Chris Weston
Chris Weston (Principal, European Client Advisory)
Marc Dowd
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

We all seem to have agreed that data is important to every business, and I have lost count of the number of people who have proclaimed their intention to create “data driven” organisations. Along the way we have also heard about “data culture” – and this is where it gets more interesting.

I have worked in many organisations over the years, some where data was genuinely valued, and some where it was used, and abused, as a means to an end. We all like to think that decisions are made on the basis of evidence, but in many cases, the numbers are used like the old saying

much as a drunk uses a lamp-post, more for support than illumination”.

This can lead to poor decisions, mistakes or in the worst cases it can lead to people being prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office, or the planet becoming more polluted and thousands of people having their health damaged by a vehicle emissions scandal. You might say that these examples are extreme, that they are criminal, they are fraud, and nothing to do with data culture. If so, then I disagree. In order to achieve these egregious outcomes, people have to be willing to cook the books in various ways, and the leaders responsible for those people have to be either willing accessories, or unable to track the data back to the true numbers if they wish and be happy with this state of affairs.

What does a good data culture look like?

The basis of a healthy data culture is one where there are well-understood norms of acceptability in terms of how you use the data at your disposal, where people share their data freely, and where the data you provide to others can be verified if needed with genuine data lineage back to the original source.

What else can we look for in a positive data culture? This IDC diagram from my colleague Chandana Gopal shows us some of the elements that are important.

Running around this diagram, we have

People – we have to give our staff the skills that are demanded of a 21st century economy, in order to interpret and query data from wherever it is stored. We have to set expectations around data quality, and integrity, and how they use data to make decisions – this goes all the way to the boardroom.

Attitudes – Do we encourage curiosity? Are they able to ask “how many” or “what if?”, and when they do, do they know who to turn to? A healthy data culture should encourage this experimentation and be supportive when it turns out to be the wrong path, which breeds better accountability for the way data is used.

Values – This is about “walking the walk”. It’s all very well to talk about being a data driven organisation, but unless you provide an environment where data quality is seen as an essential part of being successful, and give people the tools to make use of it, it’s just window dressing.

Goals – Have we challenged ourselves in the metrics we use? Can we be as honest with ourselves about what makes a good decision versus a bad one as we can with our customers or suppliers? Being transparent about how we are using data for measurement leads to better metrics over time.

Social – The last and probably the one we miss most often – how are we collaborating, helping each other, sharing our experiences, in order to create better outcomes from our data? A quite brilliant example is Giuseppe Sollazzo’s excellent data visualisation newsletter, which provides me with inspiration every week as he curates interesting visualisation methods from around the internet. If a particular visualisation works for you, it might be something you can build into your own reporting.

Technology – of course the tech underpins the whole thing, but in my opinion it’s the least important aspect in this discussion. You can drive better adoption with good technology and you’ll struggle with the wrong tools, but the real change happens in people’s heads.

What are the benefits of a strong data culture?

The benefits of working in a genuinely strong data culture are many, although most are intangible. Everyone in a business makes decisions, and the further up the organisation chart you go, the more (hopefully) important and “risky” that decision is. This is why we pay for experience, so that we can be confident that these people will use their knowledge to make more good decisions than bad. We don’t make perfect decisions every time, and often this is because we have too little information, and not enough time to collect it. A good data culture means we have better data, faster – and more of those bad decisions are flipped to good ones. This reduces costs, it gets us to market faster, it creates a more positive culture and crucially helps us to satisfy customers (remember them?).

At the top of this article, I talked about working in organisations that valued data – I can think of examples of times when the business came under tremendous pressures from external forces that could have caused many more problems if we did not have very relevant data, delivered to every decision-maker on a daily basis that allowed them to see what was coming next. They had that data because they had grown the confidence to ask for it over a period of time, and it had built into a very powerful suite of numbers. Once the value of the data for decision making was clear, it was much easier to persuade everyone to take better care of the quality of the data being input, since it was key to the way the business was now being managed. That’s the power of a strong data culture, and it’s within everyone’s grasp.


How do we get to a strong data culture?

If this article has raised questions for you but you want to talk about it with peers we can help you with that. Free of charge. The only requirement is that you are a peer to the rest of the community i.e. that you are a Digital Leader (CIO equivalent at a European company).

The IDC European Digital Leadership Community is gathering in the afternoon of the 15th of April to discuss all aspects of:

“Building a data culture”

Would you like to have your say? Come and join knowledgeable professionals and IDC subject matter experts for what promises to be a great session? There is no charge and we meet on different topics every two weeks. You can sign up at: or email me at

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