During the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of a data leader has become even more important. As businesses face new and unforeseen challenges, data has emerged as a critical pillar for decision making. Behind these powerful pipelines and raw insights, Chief Data Officers (CDOs), Chief Information Officers (CIOs), and other data leaders are tasked with driving corporate strategy.

We spoke with Maria Villar, Head of Enterprise Data Strategy and Transformation at SAP, to better understand the impact that data leaders can have on their organizations during this turbulent time. In her decades-long career, Maria has witnessed firsthand the value of quality data to set clear priorities and shepherd organizational change in the face of uncertainty. She even teaches a popular YouTube course on the subject, the Outcome-Driven Data Strategy Master Class. During our conversation, Maria shared some helpful ideas and questions we should be asking ourselves as data leaders confronting COVID-19.

1. Be a member of the pandemic response team.

Many organizations have assembled so-called rapid-response teams to address this unprecedented time. And if you aren’t a member already, work to get a seat at the table as your organization looks toward using internal and external data to understand — and respond smartly — to changes in the business. Especially now that there is an influx of data, some that sits outside regular patterns, there is a heightened need to both understand it and tie it back to the business response to COVID-19. Here are some questions to pose to your team to ensure that you nail these links, in these extraordinary times as well as when things (hopefully, eventually) return to normal:

  • Do we understand the sources of data and how it’s all connected?
  • Do we have the right data quality? If not, data quality remediation will be needed before we can make an impact on COVID-19 response.
  • Where are the valid sources of our data and how should we incorporate it into our dashboards and response?
  • Do we need additional sources of information? Where will this come from?

The more you understand your data and can answer these foundational questions, the better you’ll be able to serve your company. Without these fundamentals, you will be at a loss.

2. Connect the dots.

In times of crisis, it’s more important to make data-driven decisions — good times can sometimes hide poor decisions and poor processes. So, this challenging moment can actually be a major learning opportunity for your broader organization, as they can tangibly see the value between “flying blind” and using good-quality data. But data literacy is a skill, which means you and your team will need to help educate to empower the rest of the company to arrive at decisions. Consider the below questions as you think about how to bring the org along as you drive decision-making.

  • What are the right visualization techniques we should be using to responsibly represent the data?
  • How do we make decisions based on this data?
  • What is the problem we are trying to solve and what are the inputs we need in order to make an informed decision?

It’s not enough to inform the organization on where data lives, or serve it up on a platter; instead, focus on connecting the dots so everyone understands how to use data correctly and can fully appreciate how (good) data is king.

3. Maintain a strategic focus.

As response events occur, it’s important to evaluate them from a strategic data lens — but it’s all too easy to get mired in the urgency of an event. If you understand your actual data gaps and work to build reusable, predictable data processes, operations, and technology will be better positioned to respond to future issues.

  • First, respond tactically to data issues that arise. What do we need to do now, in the moment, to address these problems?
  • Then, pan back and do a postmortem: what are the capabilities we need to build if this happens in the future?

4. Emphasize Data Ethics.

As data becomes the center of an organization’s decision-making at inflection points like a crisis, it’s important to build in the right values and controls at the outset. After all, data can do just as much harm as good if the data is not used responsibly, so make sure you, as your company’s data leader, are the broker of these fundamental conversations.

  • What does it mean to use data in an ethical way?
  • Do we have a set of policies around the use of data? Especially from an AI perspective?
  • What are our most frequent data scenarios?
  • How are we data tracking and automating?

Organize an ongoing Data Ethics Council with teams across your company to understand as a cross-functional group how your data is used to surface biases. Be sure to include members of your legal, marketing, data strategy, privacy, and security teams. Various teams within an organization will look at data from various perspectives, but maintaining alignment is critical.

Turning your company into a data-driven organization has never been more important — which in turn makes its shortcomings all the more obvious. Effectively managing data requires a comprehensive data strategy that builds all the data capabilities to enable the organization to respond with speed to not just COVID-19 but future crises. And if it isn’t already, this topic should now be a boardroom discussion. Data leaders will make sure of it.

Reach out to Maria Villar or Barr Moses with any questions, comments, or suggestions.