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A woman looking at a man showing a printed sheet of the Data Questions Framework.
Simon Bullmore21/12/2022 00:12 AM5 min read

How do leaders get value from data? Decisions, that drive action

Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of nonsense floating around the world of data. Let’s pick on two bits of baloney that get in the way of understanding what leaders should really be doing with data.

  1. There’s loads of value in your data
  2. Data’s the new oil

Yes, there’s value in data. But it’s important to be specific about what you mean. Is that value from selling it? Sharing it? Spreading it on bread?

And, no data is not the new oil. Thinking about it like oil – a single-use asset that flows in one direction and gets more valuable the less there is around – can lead to us treating data in ways that actually erode its value. 

We get value from data through improved decision-making

For many businesses we work with, the focus of their data strategy is on improving decision-making capabilities – moving from decision-making based on hunches, to predictive decision-making based on live data.

Think about this in a more personal work context. Imagine you’ve got a big client presentation coming up but a busy day planned. Deciding when to leave your house or office to get to that meeting, on time, is pretty important. You don’t want to waste time by leaving too early and you don’t want to be late.

To make your decision you may use a tool like Google Maps. The tool gives you:

  • Clear insights. By showing you different routes, travel options, and a suggested time to leave.
  • Insights in a timely manner. When planning your trip, the app provides you with insights like "predicted congestion at your time of departure". And these insights can be updated several times, so you can change your decision if, for example, traffic conditions worsen.
  • A basis for useful action. Specifically, when to leave and what route to take so you get to your meeting on time.
  • Confidence in your decision. Google brings together and analyses a variety of data sources on your behalf,  from its own traffic data, to bus timetables and predictions about typical congestion on your route. The way this data is presented to you visually helps you both make a decision and trust it.

This simple example shows that to generate value from data we need a data-informed decision that should have the following qualities:

  1. Be based on a clear insight. And this insight should directly support the decision that needs to be made.
  2. Be made in a timely manner. So that action can be taken at the right time.
  3. Be supportive of useful action. For example, to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity.
  4. Be trustworthy to us and to others. To be confident in any action that is taken, we and the people impacted by, or interested in the decision, need to trust the data, the insight itself, and the analysis that led to that insight.

This structure can be applied to almost any business decision. What’s important for leaders to grasp isn’t that you need a sophisticated app like Google Maps for every decision you make. What you actually need is clarity of insight that leads to useful action. However, getting to that point isn’t easy.

It takes two things: data literacy and data infrastructure

Leaders need the data literacy to be able to turn their business challenges into questions that data can provide insights into. And they need the right kind of enabling environment and data infrastructure for that to happen.

This points to a clear set of steps that you as a leader can take now – regardless of your experience with data:

  1. Prioritise. Figure out the most urgent challenges your business needs to understand and tackle.
  2. Translate. Turn those challenges into questions that can be informed by data. You can use our data questions framework to do that.
  3. Plan. Work out if you have the infrastructure you need to make data-informed decisions you can trust. And by data infrastructure we don’t just mean the servers that hold data, and the wires that connect them together. Data infrastructure also includes the tech and tools we use to work with and manage data, the policies and regulations that govern its use, and the people and communities who access, use, and share it.

Whilst this may seem daunting it doesn’t need to be. One thing leaders should draw confidence from is that whilst you need a structure and approach, you don’t need a significant level of technical data expertise. Your business and domain knowledge are perhaps more important - for example being able to clearly describe your business challenges and what the potential options might be to take action.

Fundamentally, this is what data literacy for leaders is about - knowing how to use data to solve critical business challenges by making better decisions. It's not about tech. It's not about data analytics. It's about making the connection between the problems you've got and the insights you need to set a course of action.

Whilst this doesn't make it easy, it does make it easier to know where you might start your data literacy journey - by identifying the most critical issues you need to solve and turning them into data questions. Once you do that it will be clearer what you and the people around you really need to know and do. And, once you've honed your skills, solved some problems, and run into any infrastructure issues, you'll have a better view of what needs to be improved to make the whole process faster and more effective.

The big bonus - better data strategy

A clear plan that sets out how you intend to improve your data infrastructure, so you can better tackle business challenges, should be a critical element of  your data strategy, if you have one. Ensuring this problem-solving focus is part of your data strategy will elevate it beyond what most data strategies focus on - how to govern and manage data.

Need help getting there?

Our data leaders workshop is the approach businesses like EDF use to help leaders build data literacy and take action to ensure their business is ready to get value from data through effective decision making.

Interested? Book a call with us to discuss the data literate leaders workshop.


Simon Bullmore

Simon helps our clients develop effective growth strategies and data literacy programmes. With a background in business psychology, Simon has worked in data, business development and training for over 17 years. This includes leading the learning programme at the Tim Berners-Lee founded Open Data Institute, and the launch of Harvard Business School's first European office.