Using data as a driver in transformation

‘Data is the new oil’ is a much-used phrase but having ‘oil’ is nowhere near as valuable as knowing what to do with it. Chris Underwood. explores the role of data strategy in leadership and how data can help leaders to instigate organisational change

Understanding the value of data and how best to exploit it has become a de facto skill for leaders. Many organisations ‘want to do something with data’ but have failed, mostly this is down to the fact they do not understand the nature of data. The iterative ‘test and learn’ processes of exploiting data are very different to how other functions operate. Collecting and collating data is only the start of the process.

Data is not a discrete entity, but an ongoing enabler and it is important to recognise that it is both an experimental and continuous learning function. To unlock its real value, organisations must set goals or clear business outcomes. Using the data to answer questions such as ‘how do we increase revenue?’, ‘where can we cut costs?’ and ‘how should we present our front page?’ can validate plans and help to solve problems. But rather than simply considering data as a resource to support decision making, it should drive strategy. Analysis of data patterns can predict trends and customer behaviour and identify ways to optimise the customer journey, helping businesses to plan for the future.

While clear strategies will guide effective data use, leadership is key to harnessing data’s true potential. In periods of disruption – whether navigating innovation and transformation or a crisis – data can also inform important decisions and provide clear directions to help organisations move forwards. 2020 has provided businesses with the ultimate Black Swan event, forcing leaders to make dramatic changes quickly. Information collected during this time is invaluable. Using data and feedback to demonstrate the overall impact of operational changes, such as remote working, leaders can identify ways to improve and make their organisation more resilient against future crises.

The position of data in an organisation

The data and technology function is uniquely positioned to access to every part of an organisation. It is able to assess operating processes, track the customer journey and analyse key touchpoints across the entire company. This viewpoint gives leaders the opportunity to understand the impact of change on every business function enabling them to spot growth opportunities and initiate departmental and companywide transformation.

Businesses serious about implementing a data strategy and becoming data-led, need designated data leaders, who directly report to the board or, better still, directly into the CEO. Prominence will give data strategy the air time it deserves, as long as the leader has the skills to champion its role to the board.

Data for transformation

Nobody hires a data leader to make incremental adjustments, they are appointing core agents of change. In traditional organisation structures, resistant to transformation, these leaders face the challenge of embedding a new culture as well as driving innovation.

Understanding data enables leaders to promote transformation far beyond upgrading technology and systems – which is not transformation at all as it does not change how the organisation works, merely the tools it works with. It is easy to be distracted by shiny new technology such as AI to optimise operations. However, taking time to review the data behind each process first, before replacing it, ensures the process is fit for purpose in the first place. After all, once automated, a process is unlikely to be reviewed again and investing in inefficient or redundant practices will simply be a source of future technical debt.  

With organisations increasingly taking a customer-centric approach to transformation, improving experience starts with the customer journey. Data enables thousands of different customer journeys to be mapped and analysed to identify crucial touchpoints. As a result, leaders can create efficiencies, recommending areas for automation and highlighting where human interaction is important. Data can also define what customers engage with beyond to build a picture of shopping habits, preferences and behaviours, which can be wielded to suggests potential brand partnerships or new service areas to expand into. The result will allow operations to deliver more and scale up. 

Developing successful data leaders

Many organisations seeking to bolster their data science capabilities hire candidates based on their IQ or associated technical skills. Technical and mathematic proficiency is obviously essential yet ignoring leadership qualities will hinder adoption of a data-led approach. Without the ability to influence, share a commercial vision or understand other leaders, data leaders are unable to secure the buy-in and investment they need to succeed. As a result, they become suppressed and fail to deliver.

Successful leaders have got to be visionaries and great story tellers as well as solid executors. Constantly striving to improve operating processes and reimagine business models, strong leaders are not afraid to challenge the status quo. Equally, their natural curiosity pushes them to investigate new technology and innovative ways of working, referring to data to guide future transformation. However, leaders also require good communication skills and emotional intelligence (EQ) to give teams and colleagues reason to not become disillusioned with an explorative approach, which is led by experimentation rather than direct results. These attributes will enable them to create and articulate their vision for bold transformational strategies.

Securing buy-in for data strategies

When given a change mandate, it is imperative that leaders share successes across the organisation to instill a change culture and foster support for future transformation. This will also ensure agents of change are recognised for their successful business outcomes rather than just the evangelist selling the art of the possible. 

To truly embed data within organisational planning strategies, leaders must garner support and investment from stakeholders. Acting as the ‘babel fish’ translator to speak the right language to each audience is critical for building trust and successful delivery. While a leader’s storytelling ability will explain strategies to peers and team members and take them on the journey to realise them, a greater focus on commercial impact is needed to secure stakeholder buy-in.

Reporting on increased yield and revenue as well as more personalised customer experiences and improved retention, will assure stakeholders. It is also important to raise awareness of the financial significance customer data has and promoting successful strategies as a business asset. Customer profiles and insight into their behaviour and activity also has a market value and, especially when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, can increase a company’s worth to buyers and investors keen to harness this intelligence.

Final thoughts

An organisation’s capacity to compete in a rapidly evolving marketplace, with technological innovation is constant, economic uncertainty and unforeseeable business challenges is dependent on its leadership. Fuelled by data-driven insight leaders are able to make quick, progressive decisions that will move their business in the right direction. When coupled with the ability to mobilise teams and stakeholders towards the same goal, these leaders will be invaluable and their worth widely recognised.


Chris Underwood is Managing Director at Adastrum ConsultingWith more than 20 years’ experience in executive search and leadership talent advisory, Chris established Adastrum Consulting in 2009. His approach uses integrated talent management to support business transformation.

His latest white paper, The D Suite: Digital, Data and Disruption in 2020 and Beyond, is available to download now.

Find him on LinkedIn at

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