Data Technologies Are Downstream of Organizational Strategy

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Here’s the thing: data, statistics, even empirical evidence don’t tell you which policy path is right. Policymaking invokes value judgments and ethical considerations in deciding which outcomes matter, for whom, and how much.

Though it may make for an attractive slogan or sound bite, you can never simply “follow the data.” With the recent quote above on Twitter, Dr. Chloe Gibbs, a professor of economics at Notre Dame, was amid making a point specific to government policymaking during the Coronavirus Pandemic. But we believe her concise explanation applies more broadly, to virtually any sort of corporate or organizational strategy.

That’s because it describes a reality that should be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to conduct or apply some form of data analysis in practice, however crude or basic, to an actual, ongoing, organized effort, in a live setting. Data may be the quantitative basis for new methods of documentation and measurement, but it won’t tell you what to track or measure on its own.

Neither, for the record, will most data tools, and by extension, most BI/BA applications. The popular analysis tool Looker, for example, can be an extremely powerful tool for exploring, visualizing, and presenting data. Google just acquired the startup and added it to Google Cloud Platform. But unless the application is connected to sources that contain (or can produce/deliver) data relevant to the questions your analysis should be asking, the software does almost nothing for you. And then, even with those sources present and functioning, the technology can’t tell you why your org exists, why it should do what it does, how it defines what success looks like, and other essential priorities.

Data, and technologies leveraging data, will not lead for you. They are merely instruments to augment and enhance the knowledge and judgment of those who already do.

Complicating things further, most organizations are at least a little bit distinct in their structure, processes, and participating personnel. Each also operates in its own unique and uncertain context with regard to its age, size, finances, and numerous external factors, from its competitive circumstances to macroeconomic conditions.

While templates and frameworks can provide useful suggestions, shorten implementation time, and reduce development risks, there’s no single product that comes fully wired with all the right reports and metrics. BI/BA take on the “shape” of your strategy, limiting what can be standardized by a vendor, and necessitating some degree of ongoing situational configuration.

It’s in this respect that business intelligence (BI), business analytics (BA), and other types of organizational reporting tools and applications are “downstream” of strategic leadership. Their ideal setup and use is dependent upon decisions that must first be made by leaders, stakeholders, or constituents who are sufficiently empowered or authorized to set course. This is a major part of what makes BI/BA solutions so powerful — proximity and impact upon the strategy guiding how an organization operates — but it also unquestionably factors into what makes these technologies challenging to effectively design, implement, and manage.