Why talk in terms of culture when it comes to data?

I have worked in the data arena for a little over 20 years now, sixteen of those from the consulting perspective. It has been endlessly fascinating to engage in a large variety of domains and across organizations of all sizes and shapes – truly a journey I have loved. I have also watched with awe and, on the opposite side, an enduring and cringing hope, analytical and data initiatives thrive and fail; yes, post project reviews will typically identify all the usual candidates and where we failed to mitigate, plan, or adapt, but often challenges run deeper, a current that pulls apart even if the surface layers of the lake seemingly remain calm.

And so, I have recently invested time and energy into examining what might be the broader context, that more encompassing aspect wherein more of the ebbs and flows of an organization become perceptible, and therefore addressable. What might be driving these tides? Any organization is made up of people, and people create, adopt, and revise a series of habits, processes, and patterns, written and unwritten, that dictate how life is conducted.

This is not a surprising conclusion, not by a long shot – what was surprising to me was the lack of models, frameworks, or other materials that I could leverage in my work with clients on these large data initiatives. I wanted a succinct and impactful way to frame how an organization could understanding itself in successfully, securely, and responsibly using data: thus, the culture angle.

Culture is viewed as critical to the success, or as the root failure, of any type of organization. With many books, articles, TED Talks, and other references to organization culture, I am relying on that discussion as a starting point and building upon it.  Two seminal books from my early years in the workplace, In Search of Excellence and Built to Last talk extensively on culture topic in their examination of distinguishing characteristics of visionary and enduring organizations.

How might we define culture, generally? One way to view it is this:

Culture is a series of habits, beliefs, behaviors encouraged within an organization.

My aim is to delineate the subset of that culture that revolves around decision making. One may view data culture as a pillar of a flourishing company culture. For our purposes, we will work with this definition:

Data Culture fosters a set of norms regarding decision making that embraces and expects emphatic and empirical proof

This phrasing is carefully selected. Looking back to culture as a series of habits, defining a data culture must speak to habits, must speak to norms, and must speak to expectations. And expectations alone are not sufficient, rather, the embracing of discussion, the embracing of exchange, of discourse, disagreement, research, and the lively messy back and forth bits that may comprise more weighty decisions – that’s the key.

A thriving data culture must embrace all these things. Not necessarily as a truth-seeking event, but as a rubric for making more informed decisions.

Please feel free to reach out to discuss and for more content on this subject!