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Turnberry Solutions

From Data Cowboy to Data Rancher: Taming Data for Organizational Prosperity

Written By By Gregory Lancaster, Consulting Director – Data Strategy & Intelligence - Turnberry Solutions

In the wild and expansive landscape that is data, many professionals have started to evolve from data cowboys (lone wranglers of data) into data ranchers. These data ranchers are taming this rugged frontier while harnessing the power of data for the competitive advantage and betterment of their organization (ranch). This transformation has not happened overnight. The shift from individualistic, heroic handling of data to a more team-centric approach starts with changing the mindset for working with information.

The Data Cowboy: Lone Ranger of Data

Everyone who has worked in the data industry has either known or been a data cowboy. You know the type: the people who ride the frontier alone, “lassoing” data for only their personal needs, not following any structured approach, and lacking any semblance of clear goals or objectives. Data cowboys can be characterized by:

  • Gathering provisions for the long journey. Data cowboys accumulate large volumes of data without a clear strategy or understanding of where they are trying to go or why they need to get there. These actions directly lead to lack of transparency and inefficient use of information in an organization.
  • Living a lonesome existence. Data cowboys tend to be lone rangers, working as individual performers. These cowboys rarely share their knowledge, experiences, or insights with like-minded cowboys with similar needs, motives, or goals. This cowboy culture fosters a complete lack of collaboration, spread of tribal knowledge, and a fragmentation of the data environment across the organization.
  • Being outlaws. Some data cowboys feel the need to work outside the “law” to get what they want. They begin to skirt established processes and procedures in favor of working in the shadows of IT. This can lead to heighted security risks, increased cost, lack of compliance, and a reduction in accountability.
  • Following dusty trails. Data cowboys follows their own paths, often driven by curiosity rather than business objectives. These data paths could be leading them in the direction they want to go or may just be leading them on a “wild goose chase.” Their work tends to lead to random, one-off insights that may or may not contribute to the goals of the department or the overall growth of an organization. 

Looking Out to the Horizon: The Changing Data Landscape 

Most data professionals do not start out wanting to be cowboys. Rather, they grow into cowboys out of what feels like necessity. The frontier they are trying to tame is ever changing and has transformed significantly over the past several years. This shifting landscape has driven cowboys into looking at the greater needs of the ranch through several factors:

  • Boom towns. The sheer volume of data generated today is overwhelming. New data assets are popping up in the landscape overnight. The addition of new, business critical information brings with it the data consumers that want to harness it for better business decisions.
  • Panning for gold. Organizations are looking to use this deluge of data to make better business decisions. The business (and competition) demands finding the “gold among the rocks” to help improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve customer experience.
  • A little law and order. With the rise of volume and importance of the information being captured, there are some new sheriffs in town. The focus on regulations like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has made organizations take stock of their data. For those organizations that were a little less diligent or a little more reckless, not adhering to these regulations has led to legal issues, costly penalties, and reputational damage. 

Changing the Lifestyle: Becoming a Data Rancher

Data cowboys do not just become ranchers overnight; the transformation requires a fundamental shift in mindset and approach. This dusty trail is long and littered with problems that can stop the organization from getting to its destination. Deciding to make the change is just the beginning of a long journey toward better management of data as an asset, improved collaboration, and using data for the organization's betterment.

This shift begins with defining a clear data strategy. It is critical to align and support an organization’s data initiatives and its business goals. This helps to clearly define and communicate where the organization is trying to go and its importance. An understanding of data governance is also crucial. It begins to establish process and guidelines for the collection, storage, use, and access of data. 

The next shift in mindset occurs through collaboration and teamwork. The data cowboy cannot run the entire ranch on his own. They must work closely with cross-functional teams including domain experts, data engineers, and data scientists. By working closely with these teams, organizations can garner greater and high-quality insights from the information available. 

Another shift in mindset is the increased focus and value on data quality. Data quality is essential in providing reliable and trusted information to the broader data community. The organization will need to invest time, resources, and budget to set up a foundation for cleaning and validating data – while providing a path for tactically and strategically resolving data quality issues. 

The shift away from the lonesome lifestyle may be the hardest for the data cowboy. Instead of keeping the data and insights for themselves, data ranchers need to breakdown the silos that exist with the organization today and work to make the data and related insights readily available to those who need and should have them. 

