What Does Being Data-Centric Actually Look Like?

"Data-centric" can sometimes feel like a meaningless buzzword. While many companies are vocal about the benefits that this approach, in reality, the term is not widely understood.

One source of confusion is that many companies have implemented an older approach – that of being "data-driven" – and just called this something else. Being data-centric is not the same as being data-driven. And, being data-centric brings new security challenges that must be taken into consideration. 

A good way of defining the difference is to talk about culture. In Creating a Data-Driven Organization, Carl Anderson starts off by saying, "Data-drivenness is about building tools, abilities, and, most crucially, a culture that acts on data." In short, being data-driven is about acquiring and analyzing data to make better decisions.

Data-centric approaches build on this but change the managerial hierarchy that informs it. Instead of data teams collecting data, management teams making reports about it, and then CMOs taking decisions, data centrism aims to give everyone (or almost everyone) direct access to the data that drives your business. In short, creating a data-driven culture is no longer enough: instead, you should aim to make data the core of your business by ensuring that everyone is working with it directly.

This is a fairly high-level definition of the term, but it has practical implications. Implementing a data-centric approach includes the following processes.

1. Re-Think Your Organizational Structure

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of data-centric approaches is that they rely on innovative (and sometimes radical) management structures. As Adam Chicktong put it a few years ago, these structures are built around an inversion of traditional hierarchies: instead of decisions flowing from executives through middle management to data staff, in data-centric approaches everyone's "job is to empower their team do their job and better their career".

This has many advantages. In a recent CMO article, Maile Carnegie talked about the 'frozen middle' where middle-management is inherently structured to resist change. By looking closely at your hierarchy and identifying departments and positions likely to resist change, you'll be able to streamline the structure to allow transformation to more easily filter through the business. As she puts it, "Increasingly, most businesses are getting to a point where there are people in their organization who are no longer are experts in a craft, and who have graduated from doing to managing and basically bossing other people around and shuffling PowerPoints."

2. Empowering the Right People

Once these novel managerial structures are in place, the focus must necessarily shift toward empowering, rather than managing, staff. Effectively employing a data-centric approach means giving the right people access to the data that underpins your business, but also allowing them to affect the types of data you are collecting. 

Let's take access first. At the moment, many businesses (and even many of those that claim to be data-driven) employ extremely long communicative chains to work with the data they collect. IT staff report their findings, ultimately, to the executive level, who then disseminate this to marketing, PR, risk and HR departments. One of the major advantages of new data infrastructures, and indeed one of the major advantages of cloud storage, is that you can grant these groups direct access to your cloud storage solution. 

Not only does this cut down the time it takes for data to flow to the "correct" teams, making your business more efficient. If implemented skillfully, it can also be a powerful way of eliciting input from them on what kinds of data you should be collecting. Most businesses would agree, I think, that executives don't always have a granular appreciation for the kind of data that their teams need. Empowering these teams to drive novel forms of data collection short-circuits these problems by encouraging direct input into data structures.

3. Process Not Event

Third, transitioning to a data-centric approach entails not just a change in managerial structure, responsibility, and security. At the broadest level, this approach requires a change in the way that businesses think about development.

Nowadays, running an online business is not as simple as identifying a target audience, creating a website, and waiting to see if it is effective. Instead, the previously rigid divide between the executive, marketing, and data teams means that every business decision should be seen as a process, not an event.

4. Security and Responsibility

Ultimately, it should also be noted that changing your managerial structure in this way, and empowering teams to take control of your data collection processes, also raises significant problems when it comes to security.

At a basic level, it's clear that dramatically increasing the number of people with access to data systems simultaneously makes these systems less secure. For that reason, implementing a data-centric approach must also include the implementation of extra security measures and tools. 

These include managerial systems to ensure responsible data retention, but also training for staff who have not worked with data before, and who may not know how to take basic security steps like using secure browsers and connecting to the company network through a VPN when using public WiFi. On the other hand, data centrism can bring huge benefits to the overall security of organizations. 

Alongside the approach's contribution to marketing and operational processes, data-centric security is also now a field of active research. In addition, the capability to share emerging threats with almost everyone in your organization greatly increases the efficacy of your cybersecurity team.

Data-centric approaches are a powerful way of increasing the adaptability and profitability of your business, but you should also note that becoming truly data-centric involves quite radical changes in the way that your business is organized. Done correctly, however, this transition can offer huge advantages for almost any business.

About the author: A former defense contractor for the US Navy, Sam Bocetta turned to freelance journalism in retirement, focusing his writing on US diplomacy and national security, as well as technology trends in cyberwarfare, cyberdefense, and cryptography.

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