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Author's profile photo Cynthia Lee

Data Leadership is Paramount for the Future of Business

In a recent conversation I had, someone quipped “every company is a data company; they just don’t know it yet.” This is a powerful statement, and one that rings truer and truer the more I think about it. It was especially noteworthy in the most recent episode of SAP Data Champion Roundtable I hosted, which focused on data leadership and its role in the future of business.

I was joined by Ronald van Loon, CEO and Principal Analyst at Intelligent World, and Judith Hurwitz, Executive Search Consultant at Judith Hurwitz Executive Search. Ronald’s expertise in Big Data and its impact on companies, coupled with Judith’s insights on executive hiring, set the stage for an intriguing conversation about data leadership. How are companies approaching the shift to data-driven operations across the spectrum?

In this latest episode, my guests and I discuss how the pandemic accelerated Big Data trends, how companies are learning to embrace this data, who’s responsible for leveraging it, and what the near future holds for enterprises that put the pieces of their Big Data puzzle together.

Uncertain times call for data-backed decision-making

The first topic on everyone’s mind when discussing any sort of shift in business is the pandemic. 2020 brought disruption in every sense of the word—including both good and bad connotations. Disruption to supply chains caused major inventory issues for retailers, leading to disruptive new processes to prevent these issues in the future. It’s one example in a sea of examples, across all industries.

As companies find silver linings to the pandemic cloud, they’re learning the importance of data-backed decision-making in a big way. According to my guests, it’s causing companies to jump on Big Data initiatives.

“Companies that were planning slowly for digital transformation when the pandemic hit really accelerated their transition to cloud and a data-focused environment,” says Judith. “Companies are understanding that they need to have a holistic view of information across their main applications: in their data centers, cloud services and data in the cloud. They have to be able to look across all of their divisions and provide a new level of customer experience.”

At a time when uncertainty still lingers and there are so many moving parts to keep track of, data has become a toehold for businesses to find their footing. This is especially true as businesses themselves become more distributed. Not only is their data streaming from numerous channels, it’s also being accessed in diverse ways, by distributed teams and remote workers.

“Many organizations need to embrace remote work environments in the sense of data,” says Ronald. “They need to have access to data across the hybrid remote work environment as it becomes a permanent solution. A results- and data-driven organization with a cloud foundation needs to be supported by advanced analytics. These are the three key pillars to success during this time of uncertainty and rapid change.”

This all points back to one simple idea: all companies are data companies, even if they don’t know it yet. With the pandemic, more companies are embracing this inevitability.

Who’s managing all this data?

With the embrace of Big Data comes another simple question: who’s responsible for it? The breadth and scope of data makes collecting and using it a full-time job. More than that, it’s beyond any one single person. For more and more companies, data has created an entirely new segment of business that has leadership roots in the C-suite.

“Companies that take this seriously need to have a data expert with the authority to help them make that transition. It has to be somebody who can both work from a technical perspective, but also really be able to help the company from a leadership position,” says Judith.

As with all aspects of business, leadership starts at the top when it comes to Big Data. A big part of this leadership right now is re-establishing what it means to be a data-driven company in the middle of a major operational pivot. The way we do business in a post-pandemic world won’t be the same as it was before 2020. The way companies collect, organize and use data is changing too, starting with security.

“If you have a lot of your employees working remotely, you’ve now got thousands of endpoints and thousands of potential security risks. Data owners have to understand that,” says Judith. “It’s something we’ve seen for years—a business unit wants to say, okay, we’re going to open up this data to customers and they’re going to pay us for access to information. Then, the Chief Security Officer says ‘not so fast, you don’t have a plan that keeps this safe.’ So, everybody has to have a role in this. But that Chief has to know the real aspects of the cloud or the data falls apart.”

It’s clear that Big Data is only getting bigger. That means it’s time to put someone in charge of it, and to build out the oversight needed to harness it.

Using data to shape the business’ focus

It all boils down to a focus on Big Data and its role. Why is every company slowly becoming a data company? According to my guests, it comes down to four specific reasons: innovation, evaluation, prioritization and decision-making. Data holds the answers to what you’re doing, if you’re doing it effectively, how to do it better and what’s worth doing.

