A steadfast community in an ever-changing data landscape

5 takeaways from the Summer School for Data Leaders

By and Peter Jackson | 5 minute read | September 7, 2022

Data connects us

There are still not enough data experts out there, even as the world of data evolves rapidly. We started the Summer School for Data Leaders five years ago to create a community for data experts to share ideas and relate to people facing similar challenges. Today, the Summer School has grown to include over 400 data leaders across 46 countries and nearly 25 industries. Originally based on our books, The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook and Data-Driven Business Transformation, the program is now an interactive 10-week workshop that addresses data maturity, data strategy, data literacy, leadership, technology and more. We’re constantly evolving to cover new questions and pain points. In reflecting on our conversations from this year’s program, here are five key takeaways:

 

1. The community is growing

Data is high on the C-Suite’s agenda and making a real difference in performance marketing, customer experience, product design and operations—so there is never-before-seen pressure on data leaders to deliver outcomes. Until recently, there haven’t been undergrad or postgrad courses that produced the data leaders of the future, so data leaders learned to look to each other for support and knowledge.

Community is an integral part of our Summer School program, and over the years it has grown larger and more inclusive. Originally created for Chief Data Officers, Summer School has broadened to include roles like Chief Financial Officers and Chief Marketing Officers, as well as junior professionals who will become the next generation of data leaders. This community is so engaged and passionate, constantly sharing ideas and networking. Some weeks, we have up to a thousand comments and questions to filter through, and every time someone asks a question, we see someone else reach out to help. It’s almost as if this group matches the inexhaustible nature of data with an inexhaustible amount of community support.

 

2. Data ethics is top of mind

In the last year we’ve spent a lot more time talking about data ethics. According to Harvard Business Review, data ethics is defined as “the moral obligations of gathering, protecting, and using personally identifiable information and how it affects individuals.” Data ethics brings up the question: “Are we doing the right thing?” This question is being asked more often due to a huge focus on the healthy tension of delivering value and meeting legislation in an ethical manner.

One of the leading procurement questions an organization may ask a potential vendor is, “What are your data ethics?” This is a conversation we wouldn’t have had two years ago, or even a year ago, so it’s important that people want to understand not just that you are GDPR compliant, but that the way you collect, use and manage data is ethical. Ethics is not about crossing a line or ticking a box; it’s a constant challenge to do the right thing even as ethics change.

 

3. Storytelling remains a powerful tool in data strategy adoption

One of the big things that we’ve noticed over the years is that data people tend to be a bit too detailed and think they can convince people with charts. We know everybody loves a good chart, but we also know that sometimes less is more. At Summer School, we talk about business cases and teach participants how to present themselves in a different way. We talk about the hype cycle and how important it is to set expectations up front. The complex nature of data topics combined with the lower levels of data literacy amongst the C-Suite or executive committee creates a chasm in communication and understanding, and we teach data leaders to bridge that gap with storytelling. Rather than relying on specific details and data charts, Summer School helps data experts learn to articulate on a strategic level that speaks to and convinces executives and other stakeholders to buy in to the data strategy while cultivating data literacy across the organization.

 

4. Small victories lead to big ones

This year we’ve spoken with data leaders whose data strategies have stalled, resulting in falling confidence within their organizations. CDOs face unrealistically high expectations, so the role of Chief Data Officer can have quite a short tenure. At Summer School, we aim to increase longevity by teaching data leaders how to communicate expectations from the outset while maintaining the positive message that “yes, we can get there after we take these crucial steps.”

We recommend that data leaders pick a small problem and solve that, then look at the impact. Do your data governance systems desperately need an overhaul or is your data visualization in need of a spruce up? Do you accept that data science takes a slight back seat while you improve the data quality? Build up a set of examples of problems you have solved, then incorporate this track record into your storytelling and convince people why you should be able to solve the bigger problems as well.

 

5. Data literacy for all

We teach that data literacy is both an organizational and societal issue. Within organizations, it’s not just about the data team becoming great anymore — it’s about the rest of the organization being great at using the data. We don’t expect everyone to be skilled in Python and conversant in analytics, but it does not matter how skilled your specialists are if the rest of your organization is not data literate enough to work with them efficiently. For example, compliance teams often aren’t fluent enough in data bias and training sets to ask the right questions. They don’t have to be data scientists, but they need to be data literate so they can ask the right questions about the decision-making algorithms before they sign off on them.

On a societal level, we aim to convince people that data isn’t scary and is something we already use in our everyday lives. Data is everywhere: bus timetables, social media, search engines. There is a base level of data literacy that everybody needs to have.

 

Summer School is only the start

We can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to be a data leader and to see all this passion welling up over the 10 weeks of the Summer School. The spirit of support within this community will drive the next generation of data leaders to be even more incredible. We often say to our students: If you ask a question, someone will answer. Put your hand out, and somebody will hold it and help you. And believe that other people will want to hear your experience, too.