Quite often, big data is seen as an IT matter, after all you need hardware and software to implement a big data strategy. The hardware and software need to be developed by highly skilled technical big data employees who, especially in the beginning, will form a large part of the big data team implementing proof of concepts and/or a big data strategy. There are also many big data blogs and events around the world targeted at the technical IT point of view of big data. Events and blogs about big data engineering, big data architecture, big data analytics are appearing all over the world. This is nothing strange, as the required IT of big data is different from what we have had so far and therefore sharing information about it is important and valuable.
However, we should not forget that the required IT is merely a means to an end to achieve a strategy defined by the organisation. This strategy could be “to increase customer satisfaction” or “to increase revenue” or “to improve the operational efficiency” and the route to achieve that strategy could be big data or any other solution for that matter. If the strategy is “to increase customer satisfaction” it would be strange to define it an IT matter or have the IT Director be the sponsor of the strategy.
In addition, in the roadmap to a successful big data strategy, I propose to create a multi-disciplinary team responsible for developing and implementing the big data strategy. If big data would be an IT matter, IT would be in the lead, which could result in strange and difficult situations. Therefore someone within the organisation that understands all different departments and is able to have a helicopter view of the project should be in charge. IT is simply too operational for it to be in the lead or to sponsor big data projects.
Furthermore, data tends to reside in silos across the organisation, while in order to fully use the advantages of big data these silos need to be removed. Therefore, a sponsor should be someone high up within the company who can direct and align different departments, while always having the complete overview.
There are some more critical requirements for a potential sponsor of big data projects. The more of these requirements present with the sponsor, the more likely it is that the big data project will be a success. According to Simon Gratton from Capgimini, the potential sponsor should have a number of complementary attributes. Although I do not agree with all of them, the following are indeed important:
- They must be prepared to embrace ambiguity as an opportunity to deliver real insight;
- They must have a passion for information and, an incumbent frustration with the current status quo;
- They must view Big Data as a means to drive actionable change in the organisation;
- They must understand that a cycle of mistakes will occur before success and protect development.
In addition to these attributes, there are several more characteristics that should also be present with the sponsor:
- They must have a large network within the organisation to get all different departments aligned for the big data strategy;
- They must have at least some technical expertise to understand how big data works;
- They must be able to identify new business opportunities based on the available data spread out in silos;
- They must be able to lead the team members involved into the right direction;
- They must be able to get the necessary funds to start with big data.
Taking the above list of necessary qualities in mind, who within an organisation is best suited for the task? As multi-disciplinary teams are required for a successful big data strategy, it would be wise to have a sponsor high up in the organisation. Let’s say minimum Director, VP or C-level executives as otherwise the sponsor does not have sufficient overview of what is going on everywhere in the organisation and a too narrow big data view might result.
Of course, the higher up in the organisation the better. Therefore, the best sponsor for a big data project is a C- level executive. However, for very large multi-nationals, board level can be too high as they are too busy with other projects and in that case a Regional Director or Regional VP is sufficient. As long as it is someone who has direct access to the board if needed.
A C-Level Executive sponsor for big data within an organisation can spur the acceptance of the new strategy, can speed-up necessary cultural change and can ensure the four ethical guidelines are enforced. A board that is involved in a big data strategy can prevent that the project is stopped before any real results can be shown.
So, if a C-level executive should be the sponsor for a big data strategy, how does this affect a big data strategy? First of all, it means that the multi-disciplinary team involved with the big data strategy should be able to talk about board-level benefits when arguing the business case. How will the big data project benefit the organisation instead of focusing on too many technical details? It also means that the sponsor should be kept in the loop at all times regarding the progress. C-level executives are extremely busy and should therefore be kept in the know pro-actively. Send short but clear updates to the sponsor, so the sponsor can defend the big data project within the board when necessary.
Finding a sponsor for a big data project and/or strategy is extremely important, as it will help an organisation move into the big data era faster and with fewer problems. As research by Cisco indicated, companies leveraging big data will financially outperform their peers by 20% or more, so it is worth it involving and ensuring a C-level executive as your sponsor.