Traditional corporates just don’t think like agile startups. But, given this mindset difference, how does one even go about embedding a business unit that no one had even heard of five years ago? How does one even begin changing a decades-old paradigm of how business is conducted?
All these questions and more rear their inconvenient little heads when a large organisation makes the decision to invest in ‘Big Data’ and data science to become a more data-driven organisation.
From stats and marketing science to data science
We need to start thinking about data in the way that technology companies do, with a focus on databases, standards, and non-matrix-style data such as JSON. Changing how we think about data opens up an entire vista of new ways of using that data.
From ad hoc projects to repeatable data pipelines at scale
When approaching new data products, we shouldn’t focus on ways of repeating the same product from scratch every time a new client comes along.
Instead, we need to approach new products from the beginning with the full end-to-end pipeline in mind so that we can build it once and benefit from automation and scalability. Where is the data coming from? What processing needs to be applied to it?
Also, how are we delivering the outputs in an automated, perhaps even self-service, manner? This is a technology and development discussion that also involves operations, client-facing, and technical folks.
From monolithic to agile product development
We need to take a leaf out of the world of software development by adopting agile product development methodologies that allow for the creation of minimum viable products (MVP), get feedback on those MVPs and fail fast (if necessary), or continue to tailor the solution to internal and external client needs.
From centralised technology control to decentralised technology empowerment
Technology continues to creep into an ever-broader variety of business functions, and more and more teams have the technical know-how to leverage it. Therefore, technology is no longer the sole purview of operations, who centralises all development, deployment, and maintenance.
Instead, technology decisions need to be made on the basis of how they can empower a broad, decentralised range of teams in a scalable way that still allows for some structure. Thus, it’s important to focus on the ‘plumbing’ of your organisation’s infrastructure that teams can build on top of in a non-restrictive way. It’s about empowering rather than controlling.
From operations to dev ops
Operations have always played a central role in ensuring that an organisation operates. That used to be about keeping your email inbox clear, protecting your sensitive data, and ensuring that other systems run smoothly.
The role has expanded now though in vital ways
They are the key to empowering an organisation through technology. As such, they need a clear mandate around building and maintaining the plumbing that empowers a technology driven organisation.
For example, they need to play a role in defining the data and API standards within the organisation, empower colleagues through effective collaboration platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, empower technical teams through access to cloud infrastructure, sandbox environments, and continuous integration pipelines, among other things. This is the plumbing that teams can build on.
From silos versus cross-disciplinary collaboration
As more teams become technically empowered, collaboration across siloes becomes more and more important. Effective data products require a range of specialists to come together to tackle a task, including operations, developers, data scientists, and client-facing colleagues who know the business issue.
When to outsource technology requirements versus building yourself?
This is a perennial conversation in many industries. Traditional wisdom says that if it’s not your core business, let others do it. This used to hold for anything technology related. Unfortunately, business is technology. It is no longer possible to wash your hands of all technology involvement.
I’d recommend ensuring that you focus on getting your own technological plumbing in place and then mix and match what you buy from third parties and what you build yourself on top of that. Related to this, many third parties will say that their field is too complex to dabble in part-time, so you should let them provide those abilities for you. Artificial intelligence (AI) companies come to mind here.
I don’t think this is a zero-sum game though. For example, in the field of market research, if we were to outsource everything technical such as AI applications, we’d never build up expertise and familiarity in these areas ourselves.
In addition, when we rely on third parties to do it for us. We introduce many bureaucratic, communication and integration ‘friction costs’ that are often not accounted for up front. These ensure that internal stakeholders are not able to access these products in a scalable way, which prevents us from building expertise in these areas or selling them effectively.
As a result, I strongly believe in providing basic access to such approaches internally and only ‘upselling’ to formal products when it makes sense by providing a ‘glide path’ for internal colleagues to follow along with this chain.
When to use commercial and open source technologies?
This is a false dichotomy. Use the best tool for the job. Often, this is open source because it is free and cutting edge; other times it’s a commercial solution that offers best-in-class quality outputs, support, and integrates well with your existing systems.
The important thing to remember here is that whatever you use should plug into your data system at the ‘plumbing’ level. In other words, as a third party provider, I don’t care how ‘sexy’ your dashboard is; if it doesn’t speak to my other systems at an API/service level so that I can easily integrate it into my larger data ecosystem, you are just introducing unnecessary friction to my data product pipeline.
media update recently investigated the problem of Big Data, and how AI is helping brands to make sense of it all. Read more in our article, How AI makes sense of the media’s Big Data.