From big data to better decisions

Progressive IT departments are moving beyond big data's hype by focusing on its promise of enabling better decision-making.

Kris VanRiper and Chris Cattie

IT leaders across the public sector are being challenged to deliver continuous improvements in the face of unprecedented budget scrutiny. Beyond simply focusing on short-term cost-cutting initiatives, IT leaders need to ask a more fundamental question: How can they continue to add the most value to the enterprise?

Traditionally, IT has added value by focusing on the T side of the equation -- through technology development such as building new tools to automate processes. Those tools are essential as employees make increasingly complex, data-driven decisions. However, simply creating tools does not enhance productivity, especially if end users lack the information and analysis needed to generate value from them.

One of the most interesting answers to the question of how to add value is coming from departments that have begun focusing on the I side of the equation and supporting information-enabled productivity.

IT-supported solutions have aided in the capture of a high volume of information, but end users often struggle to tell "signal" from "noise" and thus fail to maximize the value of data. In fact, CEB research shows that despite greater access to information and increased investments in analytical tools, nearly two-thirds of employees are unable to harness this mountain of information for effective decision-making. So how can IT leaders ensure that they are not just providing access to big data but also enabling better decisions?

A CIO recently told us, "IT used to focus on delivering a standard set of high-quality data, but now we have to provide access to new information sources and help employees experience and look at data in unexpected ways." That’s what big data is all about -- our ability to exploit large and diverse information sets.

Simply creating tools does not enhance productivity, especially if end users lack the information and analysis needed to generate value from them.

Typically, training provided by the IT staff supports a new business intelligence tool. In a few cases, the training might also focus on specific data sources, but it is rare for employees to be trained on how best to use information to make better decisions. This is a mistake. Compared to teaching someone about a tool or data source, our surveys have shown that teaching employees how to conduct analysis has twice the impact on their ability to use information effectively.

Therefore, a crucial emerging role for IT is to coach employees at all levels to develop critical information management competencies. Such an opportunity has high value, particularly given the unique strengths the IT department has in its broad reach across the agency and deep understanding of information sources, quality and analysis.

The most productive ways to realize the potential of using big data to enable better decisions is to: * Train IT staff to exploit big data. Data scientists are just one part of the solution. IT teams need to build supporting roles that improve the usability of their information assets, such as information architects, user experience designers and information security liaisons.

* Hire IT analysts who have coaching skills. Organizations rate quantitative skills as significantly more important than coaching skills when hiring analysts. However, those with coaching skills are likely to make a much larger contribution to employee productivity than those without them.

* Train end users to exploit big data. IT leaders should shift their focus from training users on new tools to ongoing support for analysis. Some of the most progressive organizations educate employees about new dashboards, tools and query techniques via channels that include video and classroom training, and ongoing analyst support.

By training IT employees and end users to apply sound judgment to information analytics, IT leaders can help transform their agencies.

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