Metamusings on Life, Business, and Data July 2013

“Aligning business with IT” has become a common refrain in our industry—so common, in fact, that many consider it trite. But, despite all of the conversation around the topic, have we gotten any closer to making this a reality?  In our book Data Modeling for the Business (2009, ISBN 978-0-9771400-7-7) Steve Hoberman, Chris Bradley and I discuss some of the approaches that data architects can use to “market” their data modeling projects to their business sponsors.

In it, we take a lighthearted approach to conceptual data modeling and the tactics data professionals can use to get the attention of their business sponsors. In writing this book, we were concerned that many in this very technical industry would consider it “fluff”, given its lighthearted nature and business focus.  But we felt that it was important to put an increased focus on the “soft skills” necessary for a successful data management professional—and to realize that these skills are as important, if not more so, than the technical skills we’ve invested so much time in building.

As part of a leadership development course I’m taking part in, we’ve been reading and discussing the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (2007, ISBN 978-1-4013-0130-9), by Marshall Goldsmith. In it, Mr. Goldsmith outlines how the very traits that may have made you successful in your career to date: tenacity, attention to detail, etc. may be the very ones holding you back from moving higher in the organization. For example, a financial executive who wants to make the leap to CEO may have risen to his current position based on his knowledge of financial systems and tenacity in closing deals with customers. But to rise to a C-level position, he may need to refine his networking skills within his own organization and work on the “soft skills” that will help him better lead an organization of disparate personalities and skills.

It struck me that we in the data management profession can learn from this example as well.

Many of us entered the IT industry for our love of technology. And for some of us, the addition “benefit” of not having to work with people was a nice value-add. Leave that soft stuff to the sales and marketing folks, right? But as I’ve progressed further in my career and worked with more and more organizations that have developed successful data management projects, the common underlying factor of success is nearly always that IT was indeed aligned with the business.  Leaders of these successful projects spent as much time on the “soft” skills of marketing and selling the benefits of their initiative as they did on the technical details.

So what are some of these softer skills we can use to help better align our IT projects with our business sponsors’ needs?  In many ways, “marketing” a data management project is very similar to marketing a product or service of a retail organization. The following are some common steps, excerpted from Data Modeling for the Business:

  1. Identify the Target Audience/Customer: Who will be using the data? Is Sales looking for better quality customer information? Is the Auditing department looking for data lineage?Are software developers looking for easier ways to understand database the structures they’re populating?
  2. Understand the Pain Point and Desired Result: What are their pain points? What does “success” look like to them? Is it better data quality, faster development time, better understanding of their customers, or all of the above?
  3. Develop your Message: Every project should have an “elevator pitch”, i.e. the answer you can give the senior executive in the 3 minutes it takes to reach the top floor when he asks “What are you working on?” Do you say “Well, uh, we’re fixing data types in the Oracle application…” (eliciting a yawn…) or do you explain “We’re creating better quality data so that you can have better insight into your customers?” (eliciting interest and maybe even additional funding)
  4. Identify the Media Channel: This might seem strange for a data project, but how are you going to get the word out? Will you publish on the corporate sharepoint, schedule regular “lunch and learn” meetings, or send out email blasts? Remember to have a regular cadence of communication. It’s not enough to send something once—a common phrase in marketing is that if someone hears it three times, they’ll remember it once. Remember—your project is not at the top of their agenda—you have to place it there.
As my coauthor and colleague, Chris Bradley, likes to say at data management events “remember—part of your job is marketing”.  Whether we officially have the word marketing in our title or not, we all have to continually sell and market our data management projects to ensure their success.  What got us here—technical expertise — won’t get us “there”, aligned with the business.  So next time you’re browsing the bookstore, you might want to throw in a few business and management titles along with those data management texts.  And enjoy the process—it’s a fun mix.

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About Donna Burbank

Donna Burbank, is a recognized industry expert in information management with over 20 years of experience in data management and enterprise architecture. She currently is the Managing Director of Global Data Strategy Ltd, an international data management consulting company. Her background is multi-faceted across consulting, product development, product management, brand strategy, marketing, and business leadership in organizations such as CA Technologies, Embarcadero Technologies, and PLATINUM Technologies. She has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa and speaks regularly at industry conferences. She has co-authored two books: Data Modeling for the Business and Data Modeling Made Simple with CA ERwin Data Modeler r8. She can be reached at donna.burbank@globaldatastrategy.com and you can follow her on Twitter @donnaburbank.

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