Originally published on Whole Whale.
You probably remember the word “fiefdom” from fifth grade history class but may not recall its definition. This may be hurting you if your 21st century organization is exhibiting signs of a data fiefdom.
For the non-history buffs, a fief was a large piece of land owned by the wealthy medieval landowners when feudalism flourished throughout Europe (thanks, King Henry II). Slaves, or vassals, could only receive part of this fief in exchange for services. In a nutshell, a bunch of higher-ups had access to large chunks of land; the peasants had to work to receive a small part of it. Each fief essentially functioned as an island of its own, making central management nearly impossible.
In 2013, this feudal behavior can frequently be seen within nonprofits that silo access and understanding of their data. The motivators of this behavior are often related to people’s fear, fear of misuse of data, security, data sins made by staff, and fear that data gatekeeper’s job might be in danger if they are no longer needed. The same fear of lack of control and misuse of land drove King Henry II toward feudalism, is it driving your organization?
Five signs your company may have a data fiefdom
If your company displays some of the signs below, you may be part of a data fiefdom:
- Do you have a CIO/Senior Technologist (or lord) that restricts access to data and statistics with the team?
- Is the company’s most important metrics contained only in the computer of the data analyst?
- Does your company consist of a bunch of disparate departments that rarely communicate data insights?
- Is your company reluctant to train employees how to do slightly advanced operations related to data?
- Are metric backed goals siloed in departments without relation to the whole organization?
Data fiefdom example in hospitals
The Washington Hospital Center needed to make its ER more efficient. Doctors had to scrounge for patient charts, nurses were scrambling to collect patient information, and wait time was ballooning. Fewer patients were being served, and there were often holes in their information. Along came Dr. Craig Feied who proposed a brilliantly simple solution: more access to data.
He developed a program called Azyxxi which pieced together a patient’s past medical data. It retrieved patient information from a variety of sources such as scanned documents, X-rays, and electrocardiograms. Most importantly, this information was stored in a database that doctors could access from a range of computers. Data wasn’t siloed. Information wasn’t quarantined in an obscure file on a singular computer with a gatekeeper.
As such, doctors could more rapidly and completely learn a patient’s history, and make better diagnoses and prescriptions. Surely enough, with this new technology, wait time diminished and patient care improved. Microsoft later purchased this platform from Washington Hospital and hired Dr. Feied and his team to further develop and implement it.
The encyclopedia silo
Jimmy Wales recognized the fiefdom held by encyclopedias. He set out on the ambitious goal of making all the world’s knowledge readily accessible to anyone and everyone. For free. Relying on the expertise of doctors, historians, scientists, and even amateurs, knowledge on virtually everything was pooled into a single website. With a simple click, any Internet user could instantly receive reliable information on whatever he or she searched. It sounds magical, but you should already know that I’m referring to Wikipedia.
Ultimately, even Jimmy was surprised that restricting contributions to experts too closely resembled a fiefdom. Wikipedia became what it is only after the final wall was taken down and everyone was given access to contribute to the platform.
Data fiefdom demise
We believe that the way to deconstruct data fiefdoms is through increased transparency and access to knowledge. At Whole Whale, we prepare monthly data reports for our clients which provide an overview of key metrics related to the client’s web performance. In addition to presenting these reports to the higher-ups, we also share these reports on the “knowledge blogs” we create for our clients, openly accessible to the entire organization.
Any member of our client’s organization can then access these knowledge blogs and take a look at how the organization has been doing. All the data reports are archived and easily accessible, which serve to equip our clients’ members with the information needed to make better decisions.
In sum, increasing access to data is a key ingredient in helping people make better informed decisions. It means that relevant data can be used by all members of an organization to guide their work. It means that there is a more egalitarian culture, as the tearing down of data hierarchies allows for greater transparency and skepticism. It means that knowledge is well-maintained and stored in a secure location where it can be accessed years in the future.
Here are some steps for making your data fiefdom a thing of the past:
1. Find a Data Analyst
Crucial to the eradication of a data fiefdom is having a competent data analyst on staff. They should be a staple at the management table in order to voice skepticism and push for more data-driven decisions. While members of the team shouldn’t be phased by graphs and pie charts, the data analyst must stick to only providing the most actionable metrics and also strive to make his or her presentations engaging.
2. Open Communication
Betterific is wonderful example of a tool that fosters communication between consumers and companies. A digital suggestion box of sorts, Betterific allows ordinary customers to offer advice and pose suggestions for how companies can make improvements to their services and products. One popular suggestion found on this site is the idea of attaching a foot-pedal to toilets so as to circumvent the need to handle unsanitary toilet seats. Betterific’s core mission is to decentralize the creative process and “crowdsource innovation.” What if large consumer good’s organizations actually used this process for their staff and customers? Maybe I could finally have a toilet that understands my needs.
3. Develop a Data Culture
Fiefdoms eventually demised because the serfs learned new skills and rose up as the merchant class. In the same light, it is essential that your organization is equipping employees with the knowledge and tools needed for them to succeed. Create an anonymous surveys asking employees what skills or analytics tools they would like to learn. This will enable them to work more autonomously and incorporate data into more of their work.
Learn more on how to eradicate your data fiefdom by building a data culture.