Tim and Juan made their return to the digital airwaves on Wednesday, live from the Gartner Data and Analytics Summit in Orlando, Florida, cocktails in hand. For this first episode of the fourth season of the Catalog and Cocktails podcast, they were joined by guest Vip Parmar, Head of Global Data at WPP.

The trio began their discussion by celebrating a common theme they’d seen gaining steam in many of the presentations they’d attended and conversations they’d had at the summit — “people and knowledge,” or the idea that data is only useful when it’s completely understood.

This theme led neatly into their larger conversation, in which they attempted to answer the questions, “Why is it so hard to get business teams and data teams on the same page?” and, “How do we solve this problem?”

Building Bridges Between Data and Business

Vip said his experience was that business and data teams typically blame each other for communication problems, and that the solution had to start with both parties accepting responsibility for reaching a common ground, a common ground that can only be found through mutual understanding.

“When I say ‘understanding,’ I mean data teams getting to the root of what the business users are asking them to do,” he explained. “Whenever someone asks you to undertake a data project, ask ‘Why?’, and ‘Why?’, and ‘Why?’, and keep asking questions until you get to exactly what they’re hoping to learn or achieve.” 

Juan remarked that Vip’s thoughts mirrored those of Catalog and Cocktails’ guest Ergest Xheblati, Lead Data Architect at EverQuote, who said the most important skills for data engineers are empathy and curiosity. (Hear more of Ergest’s thoughts in Catalog and Cocktails "Data Models are Divas" episode from season three.)

Vip went on to say it’s critical for business and data teams to prioritize projects together to ensure their collaboration has the biggest impact on their enterprise’s bottom line, even if defining that collaboration feels uncomfortable. He added that C-suite support and an enterprise-wide culture of clear communication and assuming good intent is crucial to the success of a business and data team partnership.

“The philosophy has to start at the top,” he went on. “All the people at the top tier of the business need to be able to relate to their peers and feel comfortable asking questions. They need to make sure they understand the strategic goals and objectives for their business, then communicate those down.

“They need to ensure, as leaders, they’re working hand in glove across departments. And that makes it easy - If that culture of questions flows top to bottom, everyone down that chain will start to overlap in the right way.”

This led to the discussion of the emerging role of ‘data translator’, a position the trio wondered was necessary.

“We do need those types of roles,” conceded Vip. “But what’s more important is having teams that are both business literate and data literate.”

The End of the CDO?

“I think it’s important for data teams to have an appreciation for what the data means,” he continued. “I once asked a colleague to move half a million rows of data. But to help him understand the importance of the ask, I said, “Those lines represent half a million customers — Think customers, not rows.’”

Juan then argued that workers with a better overall understanding of their business are more likely to ask the right questions and generate more valuable outcomes. This led Tim to question whether enterprises should invest more time and resources into onboarding new hires so they fully grasp the business model.

As Juan put it, “When you have that knowledge, you ask better questions.”

Vip then suggested that businesses that successfully adopted a culture of clear communication and asking questions would eventually evolve beyond the role of the Chief Data Officer (CDO).

“The businesses of the future won’t have a CDO,” he predicted. “We’ll see more people in C-suites that are both business and tech literate, and the mantra of data will be so embedded in the business, a CDO won’t be needed.”

“Not having a CEO might mean you’ve arrived at a datanirvana,” Vip said. “There’s a time and a place for having a CDO in your org, but organizations that are really tech and data driven will be the first to get rid of those roles.”

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