Today’s crisis has no precedent in our lifetimes. As a CEO and entrepreneur of technology startups since 1997, I know firsthand how hard it is to lead a company through a crisis—from the dot-com crash, to 9/11, and through the Great Recession. It was really painful, but my teams and I weathered those times at Coremetrics and Bazaarvoice. We made it through by helping our customers persevere, and in some cases, thrive. In Software-as-a-Service businesses, that’s what it is all about: a true partnership between your business and customers.
This time, it’s different
The economy is so much more globally connected than it was in 1918 when the Spanish Flu wreaked havoc on the world. Today’s world is chained together economically—inextricably—as Thomas Friedman wrote two decades ago in his reference to the “golden straightjacket” of global capitalism. If the United States experiences another recession or depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world will experience it with us. That’s scary, but the ways a company can weather a downturn can be found in data.
What does this new environment, in which many of us are working from home, mean for businesses and people that rely on and work with data? We’ve been talking about this a lot within our company, and with our customers. We are seeing unprecedented customer engagement around private COVID-19 datasets as they help their own customers grapple with this massive challenge, so we’re fortunate to have a clear perspective on the problem. They’ve been telling us what they need from us to help them do even more, and we’ve been working double-duty (from our respective homes) to answer their calls for help.
One noticeable difference is that pre-coronavirus, there wasn’t the sense of isolation we feel today. Customers and employees still came into the office and worked among peers, and they still saw their friends and extended family and went about daily lives. Think about the importance of those personal interactions in a work environment. Now take them all away. Our industry tends to focus a lot on data silos. But people siloes and knowledge silos have also always been barriers to true data cultures. “Solving” data silos as distinct from people and knowledge silos simply doesn’t work. That was true before COVID-19, and it’s undeniable now. Meanwhile data is moving in our markets and within our companies faster than ever.
Working on data together, yet apart, is still challenging
The good news is that social media and collaboration tools have made it easier than ever to be remote. We feel lucky at data.world in that regard—we are all working from home now but we’ve been connected since the founding of our company in 2015 via Slack, Google Meet, our own platform data.world, and many other apps. But except for data.world, these remote collaboration tools weren’t built from the ground up for data work.
That’s a problem because most data still travels separately from the context needed to understand it and the people who can answer questions about it. For example, a colleague emails you a spreadsheet. You have questions about it so you walk over and you talk to her. That knowledge lives in your head and in her head, but nowhere that anyone can access it without asking. If someone slacks you a question about column headers, the answer you give him stays in Slack direct-messages and contributes nothing back to company-wide usability of the data.
That’s inefficient in the best of times when everything is humming. But that status quo needs to change, now. During these much more challenging times, companies must work quickly to make sure essential context stays with data at all times, and what people learn about the data by asking stewards and subject matter experts (SMEs) gets captured alongside the data for everyone to learn from. Siloed data work often involves extracts and transformations that can lead to unmanaged copies of raw data living on a notebook or other systems that may not be connected to a corporate network. This creates major headaches for compliance teams who need to track data work for audit purposes, security teams who need to prevent unauthorized access, and governance teams who need to make sure the data is properly maintained. In this new world, companies must encourage access and collaboration while ensuring the proper guardrails are in place for good data stewardship and security. That’s not just important, it’s critical.
Another big difference is how quickly the world is changing, requiring your business to adapt to new norms. The world was already accelerating. But COVID-19 has shifted us into a gear we didn’t know existed. We’ve been working harder than ever, and I bet the same is true for you and your company as well. Companies already practicing agile and using the cloud have a better chance of survival than those that aren’t. Some of the newer digital-age businesses have been built from the ground-up on knowledge graphs. Without knowledge graphs and the cloud, this is much more challenging—close to impossible. For example, you can’t have people doing onsite software installs, upgrades, and maintenance. There just isn’t time for that anymore and putting people together onsite risks the health (and ire) of your people.
You can still create a data community as a distributed organization
From a technology standpoint, the companies that make it through challenging times do so by investing in modern technologies that allow them to move fast, be agile, stay collaborative, and work entirely online. Our customers are, in fact, forming data communities within their businesses. These communities—sometimes numbering in the thousands—share data, context, and analyses with each other. They are ready for whatever comes at them, including how COVID-19 impacts their business (they can see it in their data). They collaborate on analysis, constantly improving and learning. And these are the companies that will come out way ahead when our global crisis de-escalates, as we know it will (the dot-com crash, 9/11, and the Great Recession passed, and this too shall pass).
Last year, I wrote two articles in CIO that are especially relevant to today's crisis. The first was “How knowledge graphs create data-driven cultures” and the second was “Why Chief Data Officers need more power.” I also interviewed Brett Jenks, the brilliant CEO of Rare, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has built a truly global and remote data-driven culture. They contain useful information from our work with customers in how they’re empowering large teams across the globe to have clarity, accuracy, and speed in their decision-making with data. I encourage you to read them and pass them along to other data leaders as you navigate our new “normal.”
Navigating the new normal
When this trying time finally does pass, we will all have a view into what the “new normal” will be. Perhaps the world will change as much as these leading thinkers believe it will. To quote Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo, who I really admire as pioneering a whole new category of software and service: “So here’s the question to ask yourself: do you want to be the company that’s asleep at the line when that starting gun fires again, or do you want to be ready to take off running?”
I saw companies like The Home Depot and Wal-Mart accelerate through the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the Great Recession during my time at Bazaarvoice and Coremetrics. Here at data.world, I’m seeing customers like the Associated Press and one of the largest global strategic consulting firms accelerate during this very challenging time, making a real difference in the world and for their customers.
One unexpected outcome of having a collaborative data catalog and the world’s largest community of open datasets is that we have customers and partners collaborating with people outside their enterprise around coronavirus datasets. If you didn’t know, data.world is a proud B Corporation on a mission to “build the most meaningful, collaborative, and abundant data resource in the world.” As such, we power the world’s largest collaborative public data community. It is inspiring to see our community rally around COVID-19 datasets, and if there was ever a time for data silos to be banished so that researchers can collaborate, that time is now.
We’re all in this fight together. I encourage you to check out these public datasets, run some analysis, and share what you learned back with the data.world community. The world needs you, and your companies need you too. Now more than ever.