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Data Scientists as Leaders
Excel as a Key Leader in Any Organization
Making informed decisions, based on an empirical analysis of quality data, is an essential component of modern organizational success. Data scientists can play a crucial role in this process. Despite the “hype” around it, data scientists are often not fully valued by their organization.
For better or worse, data scientists are the experts in collecting, analysing and interpreting data. The disconnect I see is when organizations fail to value the contributions they can make beyond these three functions.
An important nuance in this history is that in decades past, data scientists were not yet called ‘data scientists’. Instead, they were analysts. Perhaps you can identify with or recognize the dysfunction exemplified by organizational members who tell analysts to “stay in their lane”.
However, professionals in this field can also be organizational leaders. With the rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI), we might also extend that statement to say data scientists should be organizational leaders. As businesses continue to pursue opportunities that leverage generative AI, it would be a mistake to not include data scientists among the cadre of an organization's senior leadership. Leaving decisions related to AI entirely to those with very little, or maybe zero, experience in data science can risk entirely missing the technical perspective that only a data scientist can offer.
This article discusses how data science professionals can help themselves emerge as organizational leaders by building and promoting data culture. To show how they can advance their careers in this way, I will discuss the concept of data culture and provide actionable tactics that any professional at any level can use to promote it.
With this information, I hope you will be able to improve the success of your organization but also improve your own personal and professional career success in data science.
Culture + data culture
There are specific tactics data science professionals can use to promote data culture, but first, it is important to understand what culture is. Culture refers to the collective beliefs, customs, rituals, traditions, behaviours, stories, language and values that define a group of people.
When we talk about data culture, we refer to the set of data-related beliefs, data-related customs, data-related rituals, data-related traditions, data-related behaviours, data-related stories, data-related language and data-related values that members of an organization share and pass from one generation to the next.
As you think about this definition of culture and data culture, also consider how it fits within your employer. Generally speaking, in the context of an organization, you might find an example of a shared belief that essentially says “experimentation is important for our success.” And to enable that experimentation, the company would implement a custom that involves setting a budget that empowers employees to decide how to spend company dollars, pounds, euros and yen on new or experimental tools of their own choice.
A classic example of a ritual within a technologically driven organization is the “daily standup”. Traditions come in the form of weekly or monthly staff meetings. Another tradition might be an annual picnic. One of my favourite traditions is when human resources send out a monthly email that announces and shares photos of new employees who recently started with the company.
Language is another good example. One of the key tactics I explore below involves asking around the organization about how members understand keywords and phrases. It is a sign of a strong culture when organizations have a robust shared understanding of these.
These data-related cultural features play vital roles in shaping how employees perceive, use and value data. Data culture reflects the organization's collective mindset and approach towards data-driven decision-making. It sets the tone for how data is collected, analysed, shared and acted upon throughout the organization.
Data culture-building tactics
Building a data culture in an organization is a journey that requires thoughtful planning and strategic implementation. While I outline a linear process to help you get started, it's important to note that every organization is unique and it's perfectly acceptable to choose your own adventure in building a data culture. In fact, it is expected that you may need to adapt and tailor the approaches discussed here based on your organization's specific needs, resources and pre-existing baseline culture. It's okay to go in your own order, adapt the steps to fit your organization's context and discard any elements that don't align with your specific setting or needs.
Allowing flexibility in the approach empowers you to take ownership of the process and shape it in a way that resonates with your colleagues and stakeholders. Remember, building a data culture is an ongoing effort that requires continuous learning, experimentation and adaptation.
1. Start with assessing and measuring
To start building a data culture, it is essential to assess and measure the current state of culture within your organization. In order to do this, make sure you engage in conversations with your colleagues to understand their individual perceptions of data and what the word ‘data’ means to them. This step involves actively listening and learning from their perspectives, which will provide insights into the existing culture.
Next, compare and analyse the similarities and differences in these perceptions. By identifying commonalities and disparities, you can gain an understanding of the current data landscape within your organization. This assessment will help you pinpoint areas where there may be gaps or misalignment. This common understanding will help establish, grow or build a stronger foundation for data culture within your organization. Remember, the goal of this step is to foster a shared language and perspective around data.
2. Document what you learn as you go
In order to effectively build and track progress in data culture, it is crucial to document the organization's current level. One effective approach is to implement a well-planned survey that collects data on multiple aspects of your organization’s data culture. This survey should capture insights and feedback from employees across different levels and departments. By conducting this survey, you can gain and document insights into existing strengths (or weaknesses). Build on those strengths. The survey approach may also assist in identifying areas for improvement. Analysing survey responses will help you identify specific areas that may require attention. The first survey effort will provide a baseline for measuring progress over time.
Leveraging this survey-based approach can provide additional structure and guidance as you gather data and insights. By documenting the organization's current level of data culture, you can establish a foundation for measuring and also celebrating progress.
