Managing data democratization & avoiding overload when implementing Business Intelligence

Author: Charlotte Ritter is a Project Coordinator at TechnologyAdvice. She plays a role in HR, and covers topics such as Business Intelligence, and project management software. Connect with her on Google+ or LinkedIn.

Open access to company or team data is an empowering concept. A dedicated employee becoming privy to details about his own performance, and possibly that of his co-workers, invokes a sense of pride and importance. Surely this additional information will open doors to new findings that will improve the company as a whole, right? But what if it turns out that the data you give your employees is actually not a helpful tool? When implementing Business Intelligence (BI) software, it can be tempting to include as many users as possible in order to gain diverse perspectives. However, granting all users access to all data can lead to distraction and overload, if the right permission settings aren’t in place.

Here at TechnologyAdvice, we experimented with an employee health incentive last summer. The company invested in Jawbone Up bracelets which tracked our steps per day, food and drink consumption, as well as sleep habits, in an effort to improve overall health and awareness. Now bear with me; whilst this isn’t a typical example of organizational reporting and analytics, it does reveal an interesting challenge for those companies considering implementing a pervasive BI deployment. The deal was that anyone who wanted to participate would receive a free ‘Up’ bracelet if they committed to stick with the program for 90 days. Additionally, employees were encouraged to join the TechnologyAdvice digital team on the Up App, which would allow them to view each others activity and consumption data for the duration of the experiment.

The goal was simple enough – to create a stronger, healthier team by giving everyone access to individual data breakdowns, and holding each other accountable for the choices we would make. But access to data without regulations can be a dangerous thing.

Early into the first month of the challenge, we discovered that participants had been paying closer attention to other team members data than their own. It quickly became apparent that individuals were more worried about judging others (or being judged themselves), than they were about improving their own daily metrics. Does knowing that your manager drank three beers last night give you more energy, or does evaluating your co-worker’s insomnia make you sleep better at night? The data we were evaluating had suddenly become a serious time waster, and wasn’t even improving our own performances.

The information overload was just too tempting. When we realized this, we suggested that those who weren’t benefitting from the existing challenge remove themselves from the team app so that they could focus on their own data, without the distraction of constant comparisons. This simple change restored the original intentions of the challenge and actually resulted in employees participating in more physical exercise and activities.

Although this is not the typical data democratization issue that most businesses will encounter, it was a helpful revelation for our small business as we approached a stage of rapid growth. In this age of readily accessible technology it’s important for businesses to understand what is, or more importantly what is not, useful data for their employees. Is your team more comfortable on a ‘need to know’ basis, or will they benefit from getting a broader perspective on the business as a whole?

The key here is to make sure that information is available to those who need it, and that they are free to manipulate it in a way that makes sense to them. Will certain departments be given data to analyze and report on, or can individuals be trusted to use only what is relevant to them without wasting time? Sometimes the answer is as simple as surveying your employees to determine who is most likely to use data effectively. Ultimately, it comes back to ensuring the relevancy of data access, so that the right people can use the right information, at the right time, to make better decisions that improve individual and organization-wide performance.

Everyone wants access to data, but not everyone is able to translate that information into useful practices. Democratizing your data can prove to be a very expensive venture if your employees aren’t taking action based on their findings. Almost every prospective employee I’ve spoken to lately claims being “analytical” as one of their strengths. The problem is that most of them are more interested in looking at data, than they are in developing actionable plans around it. Infographics are the Cliffs Notes of this generation. The simple act of reading a pie chart and knowing the statistics makes us feel productive and more informed, but it doesn’t guarantee that we will take steps to improve upon the information we were given.

Data democratization is an exciting concept and one from which we can all potentially benefit. But organizations must remember that sometimes more data is simply that – more data. It takes getting that information into the right hands for it to be worthwhile.

Has your organization experimented with the democratization of data? We would love to hear your insights. Send your thoughts to