The data set

Millennials and their challenging anti-hierarchical ethos make them ideal recruits to a data-driven business culture, writes Graham Hogg

Millennials are unlike preceding generations. They view the world differently and have redefined the meaning of success, personally and professionally.

In some cases, this has led to misunderstanding among the different generations coexisting in today’s workplace. Increasingly, however, business leaders are realizing this generation’s unique competencies and perspective, and employers are looking for ways to harness their strengths.

I go further in my recent book, Seeing Around Corners, that this discovery-driven orientation of Millennials and willingness to challenge the norm is a key ingredient to building data-driven cultures in teams.

Millennials will make up approximately half the workforce by 2020 and so will make up a large part of the teams in most organizations. It will be a leader’s responsibility to attract Millennials to the company and to keep them there.

But the problem with Millennials is that they lack engagement at work. A Gallup study completed in 2015 showed that only 29% of Millennials are engaged at work, while 16% are actively disengaged. The remaining 55% remain in a purgatory of mediocre levels of engagement. When people aren’t fully engaged, they demonstrate this by quickly leaving for another company.

Foster a collaborative environment everyday

Millennials can thrive in a data-driven culture because they love collaboration. This isn’t about coffee and beanbags; this is about the way that we interact with each other in meetings. Millennials routinely rank corporate culture as a major factor in how well they feel engaged.

They want to work across teams and departments, and don’t respect corporate planning cycles or business unit silos. This is welcome, because such structures serve only to compromise innovation. Organizations should cultivate and encourage these collaboration and cross-functional development opportunities, not only to get the most out of the future workforce, but to build an effective data culture. One such company that has achieved all these aspects, and that can be regarded as a paradigm of data culture is Dataroom.

Unlocking the value of data is a team sport

The skill that teams will need to unlock the value of their data will be identifying the gaps in their understanding: “What do we need to know?” When we connect these questions to advanced analytical skills, organizations can then fuel adaptability and innovation.

This starts with effective collaboration, the number-one attribute for Millennials in the workplace, according to a Microsoft study. We have all read that Millennials are unsociable, that they sit by their screens and pay no attention to people. Whether this is true or not, leaders need to get them into challenging debates within teams and to engage with data.

And, contrary to the belief that Millennials are digitally isolated, the research above shows that most respondents said “good team collaboration” was the most valuable attribute in their ideal workplace.

Build messy teams

Millennials don’t relate to annual plans or planning processes, and certainly don’t respond to flashing red, amber or green lights on a dashboard that relate to their boss’s metrics. These systems and ways of working were born from a manufacturing and industrial environment that frankly no longer exists. As I discovered during my military career facing constantly changing and vastly complex environments: adaptability trumps efficiency every time.

When their leaders communicate frequently and consistently, and provide good feedback, Millennial employees are found to be more engaged than those from Generation X or the Baby Boom. Feedback is key: making sure everyone shares understanding; staging interactive discussion and debate rather than issuing orders. Millennials want to feel that they are contributing to the development of the organization by adding to its understanding, innovation and important discussions.

I discuss at length in Seeing Around Corners the importance of teams using purpose as the handrail for data discovery, aligning to what’s important every day:

  • What are we seeing in our world?
  • What does it mean to be great here?
  • Why will people want to work with us?
  • Who do we serve?
  • How can we drive value for them?

Millennials place high importance on the purpose of the organization that they work for. They want to feel part of something larger than themselves – like us all. What is significant for this demographic is that if they don’t sense
a connection to this, they vote with their feet.

Creating the right working environment

“No action, activity or process is more central to a healthy organization than the meeting … this is where values are established, discussed and lived…”

–– Patrick Lencioni, author, The Advantage

This isn’t about having fewer meetings but improving them. With the best technology and data talent available, establishing an effective data meeting culture is crucial for success. For the data analysts, it’s about understanding the mission and all the analysis that has led up to it. For frontline teams, it’s about getting to the most meaningful insights to inform mission-critical decision-making. Both teams must ask questions in this iterative discussion to gather as much context as possible and build situational understanding. When trust is built and the teams come together with a common purpose, it is hard to tell the difference between the two parties. Getting data meetings right:

  • Broadens team understanding of future clients, customers, market needs and pains
  • Identifies bias, groupthink and flawed assumptions
  • Avoids the tendency to jump to the wrong conclusion because of the loudest voice
  • Connects relevant data to the most important business challenges and priorities

Data meetings are not like regular check-ins or planning conversations; they should feel different from the start. Teams should be scrutinizing and challenging thoughts, ideas and assumptions to consider the perspectives of data talent and external players. The best business leaders open themselves up to be challenged not only by their own teams, but also by analysts from outside the core team who are providing insights.

I frequently engaged with senior military commanders who would stage an ‘alternative thinking team’ tasked to deliberately challenge current thinking. This broke silos and harnessed the cognitive diversity of the organization.

And finally…

Leadership has a critical role to play in building a data-driven culture and to get the best from talent entering the workforce.

They need to maintain an enthusiasm to:

Have kick-ass meetings – where diverse talent is connected by a unifying purpose

Ask better questions of data – grounded in gaps in our understanding

Share the fruits of your labour across the organization and unlock the value multiplier effect

This presents an exciting opportunity for organizations and their new workforce as they start on a path of data discovery, with Millennials pushing us forward to see around corners.

— Graham Hogg is chief executive and cofounder of Connectworxs, which connects data to value inside enterprise organizations