3. Have fun or even “gamify” the work
To make the process of building data culture more engaging and enjoyable, gamification can be a powerful strategy. Start by creating a dedicated internal communication channel on platforms like Slack or MS Teams, specifically designed for sharing and discussing data-related insights. This channel can be named something like "Data Are Beautiful" to evoke excitement and curiosity. Of course, this idea comes from the famous and popular sub-Reddit by the same name.
Encourage employees to actively participate in your new internal private data are beautiful channel by sharing visually appealing data representations, such as charts, graphs or infographics. Make it clear that anyone can share any visual at any time on their own. This open-access format not only allows individuals to showcase their data visualization skills but also provides an opportunity for people to learn from and be inspired by the work of others. To further enhance engagement, introduce a friendly competition within the organization. Each month, recognize and celebrate the best submissions shared in the channel. This recognition can be done through nominations and a voting system where employees have the chance to vote for their favourite visual representation. By incorporating an element of competition, employees will be motivated to contribute their best work and actively participate in the data culture initiative.
Gamifying the work of building data culture serves as a catalyst for engagement and promotes conversations around data within the organization. It encourages employees to explore creative ways to present data and fosters a sense of community and collaboration. By infusing an element of fun into the process, organizations can create an environment where data becomes an exciting and integral part of the workplace.
4. Continue forward with scoring and celebrating
To reinforce the importance of data culture and acknowledge the efforts of employees, it is essential to score and celebrate. One way to do this is by celebrating the winners of the "Data Are Beautiful" monthly visual submissions. Take the time to recognize and highlight individuals or teams who have demonstrated exceptional skills in data visualization. Consider implementing a rewards system to incentivize participation and motivate employees to actively engage in the data culture initiative.
Consider the use of spot bonuses, where exceptional visual submissions are rewarded with monetary recognition. Alternatively, organizations can explore other forms of employee recognition, such as public acknowledgement, certificates or opportunities for professional development. By scoring and celebrating outstanding data visualizations, organizations foster a culture of appreciation and encourage continuous improvement in data-driven communication. Employees feel valued for their contributions and are inspired to further enhance their data skills. This approach not only strengthens the data culture within the organization but also reinforces the message that data-driven insights and effective communication are highly valued.
Through consistent recognition and celebration, organizations can create an environment where employees are motivated to excel in data visualization, leading to a more impactful and overall stronger data culture.
5. When ready, move yourself onward and upward
As you continue to make strides in building a data culture within your organization, it’s important to highlight your contributions and showcase your leadership in this area. One way to do this is by actively discussing your efforts in promoting data culture during annual performance reviews and bonus discussions. Take the opportunity to articulate the initiatives you have undertaken, the impact they have had on the organization and the ways in which you have demonstrated leadership in fostering a data-driven environment.
To further solidify your accomplishments, create artefacts that effectively illustrate the results of your data culture initiatives. These can include reports, presentations, data visualizations or any other tangible evidence of your work. By showcasing these artefacts, you provide concrete proof of your efforts and the value you have brought to the organization through your focus on data culture.
Leverage your achievements in data culture to enhance your professional profile and position yourself as a leader in the field. When pursuing new career opportunities, whether within your current organization or elsewhere, emphasize your experience in building a data culture and highlight the positive outcomes that have resulted from your initiatives. Demonstrate how your leadership in data culture can contribute to the success of prospective employers and align with their goals and values. By consistently highlighting your contributions to data culture and leveraging them in your career advancement, you not only solidify your reputation as a data-driven leader but also open doors to new opportunities for personal and professional growth. Your commitment to building a data culture demonstrates your forward-thinking mindset and positions you as a valuable asset in any organization seeking to harness the power of data for informed decision-making.
In today's data-driven world, the potential for the blurring of boundaries between formerly distinctly separate roles and functions within organizations is immense. Intentionally blurring these boundaries, in the service of building data culture, and in the service of supporting leadership development is a worthwhile organizational success hack.
AI and data science offer exciting opportunities for the convergence of product, sales, data science, engineering, leadership, management and employee recognition. This convergence does not mean that jobs will be replaced; rather, it signifies the evolving nature of organizational dynamics and the emergence of new leadership avenues.
As discussed throughout this article, data scientists have a unique opportunity to become leaders within their organizations by championing data culture. By promoting the value of data-driven decision-making, fostering collaboration and establishing themselves as experts in data culture, data scientists can position themselves as key strategic contributors. Whether you are an individual contributor or a high-level executive, investing in the development and promotion of a data culture is a smart and forward-thinking move.
By embracing this new era of organizational leadership, data scientists can not only advance their own careers but also make significant contributions to their organization's success. Establishing a strong data culture fosters a shared understanding of the importance of data, encourages data-driven decision-making at all levels and drives positive change. As data scientists lead the way in promoting a data culture, they inspire others to leverage the power of data and contribute to the organization's growth and innovation.
In conclusion, the blurring lines between roles present big opportunities for data scientists to excel as leaders. By embracing the principles of data culture, data scientists can elevate their impact, drive positive change and shape the future of their organizations. Embrace the potential, seize the opportunity and position yourself as a leader in the data-driven world. Together, we can harness the power of data to unlock new possibilities and achieve greater success.