Putting data to work for the bottom line

Companies that recognize the value locked away in customer data will trounce rivals that don’t

Quick. When was the last time you remember being pleasantly surprised by how effectively a company used data about you to improve your customer experience? We all remember back in the ’90s the wow of going to an ATM and seeing our actual name on the screen for the first time. We all remember the first time we experienced collaborative filtering from an e-commerce site — “if you liked this, you may also like … .”

But lately it seems the corporate world’s flattened out or fallen off the learning curve in leveraging the data it has about us — as evidenced by the mountain of mostly off-target offers that bombards both our real and virtual mailboxes.

Personally, I’m amazed that none of the companies I’ve done business with for years — banks, telephone companies, insurance, publishers, and so on — has ever considered it worthwhile to have a real live intelligent customer service rep call me on the phone and just ask me what I want.

But there may be a reason for that, according to the latest Management Barometer survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers. The study basically found that corporate data isn’t being converted into usable knowledge nearly as often or as effectively as it could be — not for lack of available technology, but for lack of corporate willpower.

In the survey of more than 100 top corporate execs, 71 percent called the data in their company’s information systems “potentially very valuable” — and most of them said it would become even more valuable as a source of competitive advantage in the next year. Unfortunately, only 43 percent said their company had been very effective in converting this data into usable knowledge, citing numerous issues, including data consistency, timeliness, accuracy, and so on.

Interestingly, when asked about the keys to unlocking their data’s value, the No. 1 response was “the ability to mine or interpret data” (75 percent), followed closely by “the ability of IT systems to deliver data assets” (70 percent) and “ability to get real-time information” and “integration of data with business processes” (66 percent each). Bringing up the rear were “an enterprisewide data strategy” (54 percent) and “a data governance structure” (52 percent).

Strategy and governance not so important, huh? But wait — it gets better. Fully 74 percent of the execs said the main barrier to realizing the value of corporate data was “competing corporate priorities,” far ahead of the 35 percent who cited “technology issues.” As my parents always used to tell me, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” What this survey is telling us — albeit behind a smokescreen of operational issues — is that leveraging data isn’t yet a top corporate priority.

“Data is a bit like global warming,” explained PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Bob Zukis. “Many people see it as an issue, but nobody really owns the issue, so it often suffers from a lack of focused effort.” Will corporate America hear the wake-up call on the importance of leveraging data in time to outpace the competition? Or will it stand by and lose out to rivals that know how put customer data to work?

Time will tell. In the meantime, give yourself a break, IT. Most likely, the problem isn’t with the technology and data capabilities you’ve put in place. The problem — if your company has one — is that the top team just hasn’t yet “gotten the memo.”