Daring data moves: creating the architecture and culture to support agility

Co-authored with Andre Herbst, Account Director at Eighty20 Solutions

When it comes to lifting their data game, many organisations have been poised on the diving board, waiting to see what new technology can truly deliver from this inherently valuable resource. But tech selection is just the start of the challenge. C-suite leaders need to bring their A game for adoption strategy and cultural change to reap the rewards of a successful transformation journey for their employees, customers and business.

For the last decade, we’ve been hearing about the value of data to business performance. The well-worn phrase ‘data is the new oil’ pretty well sums it up, but it’s a cliché that’s misleading. Oil is valued as a finite resource. Our data supplies, on the other hand are only getting more plentiful, with 163 zettabytes of data expected to exist globally by 2025. As the deluge of data keeps growing, organisations really have their work cut out to successfully extract it’s latent value for improving business decisions and delivering the quality experience customers and employees expect.

Restructuring business operations to a digital-first setup is a daunting task. It has been revealed that the number one factor hampering businesses from effective data management and a successful transition is the lack of efficient data architecture.

LinkedIn, Intelligent Data Management for Digital Transformation, Wafic Naccash, Government Affairs Lead at Microsoft, 16 February 2021

The stakes are high, and so are the budgets. In their 2021 Big Data and AI Executive Survey, NewVantage Partners reported 92% of survey respondents have increased the pace of their big data and AI investments with 45% having already invested upwards of $50 million, up from 34% in 2019. And 31% are spending more as a direct result of the COVID pandemic.

 

Here in Australia, we’ve seen this sense of urgency but also a degree of hesitation that often comes when technology promises to deliver significant advantages to business performance. CIOs are used to adolescent technologies writing cheques only to have their IT teams unable to cash them. They’re understandably wary of taking a leap too soon and winding up with technical debt running into many millions of dollars.     

Investments can often range in the tens of millions of dollars to build capabilities for basic use cases, such as automated reporting, to hundreds of millions of dollars for putting in place the architectural components for bleeding-edge capabilities, such as real-time services in order to compete with the most innovative disruptors.

McKinsey, How to build a data architecture to drive innovation—today and tomorrow, 3 June 2020

 

Closing the gap on security, legacy and silos

But we’re now seeing the capabilities of cloud and data management technology growing up and the major providers delivering on the promise of secure, scalable and responsive data architecture that supports a more agile approach to application development and client access. The security factor, in particular, is now laying to rest the trust concerns that many organisations have had with cloud adoption. Regardless of the commercial benefits of a more flexible and responsive data architecture,  governance and access controls must offer the right protections to keep organisations, people and communities safe from cyber threats. Thanks to significant investments by cloud service providers in architecture elements such as hierarchical security models and audit logging and history, data can be shared with the right mechanisms in place to secure it.  

Siloed organizational structures make it difficult for businesses to make sense of the trove of data at their disposal. The evolving regulatory landscape—as exemplified by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—is giving consumers greater control over their personal data, requiring organizations to clarify their stances toward data privacy, the management of personal information, and the ethical use of data.

Deloitte, Developing a data insights strategy: How to extract value from your data

Features like these are part of what’s driving a shift towards acceptance of cloud-supported data architecture in our Eighty20 client base. However, organisations are still struggling with two major strategic obstacles to becoming more data-centric – legacy systems and siloes. Few of our clients get to design their approach with a clean slate, as their data is being housed in both on premises and cloud locations. It’s like having a Tesla and a Model T Ford in your garage and needing the parts and skills to keep both running.

 

This same polarisation can also be seen across siloes in an organisation, stifling the potential of data harmonisation and democratisation. When organisations lack a strong strategic focus on data transformation from senior leaders, what we’ll often see is pockets of digital and data-savvy adoption in some units and teams, while others keep making do. If IT and the C-suite don’t answer the call, most organisations will end up with data and analytics tools existing to some degree within their ranks. They just won’t be delivering to their full potential, and could also represent a significant security and compliance risk if they’re not properly embedded in an appropriate governance framework.

Less friction, more direction

When it comes to navigating both these strategic challenges, the Microsoft Power Platform really comes into its own. Wherever data is to be found in IT infrastructure, Power Apps can tap in, allowing both customers and employees to interact with data efficiently and with little need for cumbersome controls for permissions and access. By setting up a comprehensive Power Platform framework to keep the guardrails in place throughout an agile application development cycle, citizen developers in an organisation can seize opportunities for operational efficiency and deliver value to customers – and other employees and business units – by improving self-service and responsiveness. 

If data-driven insights are the key to growth and innovation, it stands to reason that organizations would want to ensure that as many people as possible have access to them. As a result organizations are embracing tools such as data visualization and low-code tools to democratize data and analytics.

AI Data and Analytics Network, 5 Data Architecture Trends Shaping 2021, 12 May 2021

This democratisation of data is a new frontier for organisations looking to unlock the benefits of agile in their workforce and operations. In a recent Google Cloud/Harvard Business Review paper 97% of industry leaders surveyed said democratising access to data and analytics across the organisation is important to business success. With the amount of data now available in organisations and the speed with which competitive markets and customer needs evolve, a core team of analysts can’t be expected to have all the answers when it comes to designing the highest value data interactions. Only by safely delegating authority to explore data repositories can organisations hope to make the most effective data-informed decisions.

 

In this context, the Power Apps capability presents as an essential set of tools for supporting more data-driven behaviour in every employee. And given talent and data are currently on a pretty even footing when it comes to urgent organisational priorities, it has the potential to plug at least a small part of the tech talent gap many workplaces face heading into 2022.

 

As a user-friendly toolkit for application development with data architecture built in, the Power Platform enables more people across an organisation to lift their proficiency in putting data insights, modelling and application design principles to work while on the job. Instead of relying on fresh talent to support a technology uplift at the business unit level, organisations have an upskilling program that employees can take part in while going about their day-to-day routine.

A culture of freedom that comes from control

Having said this, introducing this sort of freedom to play in the data lake and hone skills at the same time doesn’t just come from technology adoption. It relies on both a universal change in organisational culture and a control framework that liberates employees to explore new skills and tools. Otherwise, the Power Platform, or any other data and application playground, can be as risky as a Formula One car with a toddler at the wheel.

For the 5th consecutive year.. leading companies continue to identify culture – people, process, organization, change management – as the biggest impediment to becoming data-driven organizations – 92.2%. Few companies – only 30.0% -- have even developed a well-articulated data strategy.

NewVantage Partners, Big Data and AI Executive Survey 2021

As the NewVantage Partners Big Data and AI Executive Survey has identified, time and again, culture change, including capability uplift is what generally stands in the way of successful execution of data strategy execution. In our experience at Eighty20, it takes a comprehensive, proactive and C-suite led adoption and change program to see culture and behaviour embrace both the tools and the opportunities available in putting data to work for an organisation’s most important strategic goals.

To get a clearer picture of how your organisation can leverage a data-first strategy and culture, get in touch.