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How Companies Deal with the Data Dilemma

Data is the big challenge for modern business. It is flowing like water across everything we do, across all the digital devices and services both individuals and companies use to get work done and to live our lives. If companies can find the sense in it, it is gold. Those companies that can harness it best for insights will be the ones that win. But doing that is hardly simple. So Techonomy recently brought together a group of senior corporate leaders to discuss managing and finding insights from data.

To start the conversation, we invited veteran tech BuzzFeed journalist Alex Kantrowitz, who recently wrote Always Day One, an examination of management and innovation at the five big tech giants–Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. What they all understand, he said, is the key difference between what he calls “idea work,” which leads to new products and strategies, and “execution work,” necessary just to keep existing products and services going. These companies aggressively use data to automate execution work so people can work on ideas. “Data is an unbelievable tool to make operations more efficient,” he said. “The strategy behind AI and data should be all about making better decisions, minimizing execution work, and making room for idea work, to allow companies to reinvent. It’s actually pretty hard. But once companies master it, they’re all of a sudden in the driver’s seat.”

Co-hosting the meeting with Techonomy was Gayle Sheppard, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure. She said one of the data problems customers often face is managing and governing data sprawl.  First, how did data sprawl happen? Many ways, she explained. Notably, the emergence of SaaS applications starting in the early 2000s contributed. SaaS providers enabled business operators to sign up for software services directly, managing it as an operational expense, usually bypassing centralized IT in the process. This generated “app” sprawl, which then drove data sprawl to a large degree. “Sprawl may continue as we see rapid acceleration of new cloud native applications and the data they generate. So rather than restrict the use of businesses to acquire the tools they need,” she said, “let’s figure out how to manage data sprawl effectively through a more holistic approach to data governance and virtual analytics. The cloud modernization journey will help address this through the creation of a data fabric as a connective tissue to data stores, more effectively generating insights from data as it arrives.”

Kantrowitz addressed the changes that have happened at Microsoft in the era of Satya Nadella, who he writes about approvingly in his book (though the “day one” title derives from a phrase endlessly repeated by Jeff Bezos at Amazon). “Anybody inside Microsoft who’s been there a while will tell you there were barriers between divisions back in the day,” Kantrowitz explained. “Satya has been tremendous in taking those barriers down and allowing and empowering people, people all the way down the org chart, to be able to bring their ideas to leaders, and to vent.” Boundaries are not wanted, in management or in data. Integration and cooperation across as many domains as possible is where success lies.

Kantrowitz gave an example of how Microsoft’s structure gives flexibility to both people and data, for better decisions. The company’s internal sales software is called the Daily Record, based on machine learning. “It presents sales reps the different products they might want to sell to their clients,” Kantrowitz said, “and who might be interested in what. It’s not just one salesperson looking at their own pipeline. It looks at the broader Microsoft experience and the entire universe of clients.”

But any company can operate this way, Kantrowitz emphasized, saying it’s a myth that the sheer quantity of data held by tech giants is what gives them power. “You don’t need an Amazon-level trove of data to be able to start automating things and start making smart decisions,” he said.

Adam Smith, Chief Technology Officer for FedEx, talked about how the shipping giant and master of logistics thinks about data. Adam explained that Fred Smith, FedEx Chairman and CEO, said from the beginning that “The information about the package is as important as the package itself.” Adam Smith updated the thought, “So information and data have always been at the core of how we make decisions inside of FedEx. More recently, in partnership with Microsoft and others, we’re really understanding how we can tap into all of the internal and external data available, allowing us to make better-informed decisions, whether in development, optimizing efficiency, or providing better insights to our customers.”

At the outset of the virtual meeting, we polled attendees to gauge their attitudes. None said their own organizations were operating with a sufficiently “day one” attitude. Though not many were in financial services, that was the industry the majority of them believed is doing the best job using data to transform itself now. And the biggest challenges to using data effectively, they said, was getting access to it from all across the organization, including in older “legacy” systems, as well as “cleaning” it to make it suitable for analysis in modern systems. Data may be flowing like water, but too much of it is still slipping through our fingers.

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