“Companies need to understand how to evaluate the current state of their organization, and also understand what infrastructure they need to embrace data,” says Ronald. “Is the infrastructure you have ready? Do you have the right skills in-house? Do you have the right processes? What’s the data like in its derived state? How’s your data quality? What about lineage—is it in order? A data leader, I think, also needs to understand all these questions and know how to identify actionable data.”

There’s a forward-looking component to all this—one that’s important now more than ever. Every company wants to shape their future based on the variables they can control. Amid a pandemic and an uncertain future, data is the single biggest controllable variable available to most companies. They’re beginning to lean on it in a big way.

“Anything can happen at any time. Anything can be disrupted, and flexibility is becoming the new normal all over the world. It doesn’t matter which business or which industry you’re in: you need to be prepared for the unexpected,” says Ronald. “Take an example like cash flow data—the ability to predict payments, look at current accounts and maintain inventory levels. This is crucial to know because at any certain moment, when something really hits your organization, you want those cash flow insights. When you have them, everything looks pretty straightforward.”

There’s no substitute for stability. It’s clear that data is the foundation that provides this stability, which makes it a top priority for businesses heading into 2021.

You can’t anticipate what’s next; only plan for it

Businesses have learned a very hard lesson in 2020: we can’t anticipate the future. While data gives us the means to understand our situation, it’s not always enough to save us from being affected by it. The priority in a post-pandemic world is to use data to both preempt disruption and adapt to it.

“What I think we’ve learned is that we can’t anticipate what’s going to happen next, so we need to be able to connect data across our traditional environments and emerging cloud environments, and across our different systems,” says Judith. “We’ve learned a lot, for example, about flexibility of supply chain, especially during this pandemic, by looking at where supply chains have been disrupted. But if you don’t have the flexibility to look at data, you end up in a situation where this disruption is ongoing and can really hurt your business.”

It’s a concept that dovetails with something I’ve been hearing from across industries: the need to break down silos. Taking data out of silos means getting a top-down, broad-scope view at the whole business and the many connections between business segments that drive it. For many businesses, this will drive even more investment in Big Data, furthering the idea that “every company is a data company.”

“The biggest trends are around AI and data. Consider the huge issue of data latency. We can’t always assume that all data is going to be on premises or on one single cloud—there’s going to be a variety of deployment models. So, you’re going to have to make decisions about where you place data, based on what your latency requirements are and what your security and compliance requirements are,” says Judith. If you’re dealing with a massive amount of data, let’s say 25 petabytes of data, you may have to break it down into segments to virtualize that data in order to get results in a timely manner. This is where AI is going to come in, to help businesses pull together and sift through that data quickly.”

The name of the game for most companies headed into 2021 is to embrace Big Data and develop new agility from it. When you can’t anticipate the future, you need to be able to build flexibility.

Data leadership demands decisiveness

In 2020, many businesses are realizing the need to harness data. In 2021, many will begin executing on what they’ve learned this year. They’ve already embraced the data. They’re already hiring leaders and decision-makers. Next, they need to put their trust in these variables—variables they can control. It adds up to decisiveness in the face of uncertainty, driven by leadership who understands the importance of data.

“We need to see companies willing to shift away from being more reactive. They can’t be reactive anymore, they need to be proactive and even preactive,” says Ronald. “The best way to do this is by enabling real-time data pipelines to be capable of helping business to take actions in real time. They need to do analysis and start using predictions in different segments of the business in real time. This way, they can act much faster on everything, no matter what’s going on in this changing world.”

Join us for an Even Deeper Dive into Data Warehousing

These insights are just the beginning of a much deeper, much more complex conversation about embracing Big Data and empowering leadership in how it’s handled and used within companies. Join me and my guests, Florian Roth, Judith Horowitz, and Marius Reck as we discuss all this and more on this upcoming episode of the Data Defined Talk Show. Register here to catch the episode when it airs live on Wednesday, November 18th, 2020.

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