Rick Kamal, Chief Technology Officer at Harvard Business School, outlined the critical questions to ask data strategy to be sure it helps business strategy.
“We’re going to be talking about data strategy, but this talk isn’t going to be prescriptive,” announced Kamal at the beginning of his keynote presentation at the 2017 Chief Information Office Leadership Forum—Data Strategy and Innovation—held on May 16 in Boston. “You can’t prescribe strategy; every company has to have its own unique strategy. I’m going to be asking a series of questions that you should be asking your strategy, your framework, to see if it answers these questions. We’ll look at strategy, as a whole, through multiple lenses that you can use to view your data strategy to make it more robust,” he explained.
“First, what is business strategy?” asked Kamal. “It’s not operational effectiveness—running the same race faster and, hopefully, better. Strategy means outperforming rivals by sustaining competitive advantage. ‘Sustaining’ is the key word. What do you do so nobody can catch up or leapfrog you? Strategy is also a framework to answer the big questions, but the answers to those questions will differ by company, by division, or, sometimes, by product,” he said.
“Strategy means outperforming rivals by sustaining competitive advantage. ‘Sustaining’ is the key word. What do you do so nobody can catch up or leapfrog you?”
Another question is: How do we win? “Strategies to win include scaling out or offering higher-quality products. Make sure your data strategy helps you figure this out—either by looking outside or internally.”
Kamal continued, “How do we create and capture value? There are many companies that have massive amounts of information, but the question is whether that data provides insight into how value is captured. This is fundamental to business, and the data strategies of many companies have nothing to do with this.”
“How do we create and capture value? There are many companies that have massive amounts of information, but the question is whether that data provides insight into how value is captured.”
How are we different? is another key question. “It’s difficult to be unique in a commodity business. If you sell cement, it’s tough to differentiate. Your data strategy should help you differentiate your business and product from the competition in a sustainable way,” he explained.
“Most importantly, strategy enables keeping barriers to entry high, and it answers the question, ‘What do we do?’” stated Kamal.
“There’s the notion of ‘fit,’ which means, if your company has a series of modular capabilities or attributes—price, quality, speed, etc.—and they all synergetically integrate and fit together, you’ll have a fundamental, sustainable advantage. Somebody else can copy your quality or speed to market, but to copy everything and have it interplay effectively is challenging. How does your data strategy help your company determine if you have fit, get you to a state of fit, and keep you there?” he asked.
Data strategy needs to answer this one, fundamental business question: What do we do and, more importantly, what don’t we do? This might mean divesting multiple businesses and focusing on only one or two.
To test the relevance to business of the company’s data strategy, these seven questions should be asked:
1. How do we solve mysteries and puzzles? “In a mystery, you have all the facts but there’s no way to figure out what’s going on. In a puzzle, there’s something missing, and if you find that missing piece, you solve the puzzle,” explained Kamal. “Does your data strategy keep your data from becoming a mystery?”
2. How do you help overcome Simpson’s Paradox? Simpson’s Paradox is a phenomenon in probability and statistics in which a trend appears in different groups of data but disappears or reverses when these groups are combined.
3. How is your data strategy driving innovation? “This is a vital question to ask of your data strategy.”
4. How do you support experimentation in a way that allows you to make the right long-term decisions?
5. How does your data strategy mitigate the challenges of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity)? “Things in the business space are changing fast and in unknown ways and, as a result, this military battlefield concept has become our day-to-day business environment. A good way to address this challenge is to build in slack to allow the flexibility to pivot.”
“Things in the business space are changing fast and in unknown ways and, as a result, this military battlefield concept has become our day-to-day business environment. A good way to address this challenge is to build in slack to allow the flexibility to pivot.”
6. How are you going to jump the S-curve? “If you have the right strategy, this will help your company realize when to jump the S-curve and facilitate that jump.”
7. Lastly, what purpose does your data strategy serve?
ABOUT RICK KAMAL:
Rick Kamal has a track record of successful delivery of large, complex, and innovative programs across the education, financial, and high-tech industries. Currently, Rick serves as Chief Technology Officer for Harvard Business School’s online education initiative, HBX. The initiative has successfully developed an innovative course platform that delivers impactful, online courses from the faculty of Harvard Business to thousands of students worldwide. In addition, the initiative has developed a breakthrough virtual classroom, HBX Live, which reproduces the intimacy and synchronous interaction of Harvard Business School’s famed case-study method in a digital environment.
Prior to joining Harvard Business School, Rick founded EduNova, an education product development company that has partnered with the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, UNESCO and the World Bank to develop blended curriculum for K-20. EduNova’s products and curriculum have been adopted as standards for national education systems around the globe. While at EduNova, Rick authored and co-authored seven award-winning, best-selling books.
Rick formerly served as a senior executive at Fidelity Investments, where he was responsible for the technology development of the nation’s largest private retirement and benefits outsourcing system, NetBenefits.
He has also served in senior technology positions and consulted for numerous companies and institutions including EMC, Dell, Dun and Bradstreet, and Harvard Medical School.
Rick attended Boston University, Sloan School of Management, and Stanford University.