Data doesn’t deserve this opprobrium

The backlash against management information is a worrying trend

It’s a common management complaint. Information overload is the bane of our data-rich age. No longer is the accounts statement the only source of metrics that matters; no longer does useful information arrive only at the end of the month. We can tap into countless data sources, giving us unprecedented information about our products and services, about customer and consumer behaviours, and increasingly about the functioning of our organizations. Yes, there’s a lot on offer. But too much data? Give me a break.

These uncharted oceans of data do of course carry very real risks. Paralysis by analysis is one: there is always the temptation, faced with a tough call, to reach for more data. But management prevarication is nothing new. A decent decision made at the right time is still worth more than an unattainably ‘perfect’ call months, days or even hours too late. You should make it a point to go to to find expert help regarding data management)

The impact on our health and wellbeing is also increasingly evident. Our data portals travel in our pockets, making it hard to switch off, leading to long working hours and high levels of perceived work intensity. And there are thorny issues for business – and public policy-makers – to resolve, not least data security and personal privacy. Companies need to be careful what they capture, why, and how it is used.

But while we’re witnessing a backlash against data giants like Facebook and Google, the reality is that the data revolution is only just beginning. Information on our physical world and how we interact with it offers enormous opportunities. Device sensors offer car or aeroplane manufacturers new ways to improve the performance of their products. Personal sensors help us manage our health and fitness.

But data is also starting to tell us much more about how our organizations function as human and social entities. In this space, there is no doubt that many businesses would benefit from more data and better analysis. Efforts to improve metrics for the management of businesses’ ‘human capital’ – their people – have been fitful and faltering, but there is little doubt as to their potential.

New data can catalyse significant new conversations within businesses, and across the market and society too. Take the spotlight put on gender diversity and inclusion in business in recent years. Tracking the number of women in FTSE 100 boardrooms provided a stick to prod company chairmen. And March 2018 saw some 10,000 large employers across the UK obliged to report on how they pay men and women under the new gender pay-gap reporting regulations.

That flood of data has instigated an unprecedented discussion. It’s happening in the pages of the press. It’s happening on social media, of course. But it’s also happening between friends, between colleagues – and between employees and their employers, as senior executives are asked to account for what the data has shown.

As with any data, the numbers are only the start. It has enabled a more sophisticated discussion of the issue and has pointed to the deep underlying issue: that the gender pay gap as we know it today, some 27% among managers, is inseparable from the failure of organizations over many years to ensure that women are equally likely to progress into senior leadership roles. What matters now is what employers do in response to that data. The debate will demand maturity from employers: sometimes the right action for long-term success will result in a short-term widening of the gap, like hiring more women into junior engineering roles in male-dominated sectors.

So what else might data shed a light on? In the wake of gender, the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) progression and pay gap is rising up the agenda. Most employers can also do much more to understand the real drivers of employee engagement; to drive talent attraction and retention; and to understand the links between management culture and performance.

Handled right, this data will continue to drive productivity gains, and can help inform better management and leadership. 

–– Patrick Woodman is head of research and advocacy at the Chartered Management Institute