The Data Whisperer

ART01x - edA few years ago, my wife and I would watch The Dog Whisperer on the weekends and wonder if Caesar Milan would ever consider helping our dog Luna. Luna would pull and bark wildly when we would walk her. Usually she was fine when the walk began, but as soon as another dog was spotted, the chaos would ensue. It was so embarrassing that I did not have control over my dog and when others would pass by, I imagined they would think I was hurting her or something. So, we stopped walking her.

Milan’s premise on the show, nearly every time we watched, was that the dog was not the problem. In fact, it was the dog’s owner that was the cause of the behavior. In every episode, skeptical owners were educated on various techniques to correct the bad behavior and control the dog when control was warranted. The better the owner was at understanding and using the techniques, the less control they needed to exert over the dog. I was always fascinated by how Milan was able to walk into a household, meet the dog and family for the first time, and quickly assess and redirect the bad behavior… Of the humans, that is. The dogs seemed to know right away who the boss was, and respect was gained immediately.

It’s clear that Caesar Milan is an observer. He has spent a great deal of time observing the behavior of dogs. So much so that when he was confronted with behavior inconsistent with their normal behavior, he knew to attribute it to whatever was left in the equation. In this case, human behavior is what was left. I don’t want to over-simplify and take anything away from dogs, but their behavior is pretty simple and consistent. Just like any living species, there are outliers and anomalies, but for the most part you can bank on pack mentality in the dog world. Humans are fairly predictable for the most part too.

We are a little more complex, but we have our routines. In business, you can probably fit most of the people you deal with into various archetypes of personality and this helps you predict behavior and deal more efficiently with those around you. Sometimes it backfires and there is conflict, but most of the time, it works. This is why the health and security of the data in your organization is an interpersonal challenge and not a technical one. Governing the use, storage, movement, and destruction of data in your organization all comes down to the people charged with data ownership. The first place to look when you want to gain efficiencies and order in your data is a data whisperer. Okay, well maybe not, but I wouldn’t laugh if someone suggested that we hire a behaviorist or psychologist to run data governance. I feel like the most challenging and critical aspect in the adoption of sound governance, is mastering the human element. If you know how to communicate and educate people, you can change your data culture.

Culture is what we are really talking about when we discuss data governance. Call it data management, information management, data governance, or data wizardry; it does not matter. In plain English, we are looking to bring order to the use and ownership of our data. We want those who use our data to trust it, and therefore it must be accurate. We want to ensure our data is delivered on time, which means it must be accessible. We want everyone to understand our data the same way and not be confused by it’s meaning, so we must classify and define data. These are just some of the processes central to a sound data governance strategy and yet they are all predicated on the desires of those who use and own data. If you do not understand the importance of two people having the same definition for a single data element, then you will not see the benefit of a data dictionary. If you cannot understand why inconsistent or missing data would impact a data analysis or insight, you won’t have much use for a data quality process. And for all of these important data practices, unless we set policy to define and maintain consistent awareness of data usage, governance is a lost cause.

If we can agree that culture shift is needed to drive successful data governance, I think we can begin to explore next steps. So, what is the next step? How do you change culture? Culture is a remarkably challenging area to take on in any organization. The bigger and older an organization, the more ingrained or entrenched some cultures may be. Culture can have many meanings and sometimes the definition(s) of culture is quite confusing, but for the purposes of this article, culture is the set of values or practices we employ with regard to our data. So, when thinking about data’s importance in the organization, we can ask ourselves, “How closely we protect data?” Do we classify data like, say, PII (personally identifiable information), so that only certain processes or people have access to it? Do we treat data as an asset, like intellectual property or money, and govern it with the same rigorous policies and standards? Is data considered a priority in your organization with initiatives, funding, leadership, and strategy set aside to enrich and derive value from it? Answering these questions may help you begin to see the culture of data in your organization.

Once you have taken stock of your data landscape, it is important to understand what to do to begin the change process. Education is your primary tool to usher in culture change. With your understanding of the current state of data in hand, and your desired goals for a “better” data culture defined, it’s time to take the gaps you have identified and attack them with knowledge. Lecturing people about why they need to change won’t help in this case. You must demonstrate to those around you what makes your posture on data and data culture the right one. If for instance you have identified a lack of security around data, illustrating the similarities between your organization and one like Equifax will go a long way in convincing leadership that they need a robust data security strategy. They can see all over the news just how critical the Equifax breach is, and relate to the danger that poses for any organization.

It’s important to note at this point that fear is not a great way to reinforce positive behavior. Although I use Equifax to illustrate the dangers our valuable data can pose for us, you will see better responses and results from calling attention to what leadership can gain from this insight rather than the possibility of what they can lose. The risks associated with bad behavior do not always translate to 100% outcomes, and that is why people still text in their cars. They know they stand a chance of causing and accident or getting a ticket but not a certainty. But if you can point to the definite benefits they will see from a successful data governance practice, you will see greater acceptance. Discuss the fact that performing a data asset inventory and knowing what data is housed in which systems will result in a 100% benefit of efficiency. Why? Because every time there is an effort in which someone needs data to fulfill a new business requirement, they will have a documented artifact of where to find that data. This is not a possibility, it is a certainty.

As for my dog, she is much better now, although Caesar never stopped by. I began to adopt some of the things I saw on his show and she was actually very responsive. It’s amazing what a little observation and knowledge will do for you. By the way, I was whispering throughout this entire article.

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About Ben Fox

Ben Fox was born in Inglewood, CA and has spent the majority of his life in California. That period that does not fall into majority was spent in the Army in many locations including the American South, Germany and Bosnia. For over thirty years he has spent a life in love with technology, the last twenty of which have been devoted to data. His love of reading and writing coupled with a desire to teach, passed to him by his father, have driven him to write daily, even to the point of completing a book. He currently resides in Southern California with the love of his life and his two amazing kids.

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