Is data sexy at last?

No less a magazine than The Economist has featured a special report on managing information in the current edition.

Under the heading, “Data, data everywhere”, it discusses the benefits and problems caused by the exponential proliferation in data we are witnessing today – mostly caused by the digital and mobile environments.

Lots of data equals lots of business opportunities. It also equals problems in sorting the wheat from the chaff so that the right data is leading to the right insights and therefore good business decisions.

These are arguments that everyone in our industry has known for years, of course, but what interests me about the presence in a publication like The Economist is what that means for our industry in the future. Its readership profile is mainly senior management, including a significant number of board-level readers. This means the magazine is either reacting to a need or concern that this level of management has, or setting an agenda amongst them for the future. In truth, probably a degree of both.

Data is scary for these people. They know that they have a lot of it, and intuitively they know it must be useful and can help them improve their business – because they are being told that more and more. In addition, the economy will have sharpened their focus on customer retention as a key business issue . If you don’t keep your customers happy, them someone else will gladly have them off you.

This is great news for everyone working in data now – we have become the answer to a problem being increasingly discussed at the board level. But we need to rise to the challenge of how we sell ourselves to this potentially lucrative new audience.

Our industry traditionally suffers from problems selling the outputs of our work. We are getting better, but complex charts and graphs and wallowing in self-congratulation about the particularly clever model that we built is not going to cut it in front of a board.

Time for us to grasp the nettle and finally make data sexy. CEOs like simple information presented well. It is about delivering a nugget of gold which will transform some aspect of their business – adding value straight to the bottom line,  cutting waste, transforming their balance sheet. What price for a piece of analysis that saves millions in churn, or identifies a completely new market?

They also want to know that the advice they are receiving is the best. We don’t want the management consultants hopping on this band wagon and taking the new budgets made available from the board to solve the data problem. We have the case studies, we have the skills and we have the experience. Let’s re-invent ourselves now and take the prize we have earned for ourselves.

Google’s chief economist Hal Varian believes that the job of statistician will become the “sexiest” around.  If true, I greatly look forward to interviewing future applicants for statistician positions with my company!

By Steve Mattey, joint managing director of Tree and CEO of Cagney Communications Group

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