Because many big data initiatives are every bit as transformative as other strategic, enterprise-wide change programs, strong senior leadership is an absolute requirement for success. The potential for disruption – in both the positive and negative senses of that word – is high.

Therefore, effective executive sponsorship (very much including the C-suite) may be the biggest and most important big data best practice of them all.

The Big Data Executive Sponsor: What to Know, Expect and Plan For

The role of executive sponsors for big data initiatives

Why exactly is effective and visible executive sponsorship so important to the success of big data initiatives? Because they are best positioned to:

  • Define and articulate a corporate vision for big data – including a big data strategy and methodology – that is uniquely suited to the organization
  • Establish a big data culture – that values data-driven thinking and the use of big data and big data analytics in all important decisions, especially those relating to resource allocation and performance management
  • Break down the silos and remove the organizational barriers that commonly threaten large-scale transformation programs (which many of the most successful big data projects are designed to be); plus, senior leaders know how to ensure collaboration among different teams
  • Build consensus for change among stakeholders and rally the troops to move away from “business as usual” – helping everyone understand the transformative power of big data and why it's required for market leadership
  • Build the right team and design the optimal organizational structure – so critical functions (like marketing, customer service and finance) have access to the big data skills and resources they need (not to mention the right technology)
  • Allocate the resources to move the needle on performance with big data – maximizing returns from big data investment requires some companies to stop thinking small ; bigger thinking has a bigger impact when it is endorsed at the top from the top.

What to expect from Big Data programs: the unexpected

Thomas Davenport has said that “the technical complexities of big data (and the technical focus of its practitioners) may make it somewhat more difficult to recruit sponsors and engage stakeholders.” In other work, he has cited “executive sponsorship as the factor most critical to business adoption of big data.” Download Thomas Davenport’s research paper The Rise of Data Discovery.

That’s true because data-driven decision making can challenge – even threaten – executives who have thrived in legacy decision making models or pride themselves on a “by the gut” management style. Consider how big data analytics can reveal previously hidden insights and patterns that may contradict:

  • Flagship products aren’t optimally profitable
  • “Preferred” suppliers have higher error rates or longer delivery times
  • Loyal customers don’t behave in the expected ways
Learning new things about your business means acknowledging that you didn’t know everything already.

Learning new things about your business means acknowledging that you didn’t know everything already. Senior leaders who have been around a while or have a very focused area of expertise might be surprised to know how much they didn’t know. The best executive sponsors are those that embrace new decision making models and make a commitment to use big data in their own jobs. That can mean interacting with data scientists and business analysts, and even just digging a little bit deeper into operational information.

Once the organizational will is in place, planning for success requires a clear business case for big data investments, with quantifiable ROI targets and well defined performance metrics. Those metrics can be tricky to define precisely if they incorporate multiple functions or product lines (e.g., customer engagement).

In the future, as big data becomes a norm, data-driven thinking and data-driven decision making will no longer be viewed as new or different ways of managing a business. In fact, they will become synonymous with management itself, as well as a hallmark of highly effective leadership.