Last September, I had the opportunity to attend Tech in Motion Chicago‘s Timmy Awards ceremony, where West Monroe Partners received an award for Best Tech Work Culture. The ceremony was hosted by 1871, a shared workspace for technology start-ups and other entrepreneurs to create, collaborate, accelerate, and celebrate new business ideas.
1871 occupies part of the 12th floor of Merchandise Mart, an imposing, concrete-colored building that has been situated along the Chicago River for 90 years. To a new Chicagoan but old lover of cities and buildings, Merchandise Mart is a gargantuan, mystical structure that seems designed to withstand any cataclysm the universe might throw at it. The river-facing façade is about the size of a 2×2 grid of football fields. It was once the largest building in the world.
The contrast of 1871’s start-up vibe with the building’s historic character brought to mind the many ways that companies, particularly longstanding companies with established brands and products, struggle to modernize their businesses with data and analytics. I frequently talk to business leaders who describe the lack of alignment between a company’s long-term strategy and the limited or short-term priorities that drive investments in analytics capabilities. As a result, a lot of potential value from data goes unrealized.
The long-term thinking that informed the design of Merchandise Mart is evident. I explored the long hallways near 1871 during a break and found wide-ranging uses of the fortress-like building. These days, tiny start-ups with hand-painted company signs share walls with more established offices and Fortune 500 companies. Exploring its colorful history, it’s quite clear that Merchandise Mart was built for sustained value. The building is even outliving its builder, Marshall Field & Co.
The lack of sustained value from analytics investments is quite common. In a recent example, the chief operating officer of a large apparel retailer I know wanted to leverage their in-store sales data, to improve staffing and potentially reduce labor expenses. The COO sought a quick solution that combines sales data and labor data to identify areas with staff excess. The chief product officer of the same company separately sought to connect sales data to in-store product placement, to identify ways to optimize shelves and racks.
Neither executive connected their disconnected projects to the company’s top strategic priority for the year: increasing customer engagement with the brand. Because of the alignment gap between their projects and the company’s strategic priorities, it was difficult for the executives to coordinate their overlapping data requests, gain traction with other company leaders, and ultimately take action on the insights that resulted from the analyses.
A familiar approach that individuals focused on increasing a company’s data and analytics capabilities will take is to demonstrate some “low hanging” value from analytics, then rally others with data-driven insights to open the floodgates for more investment and adoption. Building internal excitement might generate short term interest, but if the value from analytics isn’t directly connected to what leaders care about, momentum is likely to fade.
At West Monroe, the approach is different. When we’re embarking on a data or analytics strategy for a client, we start by working to understand top-level business strategy and executives’ priorities before we dive into specific data issues, conduct a capabilities assessment, or make recommendations. We strive for a direct connection between both short- and long-term strategic goals, and the data investments and analytics activities to support them.
And when the strategic gap between business strategy and a company’s analytics effort is closed, the full utility and value of a company’s data assets leads to the kind of sustained value from analytics that is far more likely to drive a company’s performance and longevity – much like the long-term thinking that drove the construction of Merchandise Mart has led to its vibrant place at the center of Chicago’s 21st century tech economy.