The great big data debate

Why big data is more than technology in the marketing mix

Dr Eugene Kolker, chief data officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation Research Institute
Dr Eugene Kolker, chief data officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation Research Institute

Big Data is often described as a technology. But according to one of America’s foremost practitioners of data analytics, when it comes to putting together a top-flight analytics capability, the critical ingredient is people.

Dr Eugene Kolker is the chief data officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation Research Institute, where he has led numerous data-driven projects to assist in clinical delivery and management. During his 27 years of experience in data analysis, advanced analytics, and modelling he has won numerous accolades, including being named one of the US Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s top three innovators in 2015.

Speaking ahead of his address at the Chief Data Officer Forum organised by Corinium in Melbourne next week, Eugene said that while he has learned the importance of technology, it is actually at the bottom of his priority list.

“The first most challenging and highest opportunity is people,” Kolker said. “Then process is second, and technology is third. You need to align your team’s work with business strategy goals to bring business value. You are trying to influence decision making for better informed or data-driven decision making. And how you do this is through people.”

Indeed, Kolker said of all the reasons why an analytics project might succeed or fail, who leads the program came out as number one reason.

“You need to have people on your team who are able to interact with people, and enjoy doing that,” Kolker said. “Which is basically impossible - because those people are unicorns – they don’t exist. But you need to nurture this talent.”

According to Kolker, it is not surprising however that there is a lack of ‘people’ people in the analytics world. He said those more senior professionals have lived in a world of data and computing for many years, and they didn’t become data scientists because they liked people.

“If they liked people they would be doing something else," he added. “You don’t expect every data professional in your team to be ‘people’ people. We have data science people, software developers, and then we have ‘people’ people, which are the business people. And those unicorns.”

One of the other skills that Kolker brings into his teams is a writer, because he believes what is important is communication.

"Especially with those people who are not data or computationally challenged which is the majority of people we work with,” he said. “People don’t have time, so we need to delivery very clear and concise messages so people can dig into them and understand them. You need to deliver your messages very clearly, like stories. So we call them data stories.”

While the unicorns might be rare, Kolker says there is hardly an overabundance of data analytics skills generally – something he believes will continue to be the case for the next decade. The situation for Seattle Children’s is exacerbated through having to compete for talent with Amazon and Microsoft, while Google and Facebook also have significant offices in the region.

But regardless of location, Kolker considered building a strong data capability as essential to the survival of corporations in the 21st century.

“More and more your business and what you do is going to be defined by what data you generate and how you leverage it,” Kolker said. “That is going to be your competitive advantage, or disadvantage. “And most probably for the majority it is going to be a disadvantage. Are you and your organisation ready for that?”

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