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Democratizing Data Requires Balance: Dan Power on Access, Security, and Collaboration

After nearly four decades in the data world, Power knows what it takes to achieve a crucial balance between democratizing data access and mitigating privacy and security risks. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: How do you approach fostering a data-driven culture within an organization, especially when dealing with concerns about data privacy and security? 

POWER: Start by defining what the company means by a data-driven culture, because every company is different. I’m a big believer in a strong governance culture, with solid attention being paid to legal, compliance, privacy, security, and retention questions. Ultimately, what becoming more data-driven usually means is for individuals to be more comfortable working with data, and more savvy as consumers of data, and to understand how to use the data supply chain in their company to make better, faster, and more accurate decisions. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: What are the biggest obstacles to achieving true data accessibility within organizations? What strategies do you advocate for overcoming them?

POWER: There are lots of obstacles. Political ones, of course, and organizational boundaries. Lots of companies have strong siloes between different business units. I always look for ways to build formal and informal bridges among the siloes, and to work with federated operating models so business units and corporate functions can share best practices, training, what works and what doesn’t, and empower people to become experts in their areas and systems so they can then empower other people around the organization who need to tap into those skills. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: How can organizations strike a balance between opening up data access and ensuring responsible data usage, while also mitigating privacy risks?

POWER: I do think opening up data access is important, but within guard rails around sensitive and personal data, as well as “need to know” or permissible purpose. It differs from company to company, but you’ve got to balance data access with privacy, security, and compliance. The key is to find the right balance between “anyone can access anything” and locking things down so tightly that people can’t even get their main jobs done.


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: Asked differently, what risks do companies have to mitigate when collecting data to ensure the security of their internal and external data? 

POWER: The first temptation to avoid is collecting more information than we need. Privacy by Design is a great set of guiding principles. We need to think about ways to de-identify sensitive data, and use encryption and obfuscation where needed. Storing data in clear text, whether at rest or in transit, is usually not a good risk. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: What are some unique data governance or strategy challenges facing specific industries? How are you helping to address them?

POWER: I think companies are wrestling with how to balance offensive and defensive data governance approaches, and how to show business value from their data governance efforts. Everyone is focusing on how Generative AI (and other types of AI) are going to revolutionize their businesses. But they don’t necessarily realize that their organizational culture, their information infrastructure, and their data itself aren’t really ready for AI — and that some foundational work in these areas needs to be done first. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: In your experience, what leadership qualities are most essential for effectively navigating the dynamics and challenges of data-driven teamwork?

POWER: I’d say the most essential is integrity and authenticity. You can’t make this stuff up. You’ve got to be 100% real. Another valuable quality is being vulnerable, which sometimes means telling people the truth about your life and your inner battles. It will make you seem more human and approachable to people, as well as unlocking their willingness to be vulnerable with you. It’s a great way to inspire people to go above and beyond the call of duty, and to give you their very best efforts.  


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: What companies have proven able to develop and maintain a data-driven culture, and is a pattern starting to emerge that indicates what it takes to succeed? For instance, are there existing titles that play a critical role or do specific steps need to be in place? 

POWER: It’s tough to list individual companies, because the situation is so different across industries and between companies. I think the pattern on what it takes to succeed is a learning culture, empowering people to experiment, and allowing them to fail as long as they learn from it. I think a lot of different parts of the company need to get involved and be aligned on developing into a data-driven company; The business and IT, of course, but also the C-suite, HR, Analytics, AI, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Risk Management, Compliance, Legal, Privacy, Cybersecurity, etc. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: What results are you seeing from teams who prioritize taking actions outside of their comfort zones as well as failing fast in order to successfully deliver data implementations? 

POWER: I think when teams can reach out to other parts of the company as I mentioned above, and share what’s worked for them and what hasn’t, and empower and teach each other, you’ll see dramatic results. There’s usually a lot of pent-up demand in the business for analytics and informal reporting, without having to wait for IT resources to free up, and allowing the IT team to focus on critical infrastructure, regulatory reporting, and modernization initiatives. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: Data initiatives can be a tough sell. What messaging has proven most effective for CDOs and other data-driven leaders to motivate their executive peers to embrace data initiatives? What about mid-level managers who aren’t data experts? 

POWER: Yes, it can be a tough sell. The defensive messaging (preventing bad outcomes, reducing costs and increasing efficiency, and improving compliance with regulatory requirements) seems to come more naturally. The offensive messaging (driving positive outcomes, increasing revenue, enhancing the quality of decision making, and decreasing time to value) seems to be more of a stretch for management teams to believe in. And there’s definitely a lot of “what’s in it for me” and “what have you done for me lately?” going on. Mid-level managers can be the toughest to convince, because it usually requires a substantial investment of effort on their part, and sometimes the benefits are being felt elsewhere. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: What’s the best way for functional experts (e.g., product managers, marketers, operations, etc) and data experts to collaborate to support a data-driven culture? Is there an ideal org structure or collaboration model? How do these roles work together most effectively? 

POWER: What you want to see is the functional experts knowing how to find the data experts they need for given types of data. Additionally, there needs to be a helpful, customer service-oriented corporate culture where people are delighted to help other parts of the company while being  interested in passing on what they’ve learned. Watch out for an “us vs. them” attitude between different parts of the company. The key word is, indeed, collaboration. We don’t always know what’s going to come out of that collaboration. Sure, business results and value will emerge — as well as friendships, career development, and broader learning on both sides of the table.


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: How has the steady shift from project-by-project funding to multi-year initiative funding transformed data’s role in organizations? Has it made funding easier or harder to secure? 

POWER: I think it’s made it harder. It’s easier to envision the results, and forecast the return on investment, when projects are shorter and can be funded on a project-by-project basis. Multi-year initiative funding is more realistic, but it requires more of a leap of faith on behalf of management, and can be harder to course correct part way through without shutting down the whole initiative. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: What are the typical reasons for businesses to backslide on their forward progress? 

POWER: There can be a lot of these. Personality conflict between different leaders, conflicting priorities between various silos or business units, impatience on the part of the C-suite, you name it. It’s a bit of a high-wire act, to be honest. But it’s the best game in town when it comes to developing the people that work for you, and delivering solid value to the business. When it works, it really works. 


DATA LEADERS NETWORK: Beyond your professional work, what personal interests or endeavors reflect your passion for data and its impact? 

POWER: I do a fair amount of volunteering. I created a non-profit in my hometown that connects volunteers with people who need help, mostly seniors. We provide help with food shopping, rides to medical appointments, taking trash to the dump, raking leaves, and snow shoveling. A lot of the work is coordinating and matching data between the volunteers and the recipients. When we had a really high volume of requests during the heart of the pandemic, we actually created a Python program matching volunteers with requests in a Google Sheets database. So my passion for data comes in handy outside of the office as well.

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