Data’s role in the digital culture

A few months ago, when I first started thinking about topics to explore in this space, I asked a few colleagues to share the traits they thought contributed to a digital culture.

Not surprisingly, they mentioned innovation, agility, entrepreneurship and some other big ideas I’ve written about in recent months. But one colleague gave me an answer that made me pause:

Instead of a digital culture, he posed, what about a data-driven culture?

In recent years it’s become obvious that data, or at least the information derived from it, is a core business asset and key enabler of strategic success.

We live in an age of data; nearly all of our daily activity is monitored and reported in some form. Our wearables tell us how many steps we take and how our heart rate changes throughout the day. Our mobile devices pick up on our location, and the apps we use take note of every keystroke.

It should be second nature for businesses to use data to drive decisions. But outside of call centers or assembly-line type work, you don’t often see it go beyond cursory statistics.

A programmatic, data-driven approach to business improvement directed at your employees would surely pay dividends with your customers. But how, as a leader, do you inspire that in your culture?

Leaders, of course, can demonstrate an appreciation for data. Project and people managers should be expected to make decisions using metrics – perhaps they look at page views in marketing, opportunity-to-win ratios in sales and so on.

And everyone in the office, from the CEO to those on the client frontlines, must be ready and willing to change course when new data analysis introduces a new perspective or way of doing business. (There’s our good friend agility at work again!)

But what I’ve been trying to wrap my head around, since my colleague first posed his question, is the “soft metrics” that create a digital culture – collaboration, camaraderie, creativity, the feeling of a team. The threat data poses is in dehumanizing people and these core workplace assets, instead creating a culture that lives and dies by numbers.

So I wondered, is there a way to create a data-driven culture that empowers – not threatens – the digital culture of a workplace?

Some weekend reading led me to a rather obvious revelation: Find a way to measure those core assets – and use that info to build your story.

It doesn’t have to be scientific – or even formal.

Uber’s boss Travis Kalanick, I learned in this article from The Economist, uses a feedback system he calls T3B3. He requires his “deputies” to give him honest feedback on his top-three, bottom-three skills. He then adjusts his behavior – apparently he once got called out for not saying “thanks” enough – based on it. Data-driven change.

This article in Harvard Business Review discusses the positive effect that measuring employees’ natural strengths – things like discipline, perseverance, fairness, communication – can have on a workplace. In the study, 90% of the work groups saw a 14-29% increase in profit and a 26- to 72-point decrease in turnover when employee tasks were better matched to their strengths. Data-driven change.

And the book “Learn or Die” by Edward Hess discusses a large hedge fund that uses a custom iPad app to collect feedback after every meeting, “scoring” everyone from the CEO on down. Think Amazon stars taken to the extreme. Data-driven change.

After reading these, I made the connection to another part of my life. In any sport, competitive athletes track their personal performance data, day in and day out. They don’t take it personally (as often happens with “feedback” at work). They accept and own both good and bad performance data and use it to identify weak spots and better focus their training. The numbers don’t tell the full story, but they do provide valuable insight. It’s a habit all of us could benefit from in the business world – and the ripple effect would certainly span out from your organization into your clients’.

At its core, a digital culture – one that values the DevOps mindset, the principles of agility, collaboration, innovation and so on – is a data-driven culture. It may sometimes require a creative approach to gathering and telling the data story, but the goal to chart the course for your team, your department and your company based on sound data analysis is right in line with the digital ideal.

Does your company encourage a data-driven culture?


Agility: What is it and how do we get it?

Why innovation matters (and how to inspire it)

Leading the digital business, beyond the technology


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