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Tear Down This Data Wall

Tear Down This Data Wall

Sarah Steimer

A new book in The Seven Big Problems series makes the case for democratizing data to succeed in digital transformations.

Last fall, federal rules took effect that required health care organizations to give patients unfettered access to their full health records — troves of information gathered and stored digitally. That meant patients could better understand their care, shop for services, and find their own opportunities to participate in research.


Barriers to better care, costs and research were knocked down when patient information was democratized. It was a major victory for proponents of data sharing, and it’s likely to spur innovation in the sector. It suggests that others’ digital transformations could benefit from collaborating through shared information — further breaking down silos within organizations.

At a time when only 11% of global chief marketing officers believe that they have completed their digital transformation, per a MediaSense survey, there’s a good reason to believe that many organizations need to consider a new framework for implementing change. To tackle the challenge, professors Zeynep Aksehirli, Koen Pauwels, Yakov Bart and Kwong Chan wrote Break the Wall: Why and How to Democratize Digital in Your Business. It’s the third book in the series The Seven Problems of Marketing, edited by Bernie Jaworski.

The authors have more than a century of combined experience around the topic. They’re a multidisciplinary team of business professors in marketing and organizational behavior at Northeastern University; they’ve consulted with numerous companies; they’ve published research on metrics, big data, social media, mobile shopping behavior and more; they’ve written books on the methods and implementation of digital transformation; and they’ve interacted with managers, analysts and data scientists across four continents. 

All this experience pointed to two central questions: How do companies “break the wall” in digital transformation? What does it mean to democratize digital data and insights and embed this learning into a company?

“It’s time to look at it more holistically to see how it fits in with the rest of your organization,” Pauwels says. “Study after study says a lot of these transformation projects start with very lofty, very ambitious goals and they fail to meet their objectives. It’s really something that management and marketing and all the departments have to work together to do to reap the benefits.”

Chapter 1 of the book begins with just such an illustrating story: The CEO of an unnamed company complains that his organization spent millions to hire the top data scientists and gather all their data — but he couldn’t see the impact on the business. The problem, the authors identified, was that the scientists and managers weren’t interacting; there was no close cooperation between business units and sharing of insights. 

Yet after these groups began engaging with one another more closely, and top management began integrating the digital transformation into company strategy — after the process became democratized — only then could results be realized.

Vision and strategy

Before an organization can even begin to undertake a digital transformation, managers need to outline what they hope to accomplish and how to get there. When it comes to the vision, the authors emphasize in the book that “digital transformation is an organizational transformation that changes how an organization employs digital technologies.”

“When people are looking at digital transformation, if they focus just on the digital side and lose track of the transformation, it tends to be hollow and not reach its goals,” Aksehirli says. “The idea of transformation in general has been very well researched, well tested. Instead of just focusing on the digital side, if you can shift the focus to the idea of changing the organization, transforming each person’s responsibilities and perspectives, it goes much easier and much better for the organization.”

And with all that’s known about organizational transformation, it’s worth remembering that it will take each company a different amount of time to complete the work. (“In my work, I always say I plan for a certain amount of time and then I predict it will take double that time,” Pauwels says. “For any transformation project, that’s a good rule of thumb.”)

Understanding that the time frame varies in the same way that culture varies across companies allows your vision to become unique to your organization. Copying another company doesn’t make the vision specific to what your employees and customers need, nor will they feel loyal to the goals or compelled by the transformation.

“I always say I plan for a certain amount of time and then I predict it will take double that time. For any transformation project, that’s a good rule of thumb.”

Koen Pauwels

Why democratize?

When the focus is on the entire organization transforming, then every employee needs to play a role. According to Aksehirli, there are two primary reasons a company would want to democratize the process. First, it ensures better decisions are made when it comes to data because they have access to and training around the information.

“Most of the organizations we deal with are aware of data being collected at various departments,” she says. “They’re trying to store it, use it to the best of their abilities. But the differentiator for more successful organizations is that they can use that data to make better decisions — and decisions are not things that we do quarterly at a big scale. It’s every employee every day, making small decisions to make the organization better or fulfill its mission.” 