Finally, the data cowboy needs to change her mindset from individual needs to focusing more on achieving specific business goals or outcomes. To do this, data ranchers create relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that align to the agreed upon goals and accurately measure the success. 

The Flourishing Ranch: Benefits of Being a Data Rancher

The transition from having individual cowboys running around with their own goals and agendas to aligning them all with the goals and agendas of the ranch is a necessary step for any organization to have a more data-driven culture. Some of the benefits of this transition to becoming a data rancher include:

  • Make decisions more data driven. Data ranchers will provide more accurate and actionable insights that can lead to more informed and effective choices that positively impact the business.
  • Improve efficiency. Through governance, enforced standards, improved quality, and streamlined processes, data ranchers will reduce redundancy, minimize errors, and work to eliminate anomalies and inconsistencies with the data – leading to greater operational efficiency.
  • Gain competitive advantage. By embracing the data ranching concepts, organizations can begin to use their data as a true differentiator and advantage over their competitors. The insights gathered from the information can help organizations better understand their customers, provide better services, and adapt more quickly to changing market conditions.
  • Increase collaboration. Data ranchers help to develop and foster an open, collaborative, and supporting culture within the organization. This culture will work to break down the data silos that exist, which leads to a more holistic understanding of the data.
  • Mitigate risks. Through better, more formal governance of critical information, data ranchers help protect from the financial, legal, and reputational risks that could be devastating to an organization. 

The Road to Becoming Data Rancher

The road from being a data cowboy to becoming a data rancher is a hard one. That does not mean it is impossible. It requires dedication, commitment, and the support of other ranchers, senior leaders, and the overall organization. For those wanting to change, here are the steps to help you achieve this goal: 

  1. Assess the current state. First, data ranchers must gain an understanding of the current capabilities and maturity level of the organization as it relates to data management and governance, including identifying the strengths and weaknesses of these areas.
  2. Define a data strategy. Data ranchers must work to establish and communicate a clear data strategy that aligns to the business goals and overall organizational objectives. They should help determine what information is crucial, how it should be used (and for what purposes), and who is required to have access.
  3. Invest in a solid data foundation. Data ranchers should help their organizations evaluate and invest in tools and technologies that support data initiatives, user adoption, and the overall data strategy. The data ranchers need to help create and maintain a base reference data architecture to help the data community understand the vision and path for data within the organization.
  4. Establish data governance. Data governance helps to set expectations and provide constancy in the collection and use of data across the organization. By setting and enforcing policies, standards, roles, responsibilities, processes, and procedures, the data rancher can help to ensure quality, security, and trust in the data critical to the business.
  5. Foster an open, collaborative data culture. Organizations need to break down barriers and promote collaboration between various teams in the data community, while educating them on what data is available, how it should be used, any known issues with the data, and what is being done to resolve those issues.
  6. Define success criteria. Data ranchers need to work with the business to understand its goals and develop KPIs to measure the impact of data related initiatives. They must be diligent and continually work to review and align data efforts to the ever-changing organizational needs. 

Real-world Data Ranchers

The shift from being data cowboys to data ranchers can lead to greater business success. For those organizations that have embraced this concept, it has helped them to become leaders in their space. Some examples of organizations that are true data ranchers include:

  • Netflix transitioned from being a DVD rental company to a data-driven entertainment giant. Netflix gathers and mines its data to gain insights on personalized recommendation of user content, optimization of streaming quality, and production of original shows based on viewer preferences and feedback.
  • Airbnb utilizes its vast stores of data to provide dynamic pricing, detect potentially fraudulent activity, and personalize search results, revolutionizing the travel and hospitality industry.
  • Walmart uses the data it collects to forecast demand, optimize supply chain, and improve inventory management. Walmart uses its data as a competitive advantage and to help maintain its position in the industry as a leader in the retail sector. 

Are You Ready to be a Data Rancher?

In an ever-changing and hyper-competitive environment, organizations have no choice but to become more data driven. Insights from this information are crucial in gaining and retaining customers, providing a more personalized experience, and understanding changes occurring in industry. The evolution of data cowboy to data rancher is an essential journey, required for organizations to survive and thrive in today’s world. So, who is ready to hang up their spurs and become part of the ranch?

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