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Data Strategy: The Path to Genius


It goes without saying that we are living in unprecedented times.  The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not only massive and widespread, but it will be felt for months, and likely years, to come.  Some businesses have closed entirely and others have furloughed workers or shifted to a work-from-home model.  Even those businesses still in operation have seen a shift in priorities.  Some projects have been suspended, and others delayed, while tasks more important to the survival of the organization are given prominence.


Quite often data-related projects are some of the first ones to be put on the back burner.  What good are advanced analytics when you’re not sure when you will be able to use that information?  Why would you invest time and resources into customer data for marketing when your entire client list is currently quarantined, and likely unwilling to be making purchases due to the financial crisis?  Therefore, even if you can still access your servers remotely to perform ETL, or build out a warehouse, or generate a report, you may not want or need to right now.


So that begs the question, “What CAN I do?”  Does working from home mean that all efforts to improve your data landscape should stop?  And if not, what tasks make sense when we’re all socially distancing?


To find an answer that can help address our chaotic present and uncertain future, it might be best to head to the distant past.  In 1665, the Great Plague of London arrived – the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to hit England.  Much like all of the universities in the U.S. today, the colleges of London also shut down, sending their students home to try to continue their studies as best they were able.  One of those was a 22 year old at Trinity College, Cambridge student named Isaac Newton (this was in his pre-“Sir” days).  Isaac no longer had access to the libraries or laboratories of the university.  He did not have access to professors or instructors.  He certainly did not have class assignments to complete, homework to do, or projects to turn in.  He couldn’t even jump on a Zoom chat with colleagues – I suspect the connection at his family estate was just too weak.  


But Isaac decided to focus not on what he could no longer do, instead putting his efforts towards things that he COULD do.  Especially things that he had always WANTED to do, but because of the commitments of college life, had not found the time to explore.  For instance, he collected a couple of prisms, and then bored a hole in his bedroom shutters to begin working on his theories of optics.  He took a walk around his back yard, noticing an apple tree – yes THAT apple tree! – and though an apple likely didn’t fall on his head, he did ponder over apples falling from the tree and began working up his theories on gravity.  Using those theories, he ran into a bit of a brick wall because the math just wouldn’t work to figure out how planetary bodies moved, so given that he had the time, he decided to just create some new math to make it work, so he invented calculus.  


A quarter of London’s population would die in the year that Isaac was quarantined at his home.  But he took advantage of that time to tackle the tasks that may have otherwise taken many years to accomplish and had what he called his “Annus Mirabilis” (Year of Wonders).  Apart from his obvious genius, why was this possible?  Because these were tasks that did not require laboratories, or professors, or libraries – they could be done remotely, and once done, set him up for success.


That is the lesson that we can take from the young Mr. Newton – identify tasks that are important, but that often get overlooked or preempted, and which are easy to do remotely, and which will set the stage for success moving forward.  So what does this mean from the standpoint of data?  What could you possibly undertake to make your own efforts worthy of knighthood?

Strategy and Governance

Developing a data strategy is something that every organization knows they need to do. Yet, the functions of daily business and operational activities regularly supersede the need to create and document an enterprise data strategy. It is always on the priority list, but never the top priority.  If you add in a framework for data governance, you’ll hit the daily double of absolutely needed, but often overlooked, data initiatives.  


But can you work on your data strategy and data governance remotely?  Absolutely!  For the last several months I have been working on a project with a Canadian client to develop a data strategy and a framework for governance.  The project began before COVID-19 hit, and we were able to work on the project with complete success without having to travel to the great white north.  When the pandemic did strike, many of their internal priorities shifted drastically, and their regular business operations were thrown into turmoil as they shifted their entire work paradigm to a telework focus.  However, our work on their strategy and governance continued without interruption, for the same basic reasons that Sir Isaac was successful: it is recognized as an important task, it will set them up for future success, and most importantly, it is easy to accomplish remotely!  


It is always a good time to create strategy and governance, but given how so much of business and society has been put on hold, now is the best time to take advantage so that when you return from your time away, you will have laid the groundwork for your own Year of Wonders.

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