5 Lessons from a Data Leader: How a Business-Led, IT Enabled Data Program Drives Results

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I once saw Daymond John, founder and CEO of FUBU, share the quote, “Look back to learn and forward to succeed.” I realize in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s not often that we make time to think back on our own professional journeys. Recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m finding myself doing less traveling and with a bit more time on my hands. I decided to reflect on the lessons I learned on my journey to become a data leader in the retail industry.

Sure, I’m a self-proclaimed data geek, but my first love is and may always be, retail. Over the last few years, my two passions have come together to form my unique point of view and belief that a robust data program will provide the actionable intelligence necessary to drive favorable business outcomes. So here they are, the five lessons I’ve learned so far on my personal data journey.

Treat Data as a Strategic Asset

The US retail industry continues to be a world of extremes - store closures in some channels to the tune of hundreds versus year-over-year total US Retail sales growth (2017 – 3.9%, 2018 – 4.6% and 2019 – 3.8%). That trend would have continued if not for the current economic uncertainty of this worldwide pandemic. The sales growth, prior to the pandemic, continued on the heels of a seismic shift in consumer behavior. The Amazon mindset - get anything, anywhere, in 2 days or less - is driving monumental changes across the industry with supply chains arguably facing the largest impact.

Target’s CEO, Brian Cornell, said in 2019 (via Diginomica), “… you’re seeing the emergence of winners who have been investing in their business, that are adapting to this new omnichannel environment.”

He is right. Developing the right digital strategy, investing in the right technology, and empowering the right people will drive successful business outcomes. At the end of the day, retailers that are adaptive and develop a data-first culture will win the retail game. This is even more evident given the current and unprecedented circumstances in a COVID-19 world.

All Data is Not Created Equal

You must foster a culture of disciple and accountability by building a defined, repeatable, and scalable data governance process. That might sound overwhelming, but it does not have to be. All data is not created equal, so start small by focusing on your most critical data. Gain the most traction by focusing on the data that impacts your most important metrics first. If you can connect the dots from data elements to metrics for your leadership team, you will gain support to continue and expand your work.

There is No Operational Excellence Without Data Excellence

Wyatt Earp is quoted as saying, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about data, but it’s true, nonetheless. Make a commitment to 100% quality in the creation and maintenance of data because there are significant negative impacts on a business when data is incomplete, inaccurate or both.

A well-integrated ERP system has many benefits, and with them comes greater responsibility to understand the business impacts data can provide for your organization. Take, for example, the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  If the algorithms they use are learning with bad data, the inevitable result is the ability to make faster bad decisions. Therefore, it is not just important to make sure your data is solid, but that the entire organization uses a common data language. This will ensure a collective understanding of metrics and reports and will lead to better decision making, which will maintain or improve your customers’ experience, increase their loyalty, and positively impact your sales.

Don’t Aim for Perfection...Aim for Progress

Admittedly this is still a tough one for me, but I am learning not to let “perfect” get in the way of “good.” When I first began my data journey, I was overwhelmed by how much there was to do. If I’m honest, I still am somewhat overwhelmed, but the difference is, today, I have a plan; a well-defined data strategy and a capabilities-based maturity model that together provide a solid roadmap. It is, however, the small, focused projects that propel us forward. Working with business partners to include data work as part of their initiatives is where I continue to see the most progress. Data played a significant role in projects like improving time-to-value for new product introductions, streamlining the supplier onboarding process, and modernizing the promotional planning process.

Five years later, examples like these are why I truly believe that perfection is the enemy of innovation. Every day I make a concerted effort to operate in a world of build and iterate versus think, think, think. Be decisive. Make bold decisions. Build things.

I’m Not the First. I’m Not the Smartest.

Be humble, humble enough to realize that you don’t have all answers. Because here’s a secret…you are not expected to. The data community is a well-developed network of experts from all industries in all stages of the journey, and I am incredibly grateful to those that came before me and those that surround me today. They shared their successes and failures, so I might have an opportunity to build a stronger, more effective data program from the beginning. Take the opportunity to get involved and grow your professional network. You’ll thank me, and them.

In the end, it is a company’s ability to deliver to its customers’ real value - faster, better, and more completely than the competition, that gives it the edge above competitors. I believe data is the cornerstone of enabling actionable intelligence through a business-led, IT-enabled data program. We must continue to develop new capabilities that produce consistently high-quality data. When successful, we’ll experience measurable business value – improved customer loyalty, growing revenue, simplified supplier networks – all the while reducing risk and lowering costs.

Embrace your data journey…and enjoy the ride!

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