Using Big Data Without Harming Your Corporate Culture

Big Data, corporate culture, Jean Ross, There is a tendency to look at certain things as if they are the Answer. Big Data has that temptation with its flood of details about customers, competition, industry and even employees. But there is that flood which makes evaluating and using the data a challenge for most organizations. In a MIT Sloan Management Review post, Michael Fitzgerald noted that “there is 2.5 exabytes of data every two days.” With so much available to actually see behaviors, trends and other information , Big Data is part of the everyday practice for many managers and employees to use. The corporate culture is expressed through how questions are asked, who uses the data and the source(s) of the data.

Jean Ross’ perspective

In an interview in MIT Sloan Management Review, Jean Ross (director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research), outlined 3 possible cultures that organizations adopt.

  • Culture of heroics- This is described as responding to an unhappy customer or taking on extra tasks by doing above and beyond what is expected to satisfy someone.
  • Emphasis of discipline around processes- This culture uses “template approaches to data — with common processes, reuse of components, and a single face presented to customers and the general public alike.”
  • Data smart culture- Uses evidenced-based management and decentralizes decision-making

These models seem benevolent enough.  After all, it is very satisfying to working with organizations who respond well and are predictable.

But worth a closer look and maybe some deeper reflection

The different cultures put forth by Ross are attractive on the surface. Like may tools, it’s all about application. In a post on the HBR Blog Network, Herminia Ibarra wrote about how Big Data might skew finding the best talent for employment. Much like the Moneyball statistics used in baseball for finding the right player for a team, there is a lot of “people statistics” that can be used to determine if a candidate is right for an organization. Between mining for information including who might be enrolled in online courses to how people perform while playing video games, many organizations believe they can identify the most promising high-potential employees and leaders. However, there are things that may be missed. According to Ibarra, many women and minorities do not engage with gaming or online courses and this could lead to unintended exclusion. This example brings up the question that there may be other variables or even intangibles (a human quality that is not easily measured) that Big Data simply cannot report. This creates a potential trap that the data is actually flawed and therefore potentially useless.

Even unintended exclusions can weaken a culture

There are a couple of possible missed opportunities when evaluating Big Data. The first one is that there is tendency to look only at information that fits our mindset. This is known as confirmation bias. The second is that analysts might not have the information they think they have. Ibarra’s post certainly points out how segments of the greater society may not even be represented or marginally represented in the data. And there is also the fact that there is a lot of data that needs to be analyzed, disseminated and fit into both strategic and operational plans. These missed opportunities are not necessarily borne of malevolence but they create harm by limiting how an organization’s culture can nurture people’s development or serve their customers.

Corporate cultures are created by the leaders and the people who inhabit the organization

Big Data is a useful tool and needs to be used thoughtfully, even intentionally. With Ross’ three cultural models, there are frameworks which could support an organization’s culture. Take the “heroic” one…going above and beyond could very well be reflective of how a business wants to embed a philosophy of emphasizing human relationships. Or the data smart culture with its decentralized decision-making could treat all of its people as intelligent and professional and encourage agile responses to a rapidly-changing or turbulent marketplace. But, first and foremost, the leaders must set the tone for how Big Data is used and evaluated so that it doesn’t harm the corporate culture.

Join us this Friday, December 6, 2013 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz to discuss “Using Big Data Without Harming Your Culture.”

Who is most likely to engage with Big Data?

How do organizations relate to the information gathered?

When could Big Data be misleading?

What could help users of Big Data avoid cognitive biases that might “infect” information?

How could “intangibles” about customers/employees/society be added to the information gathered in Big Data?