Make Your Data Sing

Big data, it turns out, has similar attributes to another collaborative, creative process – jazz music. It also shares the same core principles for success: leadership, governance, collaboration, and innovation.

Over the past several years, we’ve all been overwhelmed by the hype surrounding big data. At T4G, we’ve heard many recurring questions from clients; questions such as “How can big data help our company?”, “Can we compete against companies with huge resources?”, and – perhaps most frequently – “What’s the right technology to leverage my data?”

Most of the time our response has been: it’s not just about resources or technology, it’s about thinking. You need to think big about data.

Thinking big about your data doesn’t start with the technologies you can apply or the amount of money you can spend. Instead, you should start by developing a clear understanding of how you will expect any of your data to work for you.

The technologies and investment dollars are important, but it’s your data strategy, your data management processes and your company’s culture that will determine whether or not you succeed. Do you have empowering leaders? How about a culture rooted in collaboration and innovation? Does your firm value ‘big’ thinking? Does it embrace mistakes or accidents? There are a myriad of case studies that demonstrate these attributes. Perhaps the Scotchgard and Post-it Notes stories from 3M are the most famous, but many others exist. Even Apple’s iPhone is arguably the result of an operating culture that leveraged a mistake (the Apple Newton) into a huge success.

Big Data and All That Jazz

To think big about data, we need to start with something familiar. To help find a familiar model, let’s ask ourselves what we know about big data:

  • Big data requires a very specific collection of skills spread over a team that collaborates effectively
  • It sits at the intersection of careful planning and skillful improvisation
  • It requires you to develop a roadmap to get to your destination
  • But the roadmap can’t be so constraining as to prevent you from reacting to opportunities and dangers

It turns out there’s a familiar model that’s music to our ears – jazz music. In fact, the analogy of jazz music not only applies to big data, but to any individuals and organizations seeking new ways to be innovative competitors and leaders.

Learning from the Greats

A Special Type of Music

Jazz is special. It challenges the senses. It demands focus for true appreciation because of its improvisational quality. It’s rarely the same but almost always delights.

Jazz is what happens when a team of individual talents work off one another to turn notes on a page into something that speaks a powerful truth. You can hear the teamwork and innovation.

To achieve great teamwork and innovation, jazz closely follows a structure and roadmap but freely challenges it. Like jazz, big data isn’t about putting the best ‘instruments’ in the hands of the best ‘musicians’ and playing ‘notes’ on a page the same way over and over. That’s what an orchestra does and many of your competitors. They stick to their successes and rarely deviate. But today’s successful firms find ways to analyze and respond to competitive threats, or opportunities, by innovating spontaneously, just as with jazz music. Great jazz musicians (and high performing companies) know that success comes down to the key operating traits sought by every team: the immense powers of leadership, governance, collaboration, and innovation. In the case of big data, these are the key to success, not the latest technological promises. In business you might be looking at the same data as your competitor. But just like two jazz groups looking at the same piece of music, how you ‘analyze’ the data (or music) and then respond to it can mean the difference between success or failure.

It’s for these reasons that jazz is so relevant to your big data success: like jazz, big data is a frontier that can be ‘mined’ differently each time you look at the ‘music’. That’s what has made jazz such an influential and long-lasting musical genre, and one that is at the heart of every style of popular music that has emerged over the past 100 years.

The Freedom to Innovate

A traditional song in the hands of a jazz musician is often very different from the original version. If you listen to any of the jazz masters, they can take a tune that you’ve heard many times before and turn it into something fresh and new. This is an important consideration with your data strategy, since much of the data you collect is likely to be empirical or generic in nature – and thus available to all competitors. Your creative use of data becomes a strategic advantage.

Most data is available to your competitors. It’s the creative use of data that gives you a strategic advantage.

To give you a sample of what we mean, have a listen to this Duke Ellington standard, All Too Soon, played by two different ensembles:

The first tune by the Jodi Proznick Quartet features Jodi Proznick on bass, Tilden Webb on piano, Jesse Cahill on drums, and Steve Kaldestad on tenor saxophone.

The second features Phil Woods on alto saxophone, Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone, Cedar Walton on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Ben Riley on drums.

In both instances, the same tune is being played—yet the expression is so incredibly varied. With the exception of Phil Woods on alto sax the same instruments are being used, yet the emotions and ideas they convey could hardly be more different.

How to Think Big About Data

The contrast between these two renditions of the same piece of music shows us how to think big about data.

With music, the same instruments and the same notes may be very different when played by one musician versus another. With big data, the same tools examining the same data can produce completely different outcomes, depending on the company’s operating culture and data governance model. Today’s most successful firms recognize that they must empower their ‘data musicians’ to be innovative like a jazz group when analyzing data, and not prescriptive like an orchestra.

What you’re capable of accomplishing with data is limited mainly by the effectiveness of your governance model and culture. It must encourage your team’s willingness to collaborate and innovate when seeking new and exciting opportunities for your company.

Making Your Data Sing

Hopefully this analogy has piqued your interest and given you a new mental model with which to think about big data and what your organization can do with it.

Here are some things to keep in mind so that you can use the jazz metaphor to its fullest possible effect—and to your greatest possible benefit:

  • Your data strategy must reflect and reinforce your business strategy
  • Forget about technology for now
  • Don’t worry about resources or timing
  • Remember: leadership, governance, collaboration, and innovation
  • Think BIG about data

With these practices as your baseline, you’re ready to start making ‘music’. While it might not be marks on a page or notes in the air, it will still create delight: for your customers, for your shareholders, and for your organization.

Now that you have the proper mindset for leveraging big data, learn about how to set up your advanced analytics projects with the right data strategy and we’ll help you set up the right data governance model.

Richard Kunz

Richard Kunz is a former Principal Consultant with T4G Limited and the founder of JazzMind@T4G. As a consultant and senior executive, Richard has been challenging boundaries and delivering success for leading firms around the world for more than 35 years. His passion for jazz, combined with his deep global experience in business management processes, have fused into a fresh and rewarding consulting approach to energize your business.