Get a grip on the data

The challenge facing companies was previously to collect customer data; today, it is more a question of having a corporate culture that manages them appropriately and generates business value. Thomas C. Redman advocates better management for greater efficiency.


Just south of New York is where Thomas C. Redman, the IT expert, has his office. Better known by his nickname – The Data Doc – his face is a familiar sight to readers of the Harvard Business Review.

Thomas C. Redman is a staunch advocate of the view that digitalization leads to higher profitability – but only if the data it generates are of good quality and used correctly.

Encourage your employees and give them time to try new ways of integrating digital sources into their work.

Creating a digital corporate culture where data form a natural part of the decision-making process can be quite a challenge if you are working with people who have been in the same job for the past 20 years and are more used to relying on their intuition than on some new-fangled analysis tool.

"View it as a protracted process. Add something today and a little more tomorrow until it has become a part of the daily routine."

A good place to start can be to find out if the data reinforce or contradict your own intuition. Then compare multiple sources and see what insight that produces. As a manager, you have a responsibility to take the lead.

"Encourage your employees and give them time to try new ways of integrating digital sources into their work."

Check the data quality

For a company to be able to use data successfully, the data have to be good quality. This is the foundation of a development where AI and robots are becoming increasingly important.

A computer system such as IBM's Watson makes good decisions as long as the data it is fed are correct. In contrast, if you try to base advanced decisions on poor-quality data, it can have catastrophic consequences on the analysis – especially in areas such as health care.

"Irrespective of what your department works with, I would recommend reviewing the last hundred assignments you completed. Take a red pen and circle everything that's wrong in the associated documents. How many rings do you see?" asks Thomas C. Redman rhetorically.

The human factor is probably responsible for more mistakes than you would hope.

In a survey involving 75 respondents that Thomas C. Redman conducted in partnership with Tadhg Nagle and David Sammon from Cork University, only three percent of the companies examined maintained a level of at least 97 percent correct data.

The consequence are poorer analyses and, by way of extension, lower customer satisfaction.

Use data for innovation

The incentive to us data for innovation may be to reduce costs or to develop new services. However, daring to act and think along new lines takes not only knowledge, but also courage.

This is necessary at both the organizational and individual level if you want to change firmly rooted behavior.

In order to create a corporate culture looking to the future, you need to be able to adapt customs and make tough decisions.

One way of doing this is to keep track of the changes taking place in the business sector in which you are working, and to study the associated forecasts. If the challenges are significant, you may need to invest in an innovation lab and take on staff with different types of skills to handle the change-over process.

Most innovations do not generate income from the start, and it can be tempting to let your competitors make the mistakes while you stand back and watch from the sidelines.

However, remember that they are also learning from their mistakes.

"If you're the biggest player in the sector, a 'wait and see' attitude can pay off. It's then simply a matter of buying up the companies whose business concepts are working. But if you're not the biggest and your competitors are investing in innovation, there is a serious risk that they'll leave you behind."

At the moment, we are in the transfer phase, and there is both uncertainty and expectation with regard to what is to come.
"It's a fundamental change we're witnessing at workplaces right now, just like when industry took over from agriculture," says Thomas C. Redman.

A lot of assignments are set to disappear, while others will start to appear. Fundamentally, he thinks this is a positive development that will lead to more interesting jobs. When it comes to analysis and taking decisions, it may turn out to be a dead heat between man and machine.

"People with authentic experience should naturally make use of it. It's not a case of either/or. The smart operators learn to combine data with human intuition."

About Thomas C. Redman

Doctor Thomas C. Redman – aka "The Data Doc" – is CEO of Data Quality Solutions and helps start-ups, multinational companies, managers and heads of information services to navigate through a data-powered future with a focus on quality and analysis. Tom's most significant article is Data's Credibility Problem (Harvard Business Review, December 2013). He holds a doctorate in statistics and two patents.