What does a truly data-driven business look like and how do you achieve it?
That’s what the most recent installment of Vena’s The Exchange explored. Hosted by Nadia Petkova, Senior Director of Enterprise Information Management at Vena, the session gathered data experts to ask what obstacles are getting in the way for businesses looking to build data-driven cultures—and how to get past them.
“We are operating in a different world today. As business leaders, keeping our business agile requires us to anticipate problems, make decisions and take actions in real time,” Nadia told the event’s audience. “To do this our companies must use data to drive strategy and make decisions throughout its whole operations. Yet surprisingly, for many companies, a strong data-driven culture remains elusive, and data is rarely the universal basis for decision making.”
To dig deeper into this topic, Nadia brought together Paul Barnhurst, Founder of The FP&A Guy; Will Garza, Business Intelligence Analyst for the Kansas City Chiefs; and William Liang, Managing Director of ProLytics Consulting Group. The session, How To Align Fragmented Operations with Data-Driven Insights, is now available on demand on Vena’s Plan To Grow platform.
Here are some insights the panelists offered:
- Creating a data-driven organization takes work—but for finance teams, it’s key to working faster, staying agile and being a better strategic partner to the rest of their organization.
- For some teams, there are obstacles getting in the way of building a data-driven organization—including a lack of support within their organization, inaccessible and unreliable data or an over-complicated data environment.
- To smooth the way and overcome those obstacles, finance teams should advocate for a single source of truth, effective data governance and the right technology to support their efforts—and embrace data storytelling to create a clear message and build the organizational support they need.
3 Challenges Getting in the Way
The Office of Finance has “changed dramatically” in recent years, William Liang, Managing Director with ProLytics Consulting Group, said during The Exchange panel. Today, finance is expected to close quicker, report faster and provide more guidance to other departments at every step along the way. Data is integral in supporting all of those efforts.
“I think there's clear understanding among finance teams and finance leaders that data has been critical for business planning, forecasting and analysis,” William said. “We're becoming more and more data driven and less process driven.”
For many organizations, though, there are still obstacles getting in the way of fully putting that data into action. Those include:
1. Lack of Support
The panelists agree: You’re not going to get far in building a data-driven business without the culture to support it. A lack of support from the rest of your organization—especially higher-ups—can be a major obstacle to creating the infrastructure and environment you need.
“If I look back at my career, to the different companies I’ve been with, really the ones that have leveraged data started with culture,” said Paul Barnhurst, Founder of The FP&A Guy. “It starts with … leadership recognizing that data should drive decisions most of the time, not gut. We are all occasionally going to rely on our gut, but if that's the predominant means you’re using, there's a problem. You really need to focus on building that culture. And it starts with the CEO and the leadership at the top.”
With the right support from the top, you can start to weave data through all your decision making and put a foundation of tools and processes into place to support a business-wide culture shift that’s focused around data.
2. Inaccessible and Unreliable Data
Even if you have the culture to support your efforts, though, you’re not going to get far if you can’t get to the data you need—or can’t rely on it. “From the technical side, definitely you will need to be able to have access to that data,” William said. “So that may involve building data automations—extraction routines—and really bringing all those different sources of the key raw data together.”
And inaccessible or unreliable data can be a struggle for anyone. Even the most data-driven companies will need to continue to put the work in as they try to do more and more with their data. At least that’s been the experience of Will Garza, Business Intelligence Analyst for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“You can have data silos, multiple sources of truth, data integrity [issues], you name it,” he said. “Fortunately, I'm in a great environment here where we do have the people and culture in place, people who are very data driven. We have the tools in place, the systems are there. So we don't have a lot of these challenges, fortunately, but one that we are focused on now, as we look to reforecast on a more frequent basis … we're going to need a lot more timely inputs across the entire organization, reliable inputs to be able to get more precise with that forecasting and so on.”
3. An Over-Complicated Data Environment
“The simpler the better,” Will told audience members during the panel. Having a data environment that’s overly complicated can be another obstacle when it comes time to analyze the data and use it to fuel agility in your organization. No matter how much data you have available, then, choose a handful of key metrics to run your core business by.
“There’s just so much information, so much data, out there today—it can be very easy to overwhelm your audience,” Will added. “So it’s crucial to distill all those metrics to just a handful of KPIs to focus on. And a lot of times that list will be under 10, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot but it’s easier to focus on those key metrics and come up with a game plan and strategize and execute in that way.”
4 Ways To Overcome Them
So how do you start overcoming the obstacles, to get your people on board and build the culture and processes of a truly data-driven organization? According to our panelists, here are four key ingredients any organization aiming to be data driven should consider:
1. Build a Single Source of Truth
“Having a single source of truth is huge,” Paul told audience members of The Exchange.
A single source of truth that you know is both clean and trustworthy will ensure the data you draw on is always accessible and reliable. It will also go a long way in empowering a culture that can make decisions based on data—and trust that they’re getting those decisions right. And when there are data discrepancies, you’ll quickly be able to sort out why.
“I still remember early in my career—it was one of my first roles out of grad school. We had run some numbers and I think the number was something like five billion and I was talking to my boss about it, who showed me another report that had a number of like four billion,” Paul added. “It was eye opening to me to realize how different it can be depending on the source. Now there were some reasons why it was different and we worked through those, but really understanding that is so important to working toward that source of truth and leveraging your data.”
2. Put in Place Effective Data Governance
Effective data governance and management will help you manage your data availability and integrity, and ensure it stays secure. That makes it a critical step for creating a strong data-driven business—even if sometimes data governance can be time consuming and work intensive. Having support for your efforts from leadership will help ease the way.
“I think it’s really important to get that organizational buy-in and ultimately prove that it’s worth going through the pain of the access controls and all of the things you have to do with the systems,” Will said. “If you can convince your stakeholders that the return you're ultimately getting of going through the pain of data governance management is worth it—the pros outweigh the cons—then I think that makes your story a whole lot easier and it makes it a lot easier to ultimately lead your organization into more of a data-driven mindset.”
3. Embrace Data Storytelling
“Obviously the analysis is really important, but that last mile of figuring out what you need to present to the business is [also] so important,” Paul shared during the panel.
That’s where data storytelling comes in. An integral part of any data-driven culture, it helps you hone and simplify your message, to get people on board with the data-based decisions you make. It also lets you communicate that data effectively to a specific audience.
Telling the right story, then, means understanding your business communicating that story to the right people—and employing the soft skills that will let you truly put your data-driven decision making into action.
“You can be the smartest person in the world, you can have all the technical skills, but if you don't have the non-technical skills—like the ability to … communicate in a succinct manner—you won't be able to get your point across. You won't be able to ultimately accomplish your goals,” Will said. “So I think that's super important. I can't emphasize communication enough…. It's crucial.”
4. Put the Right Technology in Place
Finally, the right technology will help ensure your entire data machine runs smoothly—empowering a single source of truth, enabling your data storytelling and ensuring you’re using clean data and consistent KPIs. The right technology can also help all your data processes run more smoothly and allow for better data collaboration—so that you can get your entire organization on board.
How To Be the Best Strategic Business Partner
For modern finance teams, having a data-driven business is key to strong, agile decision making and being the best strategic business partner you can be. And according to our panelists, while it takes work to put in place the data infrastructure you need to fuel your entire business, they all agree it’s worth the effort.