Simplifying a data problem can ensure better buy-in

Solving data integration challenges can be daunting. Find a single rallying cry that helps frame the problem and drive toward results.

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Several weeks ago, a minor spill on a mountain bike resulted in my first ever broken bone. When I fell, I knew something was unusual, and a quick glance at my right hand made it very apparent that all was not well, as my pinky was pointed about 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Luckily I was with my son, and had my mobile phone, so he and I were able to hike the bikes out where my wife could retrieve us and take us to an orthopedic urgent care center to start what's become a longer-than-anticipated road to recovery.

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One of the interesting things I noticed, from my initial visit to the urgent care facility through my surgery and follow-up visits, was that I was constantly asked for my pharmacy information. The very first form I filled out, sitting in my cycling gear with an ice pack on my right hand and pen awkwardly completing the form in my left, asked for pharmacy information. The front desk clerk asked the same question, and I assumed that she was unable to read the chicken-scratch my non-dominant hand had produced. She diligently typed what I assumed was my preferred pharmacy into her computer. When I went back to the exam room, the nurse took my vitals, furiously entered information into the ubiquitous computer terminal that's now in every medical facility in the US, and asked once again for my preferred pharmacy. This game continued, and I must have provided my pharmacy information at least two dozen times to various medical personnel, all of whom had a computer terminal in arm's reach, and most of whom worked for the same hospital network.

While a somewhat amusing minor inconvenience, I did eventually start to wonder what other data were either not being shared or recorded, or not being shared with the parties that needed it. Should something happen during my surgery, might a key piece of my medical data be unavailable?

Find your pharmacy

Obviously, the hospital network had a problem with either sharing data between systems, or perhaps training employees on where to find data, that caused multiple asks for the same bit of information. I'm sure their IT staff has spent hundreds of hours wringing their hands over the complexities of these all-too-common problems, and perhaps they have been unable to convince the powers that be about the importance of resolving their technical or training challenges.

However, the story about a patient being asked for a preferred pharmacy over and over is a simple and relatable example of what's likely a rather complex problem. It's also an easily understandable and measurable goal for fixing a series of underlying technical and human problems that also has a very tangible impact on the patient experience. Too often, when we attempt to solve data-related problems, we delve deep into the details and the technology rather than finding a simplified, relatable, and representative example of the problem.

Simplify your communication

Like many complex technical topics, an ability to share a relatable and very human story can engender action far more quickly than the most thoughtful technical arguments, or detailed integration diagrams combined. Similarly, an ability to find an impactful story can serve as a sanity check for your data-related projects. If you can't concisely articulate how gathering, sharing, or analyzing data can have a real impact on your business or its customers, then perhaps the project is not as valuable as you thought or will present an uphill battle for funding that may not have been obvious purely on the technical merits.

Look for opportunities to condense your data-related endeavors into a simplified, relatable metric. Asking, "What if we had sales data a week earlier?" may more easily get funding for your data lake project than a 90-slide presentation about the merits of Hadoop. Similarly, you'll have a guiding objective for your data projects that's more readily understandable than a Gantt chart or status slide, and often is more successful at generating continued interest and excitement in the endeavor. At the end of the day, the best technology leaders often possess a unique ability to turn complex technical issues into simple, relatable stories with a well-defined goal. Perhaps there's an equivalent data-related problem to, "What's your preferred pharmacy?" waiting for a better story within your organization.

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