How chiefs of staff help companies do “big data” right

I recently had the privilege of hearing a terrific presentation about “big data,” by Michael Kauffman of BigNimble, in a room of Seattle-area business leaders. In addition to making many excellent points about how data get used and how more and more companies are starting to adopt sensible approaches to using data in new ways, he mentioned that for CEOs to do big data right, they need to involve three roles:

  • An internal ops person
  • An internal data person
  • An external data person

For organizations that have a chief operating officer, that person could take on the internal ops role. For others, though, this is precisely the kind of cross-departmental project that corporate chiefs of staff are known for. Let’s say you as CEO want to implement an initiative across an organization to comb the company’s “small data” and find new ways to use the data to drive sales, cut costs, or negotiate with suppliers. In doing that combing and pivoting, and in looking at new views and uses of data, Kaufmann says you are just adding a layer on top of your so-called small data, not fundamentally changing it. This is both a strategic undertaking that the CEO might initiate and broadly oversee and a tactical undertaking that does not require the CEO’s presence at all the meetings where the proverbial sausage is made. Given the CEO’s strategic direction, the chief of staff can keep the executive out of the weeds by:

  • identifying the right people to bring together, including the right external data person.
  • facilitating the discussions about areas of focus and benefits, reminding people of the strategic intent if they veer too far from it.
  • asking questions about and planning mitigation for risks.
  • following up with stakeholders affected by the data being used in new ways; educating them; hearing their concerns; assuaging their concerns, if needed; and where new usage of data presents new problems, crafting solutions that meet the needs of the organization and those stakeholders.

How do you manage the complexity of an initiative like this, knowing that it’s one of many initiatives that you have started and are overseeing, and that could pull you into operational details that aren’t the highest and best use of your time? How’s your current approach working for you?

I help C-suite executives and board members assess whether a corporate chief of staff can help them be more effective, find the right people, and manage the first 90–100 days with a chief of staff. I also help chiefs of staff be as effective as they can be.

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