to record the trade of goods like cattle and sheep, and keep a record of ownership rights, so they began using clay tablets to mark transactions using pictures and symbols. Such an invention made a massive impact on trade and commerce and was only possible because of our capacity to think differently, be flexible and adapt to our environment and circumstances.

The same is true for how modern-day organisations harness transformation and enable critical data, analytics and technology across an entire company. The key to success is to start small. By implementing simple changes, such as adding to existing investment in BI technology or upskilling current employees, companies will start seeing a shift in how their workers start to think about and approach data.

Creating a common language

It is believed that language evolved, both because of our need for survival, but also for community. Storytelling created a communal, shared experience and reinforced the need to create a collective understanding of concrete and abstract ideas. Today, common languages enable groups of us to share and collaborate with others on a larger scale.

Yet we still haven’t fully cracked the ability to communicate across diverse groups effectively using data and analytics.

Democratising access to a core of basic skills is important. But organisations also need to think about how to accumulate knowledge from their employees.

Being data literate is important because data can provide an underlying explanation and an ability to create mutual understanding with others in a community. It is also important for business development: according to Gartner, data literacy is a significant catalyst of progress. Take one of the largest airlines in Europe as a key example – by giving its workforce the right tools and data skills training to improve their data preparation and analysis, Lufthansa has experienced 30% time-savings by rapidly accelerating internal processes across departments.

Examples like this showcase why companies must think about how to empower and help everyone within their organisation to become proficient in data and analytics. Ensuring the entire workforce is confident in having data-driven conversations every single day, is fundamental to creating a thriving data culture.

Data storytelling

The final pillar of culture creation revolves around how we share information as a form of storytelling. By imparting ideas, beliefs, values, experiences and lessons we help maintain order and stability needed for growth.

Great stories rarely stem from one person or an isolated idea – they are inspired by a community. So, it is imperative that businesses cultivate a passionate group of data evangelists within their organisations. Doing this will help create a data culture that opens new opportunities, drives efficiency, and inspires others to do more with data.

Tableau Software offer products for data visualisation. / Credit: Tableau Software

Another benefit of sharing is that it fuels collective learning. Humans aren’t born with the gift of creative or critical thinking, so it’s important we develop it and share it with others. This is where corporate training plays a key role. Gartner expects that, by 2020, 80% of organisations will initiate corporate training and development programs to overcome extreme analytical deficiencies.

Democratising access to a core of basic skills is important. But organisations also need to think about how to accumulate knowledge from their employees: learn from different areas of expertise and business teams in order to evolve their knowledge of data and analytics.

Learning is essential to a healthy culture, especially a culture of analytics. As soon as a few people become data gurus, we will see a cumulative effect as more people learn to fluently speak it, read it, and write it. As new ideas surface and analytical stories emerge, data will help change the world.

Harnessing the power of data

Looking back at our ancestors, we can observe how the rapid pace of innovation has fueled the evolution of our society for centuries. But if you observe history right up to the modern world we live in today, you’ll see a proliferation of innovations tethered to the democratisation of information.

People often underestimate the power of data, technology and innovation, more often than not because they aren’t aware of the benefits. If we can place data in the hands of people who understand its capabilities, the potential for future innovation is limitless. This is only possible when organisations embrace these three key tenets to encourage a pervasive, thriving data-driven culture. The alternative is to risk casting oneself as the business world’s equivalent of the “flat-earther.”

James Eiloart

James is the Senior Vice President EMEA, of Tableau Software.

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