A couple of weeks ago I read an IDC report, “Best Practices for Data-Driven Transformation,” that really intrigued me. The ideas that the report espouses are derived from IDC’s excellent dissection of modern businesses and how they use their own data to advance. The IDC scale goes from Data Resister to Data Thriver, and the report discusses how a company can move from one end of the scale to the other. We at NetApp like to focus on the Data Thrivers because their high growth and innovative use of data at their fingertips literally creates value (and profit) from the 1s and 0s in their storage. Modern “born in the cloud” and analytics companies are good examples of these types of businesses – fast moving and widely applicable.
Businesses, though, are organic. They’re made of people. People who have their own joys, goals, and hardships, interwoven with the day-to-day of the company they work for. What seems like a fairly simple strategic goal (reduce costs, for example) can get massively complex once it filters down to the manager and individual contributor level. Cut what? Where? Do what faster? <head scratch> How am I supposed to do that?
A few examples reminded me of this conundrum. First, IDC’s study shows that fully two-thirds of the structural changes required in a company come from changing the people processes. That means assigning new roles, placing teams together differently, taking away some responsibilities while adding others, and getting buy-in from all levels in the process.
Second, in a recent profile of NetApp’s own Chief Human Resources Officer Debra McCowan, she tosses more than a few lightning bolts. One is that, as a company, NetApp projects and plans its talent needs 3 years into the future. To do that, it uses industry trends, changes in customer needs, employee experience, and the like. The biggest bombshell to me, though, was this quote: “The strategic role of a CHRO is to ensure the business is agile and that it remains so through transformation without losing the hearts and minds of the employees.”
I nearly fell off my chair. That’s radical. In a good way, but still radical. McCowan was embracing the process change of data transformation at all levels, especially down to the individual contributor. She was saying, basically, “nobody can afford to take their eye off the ball.”
In speaking with customers and groups over the last month, I’ve noticed that this sort of strategic outlook doesn’t usually trickle down to the managers and contributors who make up the bulk of a company’s workforce. For better or for worse, most are usually laser-focused on the tactical – what they have to do today, this week, or for this project. Few seem empowered or rewarded for considering the overall strategic goal at the end. They have enough work, enough stress, and enough deadlines to fill a shopping cart, thank you very much. But strategy? Well, they’d love to engage, but they generally consider it unattainably luxurious, even laughable, to think about doing. They’ve got numbers to make, and the work on the front lines isn’t going to get done by itself.
So we’ve got a puzzle. I believe strongly in what McCowan and IDC are saying – that data transformation requires (i.e. it must have) managers and individual contributors to be thoroughly committed to the new processes. Yet most people nowadays at those levels are focused on the tactical. NetApp wants to see customers move to the Data Thriver category because of its inherent benefits to their respective businesses—and the quicker, the better. So how do the managers, directors, and contributors of a company accelerate to that goal?
Here’s where I make a possibly unpopular suggestion. It’s a choice that I think all employees should make consciously and intentionally. Not every day, perhaps, but enough to keep it in a notebook or on a sticky note in plain view. And that choice is this – consider your daily tasks with the strategic goals of your business unit or company in mind. The corollary should be obvious – don’t just accomplish the tactical. If your daily tasks don’t further your strategic directions, or if they actually delay them or go sideways, you’ve got to say something. “This isn’t right – we’ll never get to XYZ goal if we keep doing this.” Or “We can do this so much faster if we change in this way.”
Strategy isn’t something dreamed up by the C-suite and floated down the organization by memos. To be a world-class Data Thriver and to really transform your business, literally everyone has to be involved in the construction of a strategy. And the company has to shift it, to be willing and agile enough to take a turn in another direction (or two or three) if it becomes necessary. As McCowan and IDC and lots of others have shown, that can happen only if everyone is knowledgeable and invested in the process. No more “heads down,” because people are way too valuable and important to an organization to simply perform tactical work.
So go read that 10-K financial statement. Figure out if there’s a better way to get from A to Z. Float those new ideas and be excited and passionate about them. If they match the strategic goals of your business, they’re 100% fair game. And who knows? Your refinements or new ideas might just be a launching pad for the new rocket your business will become.