3 tips for educating the CEO about big data projects

CEOs and other management are more likely to give the green light to projects they understand. Here's how to make sure that happens.

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IT and analytics managers understand the importance of selling their management (and the CEO) on projects to get backing. This selling usually takes the form of technology "show and tell" demonstrations, presentations and one-on-one meetings in order to secure the budget to fund the project.

Once funding is obtained, these same IT leaders consider the selling process over. But should they?

The unique position of the CEO

CEOs are regarded by their boards, their direct reports, stakeholders and the employees under them as the ultimate voice and authority of the business. Along with this authority comes a natural assumption that the CEO integrally understands all aspects of the business.

But CEOs have their limits.

Last year, a poll of Fortune 500 CEOs revealed that the "rapid pace of technological change" was the "single biggest challenge" facing companies yet research released by the American Management Association in February, 2017, reveals that the single largest business background that CEOs come from is sales and marketing (25%), followed by general business management.

In short, a majority of CEOs do not have a strong technology background, although most recognize the transformational value of technology and analytics in their businesses.

SEE: Report: 56% of CEOs say digital transformation has increased profits

There are also added and silent pressures on CEOs. Since they are perceived as company leaders and are expected to be well versed in everything, CEOs get nervous in areas where they lack knowledge, such as in highly technical fields like analytics.

I know of one CEO who wanted to ask his CIO to spend a half a day with him--briefing him on analytics concepts so he could get a better handle on how analytics worked. At the last minute the CEO backed away from asking for help and decided instead to attend some offsite seminars and do some reading. He didn't want to expose his vulnerabilities to his senior staff.

This is the CEO reality that many analytics managers, steeped in IT jargon and concepts 24/7 and likely to assume that everyone knows what they know, are apt to miss--and which they can ill afford to.

The reason is simple:

Analytics, like other IT work, will be expected to produce tangible results that everyone can recognize and quantify--especially the CEO. If the CEO can't see the return on analytics investment to the company and be able to explain this ROI (and how the analytics behind it conceptually works) in plain English to the board, further investment into analytics projects could be in jeopardy.

SEE: The best ways to sell your big data projects to the CEO

What are some ways that analytics leaders can get their CEOs' minds around analytics and the value it returns to the business?

Show the value potential of a proposed analytics project by piloting it first

Not every analytics project is going to work--but there are many that will. This is why many IT managers routinely put new analytics projects through a small trial phase first. If they see a business value returned and it is quantifiable (i.e., contributes to greater revenues or reduces costs of operation), they then build on this by ask upper management and the CEO for major investments. Analytics vendors are comfortable with this "try and buy" approach as well. A successful pilot will show the CEO that you've kicked the tires of the project and that the project has the ability to deliver value that impacts the bottom line.

Teach the analytics technology by demo-ing it

A good way to approach what could be a tech knowledge gap in your CEO is to invite them to a demonstration of the technology. By doing this, you can educate by explaining in plain English how the technology works and demonstrating the technology in action. This will help build confidence in your upper management and CEO because their understanding of the technology is solidified. They might even feel equipped to demo and discuss the analytics with their boards!

Create an ongoing dialogue with your CEO

Once your CEO is engaged with the analytics, you should plan to keep them fully updated on projects and progress with a monthly or quarterly report. This enables the CEO to keep a hand in the game at the same time that they attend to other business responsibilities.

SEE: How tech savvy does the CEO need to be?

In the nineteenth century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote "At the height it must be lonely." Ever since, there have been efforts to determine when "It's lonely at the top" first surfaced as a common English expression. One thing we do know, though, is that "lonely at the top" resonates for many CEOs, especially when it comes to areas like technology and analytics where most are not experts.

IT managers and analytics leaders need to be cognizant of this--not only for the purpose of selling projects, but for ensuring that their their leaders have the information they need to move the company forward.

Also see:
How to succeed as a data scientist even if you aren't an analytic
How to avoid big data project failures: Your 5-step guide
Why dashboard design is critical to analytics success
5 steps to turn your company's data into profit