All too often I hear talk of a data culture and the conversation quickly encircles data technologies and tools. Technology and tools are not culture. Culture is: “a way of life for a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”  A data culture therefore is just the application of that definition in relation to data. A data culture is the way of life of the organization with respect to data. The glowing word art in your lobby about “Innovation” is simply a vain symbol, if when met with organizational change the response is “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
‘Second nature’ behaviors, beliefs, and values of the organization on data
Culture can be likened to layers of an onion. On the surface there are artifacts and symbols. Peel that layer back and find espoused values. At the core rests the underlying assumptions – those ‘second nature’ elements; it is the way we are. Data culture has the very same layers – artifacts, values, and basic assumptions. Artifacts can be expensive! Now, follow me closely – artifacts, when communicating the true culture, are indeed valuable. When not, they are mere points of criticism and frustration.
Your data culture
Grandiose claims of self-service data access can be a costly artifact and most certainly is when your data culture does not have at its core solid basic assumptions about data, its value and proper use. This realization is dawning on organizations the world over and we are seeing a growth of the role of the Chief Data Officer (CDO) in response. CDOs arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, and the count shot up to 4000+ by 2017 with 63% of executives citing they had this role on staff . Even today, there is still muddiness around who a CDO should be and what they should do. I say a CDO must be well versed in leadership, in addition to technical knowledge, having an intimate understanding of their culture and a seasoned practitioner of how to effect organizational change centered on data.
Not so soft skills
Granted culture and leadership are often termed ‘soft skills’ by many in technology, but really these are hard skills. There is solid science behind knowing your culture – both quantitative and qualitative measurements are used, and the scientific method applies. There is also the presence of solid science that underpins organizational change. The CDO must make good use of it all as a leader of people over a manager of things – they are an influencer. Influence comes with relationships.
McKinsey’s Khushpreet Kaur interviewed Scott Richardson, CDO of Fannie Mae, back in 2017 and supplies the following, “We’d go around the room, and people introduced themselves as human beings, not workers; it’s remarkable how everyone truly has a story to tell. I found this incredibly energizing, and it set the stage for us all having a more trusting, human relationship. It has had broader, more positive benefits than I could have imagined.”  Notice the priority and import of trust-relationships between people – that’s leadership. He is referring to his first 100 days in the role – he is not handing out policy, strategies, and plans. Mr. Richardson understands that to change the culture he must know it – and he goes after the heart of the matter, the heart of people. It is not soft skill; it is heart skill.
Recurrently organizational culture seems to begin and finish with symbols; ‘hung on the wall’ and waiting for the people who make up that organization to mold themselves into. This approach assumes an end without first determining the means. The better approach consists of the evaluation and cultivation of culture through leadership. Give people the space to determine and connect with the shared values of the culture. The symbols will emerge, and people will naturally know how to align to it because they already identify with it – in fact, they will own it. There is already a culture around data in your organization – it is up to you to get to know it.
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