Allowing any employee to access any part of the data collected by other departments, and knowing how to handle that data, is going to help them make better decisions, she explains.

Second, the open access to data naturally builds trust. It’s not that everybody in the organization needs to know all the data — a customer service representative doesn’t necessarily need to know daily sales data — but roadblocking access is an indication of distrust.

All that said, it’s important that companies take a starting temperature before jumping into the democratization. Should some departments already be working together to share data and collaborate, it can come off as uninformed if upper management mandates something that’s been underway.

And before you do take down barriers to data access, take a beat to understand why those barriers existed in the first place. “Often [there is a] sort of mindless, ‘Okay, let’s try to collect as much data as possible without any concern for consumer privacy, let’s try to share as much data as possible without setting protocols.’… Well, often the barriers that were there before the digital transformation started were there for a reason,” Bart says.

The framework

The book offers a set of guiding principles for digital transformations, which takes inspiration from the biological concept of nested adaptive cycles: a model that tries to understand resilience in the natural world by looking at continuous and nesting adaptation cycles of species. 

  1. Initiation of change: Leaders must make the business objectives of a digital transformation clear throughout the organization, explaining why the change is happening and how it benefits everyone.
  2. Implementation of change: The interaction between changes at different levels of the organization drives the true success of digital transformation, thus overcoming the gap between the current and desired status of the transformation.
  3. Building resilience: This is the human element — individual and communal — that makes the change stick. It covers recruitment and training, along with how company culture influences how digital transformation can be approached, but also how the transformation will influence the culture.
  4. Reconsideration and renewal: The vision for digital transformation only materializes when the entire organization comes together to institutionalize the changes.

The chapters describe each of the principles, and include stories and examples to illustrate how to successfully implement the framework.

The big takeaways

Each of the authors can identify what they think are some of the key takeaways from their research, experience and subsequent book. But the overarching theme comes down to awareness: of barriers, of roles, and of differences.

The authors urge companies to learn to understand the difference between barriers to adoption for technological reasons versus human reasons: Is the slow uptake on the democratization of data a problem of access to information, software or hardware? or is it a matter of resistance among more senior employees or those brought in from acquisitions?

“Sometimes we confuse one for the other,” Chan says. “Just talking to people can help us delineate the real reasons for a lack of change.”

Understanding the role that individuals play in the transformation, and how it aligns with the vision, is an integral part of ensuring everyone contributes. But also understanding that the speed at which each person and department moves is crucial to avoid resentment or panic: Those working in smaller groups and who touch the outside world may recognize problems and solutions much faster than others, so firms should acknowledge that different gears move at different speeds — and everyone may have a different perspective that must be disseminated to the rest of the organization.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the speed of digital transformation is determined by the slowest wheel, the slowest team member,” Bart says. “The ‘move fast and break things’ [mentality] pioneered by [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg no longer applies to digital transformation, because we’ve seen too many organizations that are burning fast after moving fast. Yes, it’s important to start looking at how your company must go through digital transformation as soon as possible, but this action bias that we often see perpetuated from the top when it comes to digital transformation — sometimes it really can backfire, when it is done without setting proper goals for all members of the organization and setting proper speeds.” 

But the authors wouldn’t be practicing what they preach if they, themselves, didn’t democratize the data: the book provides the text from interviews with practitioners about their own organizations’ digital transformations (“Recognizing how curious minds love deriving their own conclusions from raw data, we present these conversations here,” they write in the book.) This way, the reader may draw their own, applicable conclusions — and sharing this knowledge with their organization could prompt others to impart their own experiences.

“These (lessons) are told by way of stories and interviews, and it could be a way to get your own organization to share information about the ways they use technology and have digitized their own work — which could be the best way to make the case,” Pauwels says. “That will often resonate far better than just, ‘this is better, faster, cheaper.’ What’s the story?”

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.