Earlier this year, I decided it was time to lose some weight and improve my fitness levels. My work involves a fair bit of travel, and I was beginning to feel the effects of too many room service meals, as well as the general inactivity that comes with spending all day sitting on planes, trains and in meetings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as I got my new health regime up-and-running, I found I was spending as much time working on my diet and nutrition plans, as on my exercise programme. And then (my work life never too far from my thoughts) something else struck me: we should be doing the same with digital technology.
When it comes to the digital world we tend to focus on the external; the apps, the AI chatbots and the smart devices with their glamourous and sophisticated exteriors. For me, however, we need to remember that what’s inside is just as important.
The power of data
The reason for this is simple: without data our digital devices and apps would be worthless. During the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries the steam engine, electric motor and internal combustion engine all changed the ways we live and work, yet without a source of power these machines would all just be lots of scrap metal. I think it’s exactly the same with our digital technologies: without data, they won’t work and realise their huge potential.
Data is often compared to oil and water. While the former analogy risks overuse, it’s easy to see the link in terms of the monetary value of data, as this Economist article makes clear. And then water provides a sense of scale: if the bytes of data were cubic meters of water, then we’d see over twice the volume of the world’s oceans filled each day – a staggering thought!
For me, however, the real power of these two analogies is that they compare commodities which are, in their raw form, fairly useless - you wouldn’t want to fly in a plane powered by crude oil, nor drink a glass of sea-water. However, when they’re captured, stored, refined or purified they’re transformed into highly useful commodities - these commodities can then be used to power a lot of the world around us (and water certainly powered me during my training sessions)
Taking care of data
I think the same is true with data. The full potential of digital technology will only be realised if data is properly processed. Without the collection, cleansing, management, refinement, usage and – taking into consideration new data privacy regulations such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation – disposal of data, all the algorithms and apps in the world will be next to useless. High quality data is the one, completely essential, ingredient to the successful digital transformation of the world around us.
When I think about that, I’m disappointed that all too often conversations around digital and data take place separately. We see analytics as being a distinct discipline, and many of the use cases that support the business cases for analytics projects have yet to include the use of data by digital channels or digital tools such as apps and chatbots.
I’d like to see businesses start to think in terms of a continuum of data usage within the enterprise. This continuum would cover the ongoing need for data around reporting and internal control, but would also stretch to a vision of how data can change the way that the business interacts with its customers and manages its internal business processes. Building out a roadmap and framework of use cases in this way, would help organisations put the right technology platforms in place and ensure they can be adapted and expanded over time as new uses of data emerge.
We’re at a critical moment in the development of digital technology. If businesses are to exploit fully the transformational power of these new tools and get themselves fit for the future, it’s essential they understand the importance of data and good data management. Not doing so risks creating a range of algorithms and applications that will fail to deliver.