If I said that data requirements are fundamental to sales, building a brand, customer experience and company valuation, what would you say? Rarely mentioned in a vision or mission statement, why is your data so important?
Data is perhaps one of the most valuable assets of a business. Yet I suspect that data requirements are far from the thoughts of most senior leaders in a scale-up business. Why is data so important to a scale-up? What happens if you don’t think about the data? What are the benefits of planning data well in advance? And what are the opportunities if you do it well?
Business Horizon taking your Breath Away!
Our three-part series “Business Horizon taking your breath away!”, there’s the wow factor of the big adventure as well as the need to take a breath and prepare for the next stage of the journey. Part-one “Are your systems fit for purpose?” looked at preparing your business systems for the adventure and making sure its fit for purpose. This blog looks at how taking care of your data will help fuel your digital future. Finally, in part-three “What tech? Advantage or Headache” we look at what tech will help you scale and what will cause headaches.
Systems and information flow work better when designed as a business system. Our guide, Business System: An Essential Guide to Growth, will help you design a robust system for better results.
In Douglas Adams’ novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, Ford tells Arthur Dent to insert a Babel fish into his ear for instant translations. Yet the truth is that we can be using the same word and still mean different things. Then there are times when we use different words to mean the same thing. When I presented to customers in the states, I’d give examples of differences between British and American English words. In the UK, a bill might be a request for payment, in the states it’s money. Our biscuits are cookies in the states. Biscuits in the states are more like our scones. Chips in the states are crisps in the UK and so it goes on.
This is the same in business, data requirements are all about clear communication. We can end up in heated conversations because of word misunderstandings. Context is everything, so the saying goes. If you want everything to run smoothly, you first need to agree the meaning of words to avoid confusion. Now you’re probably thinking I’ve gone too far, yet if you think about it, what happens if there is lack of clarity? How can you accurately forecast or report, know about issues, let alone make good decisions? There are real world examples of using data in business in “How can information technology help a business?”.
Computers need clarity too
When it comes to systems talking to one another, you have to spell out the data requirements. In a perfect world, data would flow round your business, like oil in machinery. The reality is that most of the time you have to work quite hard to get systems to talk to each other. The issue is rarely technical, the problem typically is translating the data from one system to another. As an example, I worked with a client that had merged with another business. They both used the same system for customer data, yet they used it in different ways. Net result was they couldn’t talk to each other because even though they had the same technology, the data meaning was different. Another example is that to avoid customisation, people put data into an unused field – the field name and data values are two different things! Sometimes, two different pieces of data are in a single field, the meaning depending on the context. The rules for translating data can become very complex.
Don’t leave it too late
It never looks like chaos at the start, it just ends up that way. This is how it plays out. There’s a problem or challenge, the company buys a system. They take time an effort to set the new system up, train staff and it all makes sense at the time. Then a little later there’s another challenge or problem, another system, another set-up & training. This goes on for a while. Then a senior leader asks for a report or new capability that requires data from multiple systems. That’s when the penny drops. Senior leaders start asking “why can’t these systems talk to each other?”. Of course, we now know why – and the problem started at the beginning, when no one was thinking too much about the data.
Hang on a minute, there must be a silver bullet. Ah, one of those silver bullets is the data warehouse. This pulls information from all these systems and does clever stuff, and then updates the other systems with the clean data. That’s how it’s meant to work, yet often it only works well for the simple scenarios. Can you imagine the complexity of moving large chunks of data around and then doing updates? It takes time, it’s a bit clunky, and then you have to do horrible syncs and updates. That’s usually the point you get the angry customer who’s informed you countless times of their change of name, address or deceased spouse.
Are you feeling sleepy?
Well reading an article on data requirements, I’d forgive you for starting to nod off. But that’s not where I was going. It’s the hypnotic eyes of the application. You start using an application, and bit by bit you start to use the concepts and ideas of the application. When you talk about the business, people will recognise the vendor speak. In some cases, the vendor’s words become so imbedded in the culture, that even when you replace the system, they will still use the same words! Sometimes vendors have a way of describing the problem that’s really good, and yet other times a business will sleepwalk into using a different vocabulary. If different parts of the business use different vendors, which is often the case, then there’s no common language. You’re back to needing a babel fish.
Benefits of planning early
What are the benefits of consistently describing your business and data from the beginning? You don’t need to translate from one dialect to another; stay vendor neutral; save time explaining what you mean by ‘customer’; instructions are clear; there’s better communication & shorter meetings. That translates to reduced cost, reduced risk and faster response.
Then there are the opportunities. If you have consistent and accurate data, it’s valuable in so many ways. A thoughtful conversation with a customer to create a positive experience. A pattern that reveals new sales opportunities. Trends based on years of data that can help the business adapt to a new tomorrow.
Systems and the babel fish
Systems have to talk to each other for business to run efficiently. They don’t have a babel fish, instead they have clever bits of technology to translate from one system to another. This on the whole is time consuming and expensive to build and maintain. There’s technology to help, and that’s great, but keeping that as simple as possible is a good thing for any business. Reduces cost, helps the business be agile and reduces risk of data disconnects.
If you’re serious about scaling a business and think you have or might end up with a data problem, then act now to get it under control. Start with the data used across the business, or data that needs to be accurate to manage business risk, such as forecasting. Prioritise the data, and work through the list. If you’re struggling to get your arms around your data requirements, why not take the first step and arrange to have an informal chat with me in complete confidence.
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