Data Strategist: Navigating the Zettabyte Maze
- Data strategist vitality. Essential in navigating the massive data growth and ensuring efficient use across departments.
- Business insight needed. Understanding an organization’s mission and industry is crucial for effective data strategy.
- Managing data effectively. Data literacy and the ability to communicate its value play key roles in a data strategist’s success.
By now, most organizations have collected a huge amount of data. They collected some of it themselves — and they probably bought more from a service or got it for free from partners. Sometimes it was collected by sensors — in cases like manufacturing — and other times it was picked up through customer interactions, using software systems such as customer relationship management (CRM). Let’s take a look at the explosion of data and the growing importance of the role of the data strategist.
Data Explosion: 180 Zettabytes by 2025
What we’ve seen so far is only the end of the beginning. According to Statista, global data creation will grow to more than 180 zettabytes by 2025, which is about 50% more than in 2023. Suffice it to say that for each of the next several years, organizations will continue to be faced with data growth at rates never seen before.
Related Article: Creating a Clearly Articulated Data Strategy
Data Mastery: Key to Modern Success
Those who master data have a huge advantage over competitors who don’t. How it’s collected and curated and which tools are used to turn it into business value make or break companies — and even governmental bodies. Traditional analytics tools are still used to analyze much of the information — but now it’s also used to train sophisticated AI models. Many experts go so far as to say that data is now the oil of the information age.
Related Article: Data-Driven Strategies: How to Overcome Data Challenges in Business
Data Strategist: Essential for Organizational Growth
For an organization to get the most out of its data requires a data strategy that has the blessing of the CIO and probably also other C-level executives. Under the CIO should sit somebody who does the leg work and nudges upper management in the right direction. This person is often referred to as the data strategist.
Data Strategist Role Not Widespread in Business
What’s surprising is that the role of data strategist is not as widespread as one might expect.
Some organizations haven’t come around to the idea that they would benefit from having a cross-company view of what kind of data they need, how they acquire it, store it, and use it — and very critically, what they do when it reaches obsolescence. Others, who understand the need for a businesswide strategy, think the best person to lead the strategy is somebody in a management position, such as the chief data officer (CDO) or head of data analytics. This usually occurs in companies where data analytics are performed in a small number of departments, which makes understanding the big picture part-time work.
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HTC Adopts Alternative to Data Strategist
A case in point is the company HTC Global Services, a provider of IT and business processes services, based in Michigan with 11,000 employees. “In our company we don’t have anybody with the title data strategist, but we have what we call the practice head, which is under digital and reports to me,” says Sangy Vatsa, chief technology and digital officer. “The person who leads the data and analytics practice performs the role of data strategist.”
Related Article: Does Your Organization Need a Chief Data Officer? Probably
More Firms Embrace Independent Data Strategists
But a growing number of organizations make the data strategist a separate role, for at least two reasons. The first is that it is often a full-time job by itself — especially in larger organizations or those where information is particularly crucial. The second is that the independence of the data strategist helps ensure the decisions are made for the good of the wider organization, rather for the benefit of one department.
Related Article: Data Monetization: From Data to Dollars
South Holland Government Employs Dedicated Data Strategist
An example of an organization with a data strategist is the government of South Holland, the most populous and industrialized province in the Netherlands. “My director made this role separate to make it clear that I’m not part of the operational daily practice,” says Margo ter Bekke, data strategist for South Holland. “My job is to understand the data landscape — not only the data we collect internally, but also the data we use from partners and the potential data we could use from external parties.”
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Data Strategist: Master of Efficient Data Use
A data strategist is responsible for understanding the use of data across multiple departments in an organization to ensure the right data is being used in the most efficient manner. To succeed at this role requires several soft skills, including relationship management and the ability to influence people who don’t report to you — and who are often higher above than you in the org chart. It also requires a good understanding of the organization’s business, its industry, and its strategy.
Six Keys to Effective Data Strategy Leadership
Whether the role is a full-time job, or it is folded into another job, there are 6 critical factors for success as a data strategist:
1. Support From Upper Management
In the case of HTC Global Services, the strategist is also the leader of the data and analytics platform, which naturally gives the person more clout. But when the role is separate, the data strategist needs constant reminders that they have the backing of top executives.
“Strategy is so important to the overall organization,” says ter Bekke. “I could never do my job without the backing of upper management.”
2. Knowledge of the Business and Industry
“Getting to the core of the mission is a difficult, but crucial part of what I do,” says ter Bekke. “After all, you have to know where the organization wants to go before you can figure out how data can help get it there.”
The fact that ter Bekke has firsthand experience in different parts of the organization doesn’t hurt her in this regard. Formally trained as an engineer, she has held different positions in different departments for the last 20 years, including stints in finance, interspatial planning and waste management.
3. Understanding of the Data Landscape in Your Organization
“You have to know the data landscape within your organizations,” says ter Bekke. “What is the purpose or what are the results you want to get from the data? And how does it match to the data we have access to? How does this relate to the data quality and the data governance we have in place within the organization?”
Vatsa agrees. “You need clarity on what assets matter to you, whether it’s product data, customer data, or employee data,” he says. “It’s about data governance and where my single source of truth is coming from, who are my real advocates for data, who are the stewards of data? Are you replicating data without any clear purpose?”
4. Data Literacy
The data strategist must be knowledgeable about data science, analytics, and other tools. If he or she plays a dual role, as is the case with HTC Global Services, they may be closer to the day-to-day activities associated with the data. But even when data strategist is a separate role, a certain degree of data literacy is required to know what’s possible and how much effort is required to do certain things.
“You won’t get the level of expertise of a practitioner,” says ter Bekke. “But you do need to keep up with data science and related technologies at some level. And data literacy is not something you acquire once in a single program — it’s an ongoing learning process.”
5. The Ability to Tell the Story About te Data and Rise Above the Day-to-Day
“While data scientists tell a story with data, the data strategist tells a story about the data,” says ter Bekke. “The strategist needs to go to upper management with an appealing story. And you need to be able to communicate strategy to other people across the organization, also by telling a story about the data.”
People need to know how data is collected, how it’s organized, and how it’s used. These are important parts of the story — but the data strategist should never forget to also let people know how the different data sets are connected.
6. Managing Expectations and Results
Perhaps most importantly, the data strategist needs to see through the hype and bring people back down to earth. Never has this been more important than in 2023 with ChatGPT hitting the world like a storm.
“People get too enthusiastic about new things,” says ter Bekke. “We ran some experiments with generative AI, and upper management was excited about the preliminary results. But using it on a larger scale within the organization is an entirely different game. A big part of my job is about managing expectations.”