Hal Varian, Google’s Chief Economist, is quoted as saying, “The ability to understand, visualize, and communicate data will be the most important skill in the next decade.”

Notice he didn’t say anything about technical skills like SQL or building a data warehouse – he’s talking about the ability to understand and communicate about data.  The reason this hard to find skill is so essential in today’s world is that because of the accelerating pace of change, we all have more decisions to make and less time to make them.  For association staff this leads to greater risk of making a bad decision, or even worse making no decision – which is in itself a decision.

In our personal lives we use data to make decisions every day and we know that it both faster and less risky.  For example, to pick a book or movie we look to see how many people have reviewed it and the average score, to decide which route to drive to work, we use our mobile GPS or  Waze, how much exercise we need – check the data on our FitBit.  But in association business the decisions have a higher profile and both the questions we ask and the data we collect is more complex.  That’s why the ability to understand the story in the data and communicate it clearly to others is so important.

In fact, what we all really want is the ability to make decisions with confidence.  The way to do that is to have a single version of the truth so that we can understand the story and have a conversation with the data – asking new questions interactively, at the speed of thought.  From a technical perspective the best way to create a single version of the truth is to reduce complexity by transforming multiple sources of transactional data into a logical business layer stored in a data mart.  That way you don’t end up with different answers to the same questions because different people used different criteria for their queries.  But the technical part of this is not the most important aspect.  People think the field of analytics is about DATA – but I believe it’s really about PEOPLE.  People decide what to measure.  People explain the meaning to others and people take action get results.

In fact, the ability to make decisions with confidence is a leadership trait.  To advance in our careers we must be able to do this.  In fact, this is what leaders do – they ask questions, make decisions and influence others.  Those of us who understand the story in our data can make better decisions faster and we can make those decisions with confidence because we have data as evidence

More confidence + good decisions = advance your career!

When I started my career in associations 22 years ago, I was LeadershipDirector of IT for the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing.  During the 7 years I was there I experienced first-hand how important data was.  We didn’t refer to it as “data” – we called it reports and queries but I saw that leadership needed information to make decisions.  I was able to add value and get noticed and promoted by being able to deliver and explain the meaning of the data in ways the Board of Directors could understand.  I attribute most of my success to that single skill.  Years later we’ve taken this same skill of understanding and communicating clearly about the stories we see in data and create an entire business model that focuses exclusively on serving the association market.

In the past there has been a histsory of miscommunication between IT and association leaders.  The leaders would ask for what they wanted and IT would deliver what they thought they heard.  Often the leaders would have another question or want different information or have it grouped another way.  This took time and frustrated both IT and business.  But it shouldn’t be a BAD thing when you have a better quality question!

The reason those of us in IT became the arbiter of all things data is in large part because the transactional databases that contained data were designed to optimize data storage not data retrieval. This meant that most association leaders or staff could not confidently get the data they wanted quickly and accurately without help from IT.  It became a technical exercise to correctly construct all the table joins and criteria.  And even once these database systems built good query tools, it was still difficult to translate business questions into queries and it only took one or two episodes of retrieving the wrong information before confidence was lost in the “database”.  Enter the era of centralized reporting.  But this really wasn’t the solution the association leaders and staff wanted – what they really wanted was to be able to have a conversation with the data themselves.

In today’s world, we want to encourage association leaders and staff to ask questions of the data themselves – at the speed of thought.  This is what is meant by a “conversation with the data”.  Ideas become fluid when we interact visually with data.  We understand images 3 times faster than text and using  visual data discovery, science and art mix, enabling new insights and helping us to see what we didn’t know that we didn’t know.  This is how we make decisions with confidence and enhance our leadership abilities.