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Building a data-driven culture: Five fatal flaws

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Carlos Amarillo)

In my 17 years as an analytics and BI industry analyst - and now at ThoughtSpot - I’ve lost track of how many IT and business leaders I’ve commiserated with about the difficulties in becoming truly ‘data-driven’. Without question, culture poses the greatest stumbling block.

Over my career, I’ve focused heavily on the problem of BI’s chronically low adoption rates. To be clear, I’m referring to the percentage of employees in an organisation who use BI and analytics to make decisions. Adoption currently lies at roughly 34 per cent, but it flatlined at about 22 per cent for a decade (Source: Gartner). I’ve always championed the idea that we should be striving for 100 per cent - as Utopian and starry-eyed as that may sound.

To get there, many of the companies I’ve met with have invested millions in first and sometimes second-generation data warehouses and BI tools. Some are evolving further, introducing newer architectures like data lakes and capabilities like self-service BI and predictive analytics.

Unfortunately, too many business people have been burned by past technology failures. In the worst cases, they view recent IT efforts as more disruption for technology’s sake, without regard for what’s driving the business.

Even the most inspiring transformation leaders can fall down on the job of adapting the culture to this vision. This undermines efforts to extract measurable value. Here are what I see as the five fatal flaws standing in the way of becoming data-driven:


Fear of failure and risk avoidance are at least as much about incentives as personality. How can an IT organisation possibly move forward when its primary objective is minimising cost-to-serve? Few companies reward ‘failing fast’ despite its well-documented impact on innovation.


Trust issues abound in BI transformation. Business stakeholders have been burnt too often by long waits for meaningful data from IT or from oft-beleaguered BI competency centres (BICCs); they’d rather charge ahead on their own. This leads to BICC experts feeling existentially threatened by self-service analytics movements. There is also considerable distrust around business-IT partnerships, which have met with limited success. Finally, some people are afraid that if they share data they will be punished for what the numbers say instead of being rewarded for helping.

Individual pride

Pride of ownership is essential when individuals are designing and building BI and analytics systems. But does the culture let individual pride get in the way of larger organisational goals when it needs to shut systems down? Individual pride can also often shield the BICC and IT from recognising the value of so-called “shadow IT” groups.

Clinging to the status quo

Change can be hard and stressful. I often worry that the frenetic pace of change in the analytics industry is too high for most organisations to absorb. But today’s most successful businesses are the ones that are the most agile. Customers can now change loyalties with a click or a swipe.


To my horror, we live in a world where echo chambers, misinformation and ‘gut-feel’ are on the rise and facts and experts are undermined. It’s certainly anathema to me to have an argument without data - whether it be around the dinner or the boardroom table. Advocates of gut-feel decision making are allowed to flourish in businesses where data has a bad track record of being reliable, accurate and clean.

Ready, set, jump!

For these reasons, culture change is difficult and happens slowly. Addressing these challenges starts with fearless leadership that can often feel very uncomfortable. But as the saying goes “no guts, no glory”. Thought I am risk averse by nature, my advice here is to jump in with both feet. Here’s how to get started:

Take a baseline. Assess the culture today by interviewing a wide range of stakeholders and identifying where the biggest barriers are.

Change incentives. Identify which incentives are undermining transformation. Are you evaluating people only for cost? Is time allotted for learning new skills? As a transformation leader, you must give people permission to take calculated risks.

Connect. Do you lead from a corner office or do you connect at the water cooler, actively inviting feedback from people from across, up and down the business? Sometimes a line of business person can propose a new, more agile way to leverage data and analytics. Borrow and imitate the best ideas, no matter where they were incubated

Identify “WIFM”. Fostering a culture that embraces change begins with considering “what’s in it for me,” or WIFM. People who get technology thrown at them without a clear understanding of how it will make life their lives better or enable them to contribute to company goals will resist change.

Mix it up. Evolving people’s roles, responsibilities and skills is a fundamental part of culture change. This can involve embedding change agents in new parts of the organisation or hiring new talent. Your best people may not report directly to you but will be your champions sprinkled throughout the organisation and who share your view of the future. When it comes to fostering trust, re-skilling and up-skilling traditional report writers to data storytellers can be very effective. Finally, recruit and reward people with a can-do-attitude who view change as an exciting opportunity.

Network. One well-meaning industry veteran warned me that becoming a CDO would be an awful, uphill battle. Fortunately other CDOs who find their jobs invigorating and rewarding spurred me on. If internal politics and organisational lethargy are getting you down, then network. Compare notes with other leaders to share the burden and secrets to success.

For most transformation leaders, spearheading a culture change is an intense ride. At times it can feel lonely and hopeless, but those moments are offset by incredible highs when people across the business are empowered and business goals achieved.

The good news is that now, thanks to the maturity of search, cloud and AI technologies in BI and analytics, I strongly believe achieving 100 per cent adoption is truly possible. Better still, if you overcome the five fatal flaws, you’ll not only succeed in raising adoption but your business will flourish in countless other ways.

Cindi Howson, Chief Data Strategy Officer, ThoughtSpot
Image source: Shutterstock/Carlos Amarillo

Cindi Howson is Chief Data Strategy Officer, ThoughtSpot. She spent 17 years as an analytics & BI analyst (Gartner and TDWI) and created the industry-renowned "BI Scorecard"