How to deal with the politics of data

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I am fed up with hearing about the exciting potential of data. We all know there is serious value in data. There is no news there. And yet 90% of companies have chronic problems with missing, outdated and inaccurate data[1] and in two thirds of organisations the majority of time is wasted on consolidating data instead of analysing it[2]. So why is it so hard to create a data-centric culture?

The perception is that main challenges with data are technical; storing, structuring, calculating etc… But in reality these are relatively simple to solve if you have the right expertise. Far more difficult is to overcome the social issues data brings. Data is emotive, and can be threatening. Sometimes this is unintentional, and other times data is used actively as another weapon in the war of office politics. Overcoming these social issues actually take a lot more guile, focus and leadership. But if there’s one function that is set up to deal with people issues then surely it is HR?

“Hell[***] is other people” Jean Paul Sartre

Data can be a source of conflict. After all, data is information, and information is power. Because all information is malleable, data it is only as those who it represents, who provide it, who use it, and who interpret it. All employees have different drivers; for the good of the business or for the good of themselves so data can be perceived as a threat depending on your perspective and people will try and block you in your fight for transparency. In my experience there are four types of blockers.

  1. The manager or employee who is apathetic. They think it’s not worth the effort to contribute their data or ensure it is correctly formatted.
  2. The employee who is scared to provide data because of how it may be interpreted, and the fear of being misrepresented. They fear those above them will judge too quickly, and make unjustified decisions without the “whole truth”.
  3. The manager or employee who uses data as a passive-aggressive weapon in the battle for office supremacy. They present charts and figures which implicate another department, or person, taking the scrutiny away from themselves.
  4. The manager or employee who hides information from others because information is power! If they hold the information they can hold the power and use that power over other people. Often done by refusing to give data or by presenting complex charts and numbers to ensure no-one quite knows what is going on.

Along the data journey, how do you overcome these blockers to find those gold nuggets of insight, and create a sustainable data friendly culture?

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” C.S.Lewis

The most crucial point in overcoming blockers is to remember that data is always ambiguous. It is only one version of reality. Part of the way to rise above the politics of data is to accept that it is never the whole story. Always try and take a step back and understand data in its holistic context, in combination with other data. To overcome the blockers see creating a data-centric culture as a change process. You have to take everyone on the change journey. Here’s how:

Dealing with apathy? Communicate the benefits

This blocker is all about communication. They’re thinking “What’s in it for me?”. Find out what is important to them and make sure they are getting something back. For example, if you are trying to collect performance data communicate the fact that having the data will help give better L&D for employees, enhancing career opportunities. The outputs must outweigh the inputs.

Fear is contagious but so is courage! Transparency starts with you

Fear of misrepresentation of data is a fear of lack of control. So start by handing ownership data to your team. They are in control. Sit down with them in a safe environment so they can feel comfortable with what they’re data is showing and how that will be communicated further up the organisation. Share your data with them ensuring you have clear security principles for any data which is perceived as sensitive (different for all organisations). Data is their friend, not an enemy.

Blame Game? Don’t allow it for a second!

The blame game creates a bully culture – there is absolutely no place for it. The only way to deal with bullies is stand up to them. This is the time to be a leader. Put your foot down and insist the behaviour needs to stop. Often picking up on politics is a gut feeling but help yourself and those around you by challenging, interrogating and comparing the data. It will soon become apparent if you have been presented with an unfair version of the truth.

Complexity is not something to be feared if presented in the right way

Analytics and data visualisations are a great way to understand data. However, they do allow for a certain amount of manipulation. So put in place clear rules and best practice when it comes to presenting data.

For example, get people to send round reports and analytics before meetings. Giving people a chance to understand and explore the data for themselves and rid themselves of any emotion it triggers will help facilitate constructive conversations. Data should be dynamic, so present it in meetings as such. Move away from the passive PowerPoint presentation and interrogate the data directly from your visualisation software. Stop analysing the data, and start playing with it!

The Conclusion?

Do not take data for granted. It is not a magic wand which is going to solve all your problems. Use the core skills at the heart of the HR function to overcome the politics of data. Fight for transparency; communicate, be demanding, and persevere. The insight and results at the end of the journey are worth it!

[1] Experian, White paper: the state of data quality, 2013
[2] Ventana, CIOs need to make information management a real priority, 2012

About rupert.morrison

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