A few weeks into the new year, my calendar is already filling up with the industry events, webinars and podcasts I plan to join this year. I’ll show up (or dial in) to share my thoughts on all things data — strategy, management, quality, governance, architecture, analytics, et al — and field questions from hundreds of people. Some will be new to the industry and some will be lifers, like me. Some will work for large, household-name firms and others will have a data management-related role at a small company, nonprofit or government agency.
Despite their differences in years of experience and company types, these constituents of mine have a lot in common. I know this because they tend to have similar concerns and questions, whether I meet them at Enterprise Data World in San Diego or in Florida at the Data Governance Winter Conference. Often, their heart-felt and revealing questions could inspire a two-hour discussion with me vs. me being able to answer them during a conference program Q&A. But I still attempt to do so and often wonder about them and their challenges long after the conference.
What can we learn from these data management professionals? Quite a bit, I believe. Here are the top questions I’m asked — and questions I wish they’d ask.
How Do I Get Management to Listen?
This question often includes a specific area the individual is struggling with, like “How do I get management to listen to my concerns about the quality of our data?” Or, “How do I get management to fund a data catalog project?”
Are you focusing your energies on making a strong case? Make the request compelling and use the language of your organization — and get corroboration on whatever you draft. Look for someone in or outside your organization who is doing something similar to what you want to do. Highlight the fact this is a vetted and accepted way to handle the particular issue. State the facts clearly and with conviction.
How Do I Prove ROI?
This question is typically tied to an initiative like proving the return on investment (ROI) on a newly launched data management program or tying ROI to a business case.
When you get an ROI question, consider the motivation behind it. Often, it’s a sign of resistance designed to slow you down — something you’re expecting management to ask you to qualify. Other times it could be a self-inflicted barrier where you’re expecting to get the question.
Often, ROI is asked about because you haven’t conveyed the business reasons well-enough. But you know what? The most compelling cases can go forward without any associated ROI. Take data scientists, for example. There’s often no history of ROI for their role, yet people fund these positions because it’s believed the role brings value to the organization.
If it’s a sincere question about ROI, educate yourself on what ROI means to the person in terms of the organization’s data. In addition to the business language I mentioned, make sure your request is aligned with something the organization needs, which should be expressed as a strategic program or important initiative. Then craft your ROI response and vet it with a trusted advisor or co-worker before sharing it “up.”
What Can I Do About a Roadblock?
This question often includes a reference to a senior leader, manager or department that is inhibiting a program — either one that stalled out before it launched or one that’s been in place for months or years, but it’s floundering now.
If your data management program or governance imitative has a sponsor, look to them for assistance. Either your sponsor will help you navigate the roadblock, or your sponsor will prove that they’re going to be an ineffective advocate. (Side note: Both scenarios can be considered a win, because it may be time for you to find a more effective sponsor!)
If your program doesn’t have a sponsor, look for a sympathetic senior leader and invite him or her to a discussion where you can share the roadblock you’re dealing with. (You might find our change management ebook to be helpful. See the characteristics of an executive sponsor section, in particular.)
Questions for Vendors
Vendors often set up shop at data management conferences, and this is where you might learn of a new product or service. I encourage you to question these vendors and not just “take what they’re selling” at face value.
Here are questions to ask the next time you’re in front of an industry vendor rep:
- How do you set priorities for new product features? Some companies just look around at what competitors are offering and try match features. You’re looking for answers that explain how they set the pace for the industry and/or use customer input and new research to inform product development.
- Why do your customers stay with you? This is a sneaky way of getting a lot of information. First, the vendor has to talk about its customers (not their product or service). They should talk about customers’ successes, and newer industry vendors can’t go deep here. (It goes without saying that many vendors have come and gone over the years.)
- Or even better, ask what reasons are you given when a customer leaves your product or service and chooses to go elsewhere? Take their answer and compare it to people you know who actually use the company’s product or service. Does the vendor’s answer ring true? The vendor might say it’s a product gap they’re working to fill, but the actual user might say the vendor has customer service-related issues.
Now here are questions I wish people would ask …
Questions for Speakers
In the 25 years I’ve been speaking at data management industry events, I typically closed my presentation with an offer that invited attendees to contact me for a no-obligation, 30-minute follow-up call. Would you believe that only a handful of people have taken me up on this? It’s true. And pardon me for being blunt, but that’s a wasted opportunity. Because even if you don’t agree with everything I say, 30-plus years of doing this has allowed me, as well as some of my peers, to accumulate a lot of experience.
If you’re in one of my sessions this year (much of my schedule is shown here), I look forward to hearing you ask, “Can I take you up on that 30-minute follow-up call?”
Also, why not ask me or another conference speaker this question: What were you doing before you were in the data management business? I think you’ll find our answers to be interesting, encouraging and enlightening. (I could relate many stories — more than this blog post would allow — about industry people I know and their varied, serendipitous paths.)
Keep Questioning Post-Conference
We’ve all attended a conference where we left the event with genuine excitement and a notebook crammed with ideas to think about and implement. You’re excited and, boy, does the future look bright! But when you get back to work, you’re pulled back into BAU with its challenges and politics and co-workers who obviously weren’t at the same motivating conference.
Here’s something to try before you head home from that next conference or right after you hang up from a webinar you dialed into: Invite your manager, your team and/or a partner department co-worker to a meeting the very next week — or make it for coffee outside the office. Just schedule it. And consider inviting your sponsor or other senior leader to the meeting, as well.
There, you’ll share what you learned at the industry event and the things you’re excited about. Look them in the eyes and ask, “What would stop us from trying XYZ this year?” and “What’s at stake if we don’t do this?” Tell them about the compelling speaker you heard or recite a data management practitioner’s case study. It can be particularly effective to mention the successes of a company with a similar business model as yours — or how your competitors are succeeding in a given area.
I can say with certainty that companies that take a “wait and see if data is important” attitude will be in a compromised position in the future. Take what you learn at industry conferences, and be a change leader in your organization. Go back and ask questions — hard questions. Encourage people to join you in making data a true enterprise asset. I bet you’ll find at least one person, probably many, who also want to see change. And that’s ROI you can build on.